Diversity beyond gender  – a new year pledge

You can read the original post Digital Science’s Medium blog.

Happy New Year! As we regret our former cheese-based life choices and get back into the swing of things, January is also a time to look forward and make resolutions. 2019 could be a year of great change and uncertainty. One topic never far from our minds is diversity and inclusion, specifically ensuring that ALL people are represented and heard. During this time of change, one way that we can achieve greater representation within research is to each commit to doing one small thing to change the current culture.

On Saturday 3rd November 2018 we held a session on Diversity Beyond Gender at SpotOn London . While many initiatives attempt to address the gender imbalance in STEM, true diversity and greater representation of all people in a community is often used interchangeably with this single strand of underrepresentation. Our session aimed to create an event where other facets of representation could be discussed in a safe space, with scope for people to ask questions anonymously using Mentimeter.

Our panel assembled to discuss some aspects of diversity beyond gender at SpotOn London 2018
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Our panel consisted of PhD student Yolanda Ohene from Minorities in STEM, PhD student Matthew Young from Pride in STEM, neurodiversity advocate Siena Castellon from Quantum Leap Mentoring and Athena SWAN manager, Chair of the Windsor Fellowship and Vice-Chair of the Higher Education Race Action Group (HERAG) Kevin Coutinho from UCL’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Team. Though many topics were covered by our experts during the session, many audience members at The Crick and those following online wanted to find out more. Luckily our experts agreed to answer some of these questions after the event, and we have included their answers below.

We all know that resolutions can be difficult to keep. Perhaps that is because we don’t really want to give up chocolate, or stop buying shoes. If we really want to contribute to a push for a more inclusive culture, making small changes might not be so hard — especially when you’ve got company. Professor Rachel Oliver from the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy University of Cambridge has taken the initiative to bring people together and openly commit to an Ally Pledge. I asked her what she hopes to achieve with this, and how it differs from any other New Year’s resolution.

“With #AllyPledge, I’m trying to encourage scientists to make a New Year’s resolution to do something concrete to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in STEM in the next year. It can just be something small — like suggesting a colleague from an under-represented minority to give a departmental seminar for example. However, this differs from a typical New Year’s resolution in a couple of ways: Firstly I’d love people to really think about being an ally — by which I mean supporting a group you don’t belong to, taking into account how that group actually want to be supported. Secondly, I’d like to encourage people to make their pledge publicly — for example on twitter using the #AllyPledge hashtag. I think if people make a resolution public, there is slightly more likelihood they will stick with it! Also, then other people can follow the hashtag to get ideas for how they can contribute!”

Jenny Gimpel, Communications Director at SpringerNature who organised #SpotOn18, happily shared the news at the end of the session that we would be re-running a session on better representation at #SpotOn19 later this year. Perhaps we can use the time to reflect on how each of our Ally Pledges have gone so far. Following Rachel’s advice on being an ally for a group you do not necessarily belong to, read on to hear the responses to the questions that you asked from our amazing panel members.

Thank you to everyone that submitted a question, to our panel members Yolanda Ohene, Matthew Young, Siena Castellon and Kevin Coutinho, to Professor Rachel Oliver for sharing her thoughts with us, and the Jenny Gimpel for supporting our session so enthusiastically and who herself has already started working on ways to make SpotOn 2019 even more inclusive!

Illustration of our panel session at SpotOn London 2018
Created on the spot by Ludic Creatives for SpotOn 2018

YO: Yolanda Ohene, MY: Matthew Young, SC: Siena Castellon, KC: Kevin Coutinho, SK: Suze Kundu

How do you avoid diversity and inclusion conversations from fuelling stereotypes?

SC: In the context of neurodiversity, in order to avoid diversity and inclusion conversations fuelling stereotypes, it is important to remember that ultimately each individual is unique. As the saying goes, if you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person. I am often told that I do not look autistic. This comment implies that one of the characteristics of autism includes distinctive physical features, which is not the case. Sadly, many people still associate autism with Raymond from the movie Rain Man. Autism is a spectrum condition. We each fall on different parts of the autism continuum, which explains why there is such a broad range of autistic people within the autistic community. In order to avoid fuelling stereotypes, it is important to acknowledge that neurodiverse people perceive and experience the world differently. It is also important to have general knowledge of neurodiverse conditions (such as, autism, dyslexia and ADHD), but to also recognise that this is only a starting point. It is also necessary to understand the specific needs of the individual and to customise and tailor any reasonable adjustments to the specific needs of that individual.

KC: This is a latent risk, but can be mitigated by focussing interventions on managing inclusion and enabling colleagues to do this effectively. This involves raising awareness of implicit biases and techniques to manage these in given situations. Additionally, the focus on equality is tempered by diversity focusing on supporting and managing individuals’ needs over resorting to group labelling. The importance to this process requires managers to be sufficiently engaged and self-aware to acknowledge their biases and areas for knowledge acquisition as much as having flexible systems and processes that accommodate individual needs. #FixThePipeNotTheWater My response seeks to place the emphasis on the enabling managers and institutions rather than focusing on staff members from the protected groups. This is because it is the organisations that need to change more to adjust to the demographic realities of society and our workforce/student population in order to mitigate pipeline loss.

