Promoting diversity in the lab

15 09 2022

My definition of a ‘lab’ is simply a group of people who do the science in question — and people are a varied bunch, indeed. But I wager that most scientists would not necessarily give much dedicated thought to the diversity of the people in their lab, and instead probably focus more on obtaining the most qualified and cleverest people for the jobs that need doing.

For example, I have yet to meet an overtly racist, sexist, or homophobic scientist involved actively in research today (although unfortunately, I am sure some do still exist), so I doubt that lab heads consciously avoid certain types of people when hiring or taking on new students as they once did. The problem here is not that scientists tend to exclude certain types of people deliberately based on negative stereotypes; rather, it concerns more the subconscious biases that might lurk within, and about which unfortunately most of us are blissfully unaware. But all scientists must be aware of, and seek to address, their hidden biases.

It is time to place my cards on the table: I am a middle-aged, Caucasian, male scientist who has lived in socially inclusive and economically fortunate countries his entire life. As such, I am the quintessential golden child of scientific opportunity, and I am therefore also one of the biggest impediments to human diversity in science. I am not able to change my status per se; however, I can change how I perceive, acknowledge, and act to address my biases.

The earlier scientists recognise these challenges in their career, the more effective they will be.

Gender balance

I acknowledge that as a man, I am already on thin ice discussing gender inequality in science today, for it is a massive topic that many, far more qualified people are tackling. But being of the male flavour means that I have to, like an alcoholic, admit that I have a problem, and then take steps to resolve that problem. After all, privilege is generally invisible to those who have it. If you are a male scientist reading this now, then my discussion is most pertinent to you. If you are female, then perhaps you can use some of these pointers to educate your male colleagues and students.

There is now ample evidence that science as a discipline is just as biased against women as most other sectors of professional employment, even though things have improved since the bad old days of scientific old-boys’ clubs. Journals tend to appoint more men than women on their editorial boards, and that editors display what is known as homophily when selecting reviewers for manuscripts: the tendency to select reviewers of the same gender as themselves.

Likewise, experimental evidence demonstrates that scientists in general rate male-authored science writing higher than female-authored works, and that academic scientists tend to favour male applicants over females for student positions. In the United Kingdom, as I suspect is more or less the case almost everywhere else, female academics in science, engineering, and mathematics also tend to have more administrative duties, and hence, less time to do research; they also have fewer opportunities for career development and training, as well as earning a lower salary, holding fewer senior roles, and being less likely to be granted permanent positions.

It might be tempting to tell yourself that, of course, these general trends are not because of your own biases, just of the scientific community in general. This is called denial. While the first step is to accept that gender bias does exist in science, you should at least entertain the notion that you are biased as well. My own epiphany in this matter came in the form of a self-evaluation of my publishing trends after a colleague suggested that I should perhaps examine the ratio of my male to female co-authors. My preconception was that while I was cognisant of the dominance of men as my co-authors, I was convinced that I had a ‘healthy’ gender balance. I was wrong.

Looking at my own publication data, my innate presumption that I have not subconsciously tended to choose male colleagues (including students and postdoctoral fellows) over female ones was wrong. In other words, I am guilty of passive sexism (or technically, homophily). After having identified the problem, I am however happy to see that the average proportion of female co-authors on my papers is increasing.

But such bias is not restricted to the old, white men of science. Recent evidence from one university clearly shows that male undergraduates underestimate the academic performance of their female peers in biology classrooms, and any quick glance at the gender ratios of senior management of nearly all universities around the world will confirm that the men are overwhelmingly dominant numerically.

A cold, hard gaze in the proverbial mirror is therefore not only recommended, I argue that all scientists must do it, and not merely because it might ‘look good’ to your community of peers. In fact, there is now a growing body of evidence to demonstrate that gender equality is good for all involved, including men.

Overall, a better gender-balanced workplace leads to higher employee happiness, satisfaction, and even health, and men are less prone to violent behaviour when gender equality is promoted. Given that it is in the lab’s best interest to be composed of a group of healthy, satisfied, happy, and non-violent scientists, moving toward a higher gender equality is only ever going to improve your lab’s efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness.

Furthermore, there is evidence from the corporate world that better gender equality engenders higher innovation, and innovation is certainly a desired quality of a productive science lab. Giving your students and fellows a more gender-balanced workplace will therefore provide an environment more conducive to scientific output and minimise the likelihood of social problems arising within the day-to-day dynamic.

Of course, there is no empirical evidence whatsoever to support the rather outdated and sexist idea that the genders differ in their capacity to do science and mathematics, despite some lingering opinions to the contrary. I will add to this that even if certain components of the cognitive smörgåsbord required to be an effective, broad-thinking, creative, and innovative scientist are ever shown conclusively to differ in any respect between the sexes, then it would only make sense to a forward-thinking lab head to promote gender diversity.

