Low Hanging Fruit

I wrote briefly in my last blog post about the fact that taking action for equity is hard and uncomfortable. We can’t get around that fact. That being said, I think there are small steps that faculty (and others) can take to diversify STEM and, hopefully, make it more equitable and inclusive. None of these actions that I’m going to articulate are wholly my ideas – I’m drawing from many sources, but for this blog post, two of my primary resources are this editorial by V. Bala Chaudhary and Asmeret Asefaw Berhe in PLOS Computational Biology and this working paper from a group of scholars associated with the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence and ADVANCE at Purdue University.

1. Read Something About Creating Change or Why Change is Important

I’ve linked to two articles above that are good starting points if you want to learn more about what you can do. And learning about action steps is important. It’s also critical that we learn to center other people and their experiences. If you want to learn about the experiences of some Black scholars in STEM, check out this Q&A in PNAS, and some women students at Michigan State University wrote an opinion piece about their experiences.

2. Read and Share Something By a STEM Scholar from a Minoritized Group

One metaphor I, and others, use to explain the research process to students is that scholars are engaging in conversation with one another via the literature to push, refine, and build new ideas. We’ve all been in conversations (literal and metaphorical) where some voices get ignored or downplayed. Amplifying the ideas and work of others (while explicitly and accurately giving them credit) is one way of bringing marginalized voices away from the margins and in toward the center.

3. Set Clear Expectations for Respectful and Equitable Engagement in Lab Meetings (and Other Spaces)

The two articles I linked in the last blog post, one by Dancy & Hodari and one by Drury & Kaiser, both discussed how individuals who hold privilege because of their race and/or gender identity don’t always see discrimination and bias against others. Learning to see that bias may not be easy, but setting up structures to try to prevent it can be (relatively) easy. The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has examples of ground rules for discussions in classrooms. The Program on Intergroup Relations also has example guidelines. It is an easy task to translate these for lab meetings (or use them directly as they are written). Having explicit standards for engagement helps create an inclusive and equitable environment in many ways, and if you are forthright about the fact you have these standards because you want an equitable environment, you’ve taken another step toward including individuals whose identities are marginalized in STEM.

4. Be Aware of the Work You are Asking of Others

(Ok, so this one isn’t easy.) Your time is important and limited. I know it is. That doesn’t mean it’s more important than another person’s (probably equally) limited time. When you ask someone to do you a favor, know that you are asking them to give up something that is precious to them, their limited time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask. But if we want a more equitable world, we all need to be more aware of the physical, intellectual, and emotional labor we put upon others, especially others who have less power and privilege than we do. For example, when we say, “Take a look at my calendar and find a time for us to meet,” we are saying two things that reinforce a power dynamic. We are saying, “I am doing a favor for you by meeting with you,” and we are saying, “My time is more important than yours, so you should expend the effort to do the menial task of finding a meeting time.” Although these are often “little” asks, they can add up to consequential effort for those who are asked to do them, both in real cost of time and in the emotional cost of trying to read between the lines. Think about how different these two scenarios might feel:

A pair of stick figure images, duplicated. In each pair a student is asking a professor for time to meet. In the left pair, the professor responds in a speech bubble with, "Sure, let's look at our calendars to find a time that works." In the right pair, the professor responds with, "Sure, find a time on my calendar."

Although in many ways these responses might be similar, the one on the left says, “Meeting with you is important. Let’s work together to make that happen.” The one on the right could be read as, “I’m willing to do this, but not if it’s going to be too much work.”

Clearly, these are almost the easiest things I could ask of someone who wants to make STEM more equitable, but maybe they will help someone start on their journey. Maybe they are easy enough you can take these tasks on in addition to the work you’re already doing. If you have ideas of action steps faculty, staff, or others at U-M could take to make STEM more equitable, please let me know!

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