Siena you are amazing and inspiring. What can be done better to bridge the gap of young people with learning difference and autism?

SC: Thank you. There is still a lot of stigma associated with having a learning difference and with being autistic. There are also still lots of negative stereotypes and misconceptions around learning differences and autism. I think that a starting point is to begin to address these misconceptions in schools. However, often times schools unknowingly reinforce these negative misconceptions, especially in the terminology used by schools. For example, instead of calling the SEN department “Disabilities Services,” schools should rename the department so that the school is acknowledging that learning differences are simply a different way of thinking. For example, renaming the department “Learning Services.” Furthermore, it is important to teach students to be tolerant and accepting of people who are different, whether it be due to their religion, gender, ethnicity or disability. One of the ways to do this, is to acknowledge and celebrate neurodiversity. At schools, there is a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of being neurodiverse. The emphasis is placed on what we find challenging and what we struggle with. However, there are many things we excel at and these strengths need to be acknowledged and celebrated. If schools were to have a more positive approach to neurodiverse students, I believe it would help to close the gap that exists between the neurotypical students and students with special educational needs.

I’m gay, but was never told about LGBT when I was growing up. When I came out to my mother she told me that I wouldn’t have a career in STEM being gay, or I would find it hard. Do you have any advice on how to find a research job or advice in general for me?

MY: It’s a sad fact that these kinds of stereotypical attitudes are still widely present in our society, but as an LGBTQ+ person at a STEM event, you’re already proving those stereotypes wrong! Working in and finding jobs in research and academia in general is its own little shop of horrors, but as an LGBTQ+ person my main advice would be to establish what kind of support network is available to you. Does your institution openly and actively support diversity and inclusion initiatives? Do they have a relevant staff network? What are their policies on supporting families of all kinds in the workplace? An employer’s answer to these kinds of questions will be very telling about what kind of environment you’re going into. If your work environment is adequately supportive and allows you to be open, you’re more likely to be happy, and as such you’ll be more likely to do well, progress and most importantly STAY in that career! If you don’t feel able to ask a supervisor these questions, or you simply don’t know where to start, get in touch with organisations such as Pride in STEM, NOGLSTP, LGBT STEM, etc who can help.

Have you ever suffered from imposter syndrome and if so, how did you overcome it?

YO: Yes, I often suffer from imposter syndrome and it always manifests itself in several different ways. I have the most difficulty when networking or speaking to peers at conferences. That said, being aware that imposter syndrome exists means that there are several things that I personally do to ease the anxious feelings. Firstly, I try to stay as calm and possible and not let the feeling escalate. If it is persists over a longer period of time, I make sure to surround myself with and confide in people that I trust, both in the lab and externally. These are the people who are honest with you and crucially, you believe what they say. They are happy to critically evaluate you as a scientist and you know that you can trust their opinion. Finally I remember that I am just a human, using the scientific method to try to better understand the world around us, I am not and can’t expect to be perfect.

If sexuality and gender are such personal issues, why do they make an impact on someone at work?

MY: We don’t leave our personalities and lives behind every day when we go to work, and while many scientists may think they’re the bastions of impartiality, the fact is we’re all still human and we’re all we’re all subject to societal influences and pressures. There’s plenty evidence to show that more diverse work places are more effective and productive. But a diverse workplace isn’t created by employing a tick-box list of minorities. It’s created by supporting an environment where people feel comfortable acknowledging and being open about the realities of their lives and experiences. If people feel they have to hide large parts of their lives at work for fear of judgment, exclusion or discrimination, the less likely they are to be happy, productive, and a functional part of a workforce. We all have families, partners and loved ones, personal identities, unique histories, experiences and lives beyond work. The more we acceptingly acknowledge and embrace this, the better the outcome will be for science!

Are gender and minorities quotas a long-term solution for wider representation?

KC: This may seem like an easy solution but I have yet to meet an individual who wants to have a role solely because of their membership of a protected group. That said, the positive action provisions of the Equality Act enable organisations to consider targeted measures to reduce the barriers through training and education to support the development of individuals from different protected groups. Athena SWAN, the Race Equality Charter and other similar schemes have prompted participating organisations to experiment with positive action, such targeted marketing in recruitment, reviewing selection priorities (so that holistic work activities such as teaching and citizenship activities are formally credited) and mentoring/sponsorship schemes. We have a permissive legal regime but many organisations have yet to embrace the existing law to its full extent. I believe that public bodies could be placed under an obligation to use positive action to redress imbalances unless there are legitimate reasons not to do so.

SC: Yes. I would like to say that I live in a world where gender and minorities quotas are not needed. However, you only have to look at the gender and minority statistics in any field to know that both are grossly underrepresented, especially in positions of power. Sadly, there is still a lot of conscious and unconscious gender bias, especially in STEM. I remember being recently shocked by an example of gender bias I would never have predicted could happen in this day and age. In August 2018, Tokyo Medical University (one of Japan’s most prestigious medical schools) admitted to deliberately altering entrance exam scores for more than a decade to restrict the number of female students so as to ensure more men became doctors. They justified this discrimination on the basis that they believed women would eventually start a family and would therefore be less committed to being a doctor. This is an extreme example of gender bias and perceived gender roles. However, as a young female mathematician and physicists, I have frequently experienced gender bias and have faced gender stereotypes. The only way to change deeply ingrained views of gender roles is to increase the representation of women.