Diversity is an essential ingredient to bring out the full potential of your lab, because different experiences, capacities, mind sets, and points of view all add their uniqueness to the innovation soup of your science direction and output.

Understanding that gender inequality exists, and appreciating that it can harm your lab’s productivity, do not necessarily translate to fixing the problem automatically, so what can one do to improve the status quo? The solution requires more than just trying to be fairer in the process of hiring and student appointments; in fact, a lab head can do so much more.

The first cab in this rank is simply encouraging your lab members to have regular discussions of gender issues, including their effects, how to address inequality, and perhaps ideas for promoting equity.

At the same time, it is imperative that you identify people who actively downplay the importance of gender inequality in science and show them how improvement benefits everyone, men included.

If active sexism does rear its ugly head, it is equally important to avoid turning a blind eye and instead speak out against the perpetrators. That goes too for pointing out incidences of stereotypes that could be casually dropped without the awareness of the culprits. Going through self-assessment exercises designed to quantify any subtle and subconscious biases that might exist is also a good idea.

Some have argued that the principal demons of sexism have largely disappeared from science and that social constraints are now more important for maintaining gender inequality. While I am not convinced this is necessarily always the case, the point that for many women the very real additional effort required to have and raise children in a happy family setting is still today a major determinant of many women choosing not to enter, electing to leave, or not having sufficient time to engage in a science career. As such, anything one can do to make a woman scientist’s life easier in this regard is a good idea, from simply encouraging children to being in the lab when and where possible and appropriate, to making child-care options more accessible.

Family-friendly workplace environments do, as the evidence above suggests, enable scientists in general to do a better job, and allow women scientists in particular to hold their positions for longer and advance to higher positions in the academic hierarchy more rapidly. Even outside of the lab, such as when organising and attending conferences, there are many ways to make things more family-friendly for women scientists, such as having specific gender-equality policies, ensuring balanced conference committees, establishing gender-related (and other) codes of conduct, providing child care, and supporting women scientists financially.

Cultural diversity

Many of the same problems underlying gender inequality, as well as actions to lessen its incidence, also apply to cultural inequality; however, cultural inequality is a more complex issue, and not merely because there are rather a lot more different types of culture than gender. With all the nasty nationalism and xenophobia gurgling nauseatingly to the surface of our political discourse these days, it is worth some reflection regarding the role of multiculturalism in science.

Just like few scientists are overtly sexist, not many would elect to hold up their hand and claim that they are racist. In fact, most scientists are of a liberal persuasion generally, and tend to pride themselves on their left-wing political tendencies. In other words, we tend to think of ourselves as dispassionate pluralists who only judge the empirical capabilities of our colleagues, with their races, genders, sexual persuasions and other physical attributes irrelevant to our assessment.

We generally love to travel and interact with our peers from all nations and walks of life, and we regularly decorate our offices and homes with cultural paraphernalia different to our own. But are we as unbiased and dispassionate as we think we are? Do we take that professed pluralism and cultural promiscuity with us to the lab each day? As the previous section regarding gender confirmed, perhaps we could, and should, do better in the multicultural arena as well.

I know from personal experience and from casual discussions with colleagues that it is not always the path of least resistance to take on a student or research fellow from overseas. For one, the educational and funding system — for all its professed emphasis on internationalism — is stacked against the academic scientist. Finding a scholarship that will pay both the living expenses and foreign-student fees of a prospective foreign student is decidedly more challenging than obtaining one for a citizen in most countries. Such scholarship opportunities do exist, and if the student is good enough, there is nearly always a solution, but the entire process represents a good deal more effort to make it happen compared to finding a student from the neighbourhood.

Then there is the issue of language capability. Many scientists complain that it is not their role to tutor a student or a research fellow in the subtleties of the English language, and that poor writing skills in English hinder their capacity to produce good scientific publications. I agree that it can be an additional challenge, but I disagree entirely that having English as a first language these days provides much in the way of an advantage for scientists in training. Indeed, analysis of publishing trends shows neither first language nor gender explains much variation at all in the publication output of young scientists.

The perceived and possibly real disadvantages of taking on foreign charges are therefore weak at best, which begs the question whether the desire to increase the cultural assortment of your lab is a good thing to do for your science effectiveness. The short answer is yes, for a lab with a varied mix of experiences, knowledge bases, perspectives, genders, insights and values is necessarily going to catalyse the ideas bubbling away in your lab’s crucible of innovation.

Uniformity breeds staleness, inhibits transdisciplinarity, and quells novelty. If you want to be at the cutting edge of your scientific endeavour, then a diverse, multicultural, and linguistically variable lab will help you get there. Let the right-wing, populist xenophobes vomit their racist bile all they want while you quietly get on with the job of making the world a smarter, more innovative, multicultural, understanding, and collaborative place.

CJA Bradshaw (modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist)



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