Do you think we should work towards diversity for the sake of diversity or because of other concrete factors such as resulting diversity of opinions and ideas?

KC: The law is a good (but not perfect) start to consider this. Parliament when creating public sector equality duties helped signal where we are as a society and what is expected of organisations. Many have broadened this to include class, socio-economic backgrounds, political views and other factors. Others have not. There are different reasons for engaging in this space: legal, moral, social justice, labour market needs, business/market changes etc. Whatever the reasons, the importance of people can’t be understated. Our staff and students are our critical resources (and costs) that enable our sector and economy to thrive. If we do not engage and retain talent we will lose out as individuals, organisations and society — in the many ways we measure this. Engaging in equality and diversity enables us to prepare for tomorrow before issues come to a head in more confrontational ways.

SC: I firmly believe that having a diverse and inclusive work environment is the best way to bring about innovation and progress. As the saying goes, it takes all kinds of different minds. I believe it is imperative that organisations embrace different points of view and different perspectives. Some of the greatest discoveries, innovations and scientific contributions have been from autistic people; people like Cavendish, Darwin, Einstein and Newton. The best way to bring about innovation, discoveries and change is through diversity of opinions and ideas. By including women, minorities and the neurodiverse community, we ensure that society is not being held back by being made hostage to one particular approach and point of view.

What are the key issues facing LGBT+ people in STEM?

MY: A persistence of negative and stereotypical attitudes is often seen as the root of many of the issues facing LGBTQ+ people in STEM. A study of LGBTQ+ people in Physics found that many senior people have advised early career staff that coming out or being open about their identity would negatively impact their career progression and opportunities. Several other surveys of LGBT people in STEM environments have also shown that expressions of negative or stereotypical attitudes about LGBTQ+ people by colleagues or senior people at have prevented them from being open about themselves, led to them leaving, or worse, being vulnerable to abuse and harassment.

How have you dealt with different types if bias in the workplace?

YO: It is very frustrating when there is obvious bias in the workplace. My strategy is that I try to do all the work to the best of my ability to assure myself that the bias is unfounded. I make allies in the workplace to ensure that if there are problems someone will believe me and be on my side. And I try to call out or speak up about any bias behaviour that I see; this is tricky but I’m working on it.

Are there specific fields of science where particular representation (of minorities/LGBT/neurodiversity) is better than other fields?

MY: Unfortunately, because sexuality and gender identity are issues that have rarely been looked at, there’s little data to show whether one field of science may have better representation than another. All we do know is that as a whole, representation is minimal, mostly due to that fact that many LGBTQ+ people do not feel able to be open about their identities at work, for numerous reasons. LGBTQ+ people are present in every field, and it should be the goal of all STEM+ work environments to make it possible for their LGBTQ+ colleagues to be open and visible to others.

Why are there so few positive action schemes, particularly to encourage PoC into science?

YO: My opinion is that first of all there must be a want and a drive to encourage PoC into science. At present, given that there are so few PoC working in science, this drive may be lacking. If the problem hasn’t been identified then it makes it difficult to action and make a positive change. I think that the UK has a nuanced relationship to race and often this is not addressed very well within establishments. However, I know that at UCL there is lot of work being done to try to understand the underrepresentation in science and encourage a more diverse cross-section of people through all stages of an academic career in science. I hope this is the same for other universities too.

What are the biggest barriers still remaining for diversity and inclusion?

SC: In relation to neurodiversity, I believe the biggest barriers are entrenched misconceptions and stereotypes about people with learning differences and autistic people, as well as lack of understanding and knowledge as to how to support neurodiverse employees in the workplace. Many people, especially women, choose not to disclose that they are autistic. They are concerned about being stigmatised. Eventually, the strain of having to mask (hide) who they are becomes too demanding and takes a toll on their mental health. Sadly, this could have been avoided by making some basic adjustments to their work environment or job description to accommodate their needs. Employers need to recognise that there are huge benefits to hiring neurodiverse people and that any reasonable adjustments they make to support their neurodiverse employees are a worthwhile investment that will benefit productivity and their organisation.

KC: The biggest barrier is the need to recognise engagement in this space as real work in need of longer term, consistent, generational and resourced strategic organisational/societal consideration. A fair society will not happen by chance. After 53 years of race relations legislation there are clearly race equality issues in our society, institutions and study places. Whilst legal changes mark milestones they do not change thinking and cultures nor allow for careers to be developed — this takes time coupled with focus on delivering change. This analysis holds true for all protected groups. We need all stakeholders: individuals, community groups, organisations, government, business to work consciously on a shared vision to foster an inclusive society where everyone can contribute and participate.

Our panel assembled to discuss some aspects of diversity beyond gender at SpotOn London 2018

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