By Lisa Potter, communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications
Scientists take pride in their objective, unbiased research. As social beings, however, scientists make false assumptions about their fellow humans, just like everybody else. In science fields that are still white male-dominated, these inherent, unconscious biases can be detrimental to underrepresented scientists, including women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community.
In January, @theU spoke with Jory Lerback, a graduate student studying hydrology, about her Nature publication that revealed evidence of gender bias in peer-review for scholarly journals. The findings and her experiences as an underrepresented scientist inspired Inclusive Earth, a group that aims to facilitate a respectful dialogue about safety, bias, and diversity in the College of Mines and Earth Science. @theU sat down with Lerback and co-founder Gabriela St. Pierre, a doctoral student who researches ancient rivers in southern Utah, to talk about Inclusive Earth.
What is Inclusive Earth?
JORY LERBACK: Inclusive Earth is a professional development group that we started in order to provide resources to people in the College of Mines and Earth Sciences — and anyone else — to use diverse ways of thought to foster a productive and collaborative environment. We think that this will make a better and more respectful place to work for all communities and people. We host workshops, train TA’s to manage their classrooms equitably, and facilitate informal “coffee hours” to have productive conversations about current events.
We worked with the Office of Inclusive Excellence over the summer to gear the workshops toward scientists who never hear the word “microaggression” — casual degrading remarks said to underrepresented people — and who talk about bias in a totally different context. Scientists ask, ‘How are data biased?’ Not, ‘How are my actions as a scientist biased?’
GABRIELA ST. PIERRE: We focus on professional development, but not in the traditional way where the focus is on interviewing and resume building. We do those things, but we also focus on inclusivity and diversity, and are trying to get people to look deeper into how their personal biases can affect the way that scientists and engineers perform in academia and industry.
Over my time as a scientist, I’ve had plenty of experiences that have made me feel like this type of group is necessary. Most of us who are underrepresented in STEM have been experiencing microaggressions, and unconscious bias for decades. But in order for this to change, everybody needs to become aware of how often it happens, that it’s happening in this college, and in all colleges of this university.
How do you talk to scientists about bias?
JL: Scientists talk about bias a lot in terms of research. Bias can inaccurately favor one outcome or conclusion over another. Translating this into the behavior of social groups works the same way; behaviors of a certain individual or group favor certain groups, or make inaccurate conclusions about people.
Everyone has unconscious biases, whether you are over or underrepresented in a field. It’s how people make decisions without having to over think everything perfectly logically, like a Vulcan. This group is trying to get across that it’s within our power to recognize and hold ourselves accountable for biases that aren’t beneficial to society.
GSP: I think it can be difficult to talk to scientists and engineers about bias when it applies to social behavior, especially in the so-called “hard sciences.” A lot of them think that their education in sedimentology or engineering prevents them from being biased against underrepresented scientists. But, they’re just regular people, with the same biases as everybody else.
What types of workshops have you hosted?
JL: So far, we’ve hosted workshops on unconscious bias and microaggressions, LGBT and sexuality, networking and mentoring, and interview and resume tips with the Career Services Center. We’re also planning a workshop about navigating conflict.
What has the feedback been from attendees?
GSP: Generally, it’s been really positive. One of the things that students, staff, and faculty really liked was our focus on giving people tools that they can use in any kind of environment. A lot of the students haven’t really had to think about these things before. Like, if you ask somebody you don’t know, ‘Where are you from?’ How might that make somebody feel? That person may have heard the question five other times that day, and they’re tired of it. You could be making that student feel unwelcome, and not even know it. A lot of the people thought it was eye opening, and allowed them to re-evaluate things they were saying in class and to their peers.
JL: We talk about intent versus perception of our actions. How it’s received is much more important than whatever you intended because you’re not being harmed, but that person is. And we spend a lot of time on what to do when you get called out as committing a microaggression. Apologize, and then don’t do it again, instead of over-apologizing. Everyone in the workshop found that useful.
What do you discuss at the coffee hours?
JL: We talk about how current events are affecting our college. We made a conscious decision to make the coffee hours constructive. If you’re going to say something negative, let’s end this with something positive and helpful. What can we do about it?
We discussed what to do to help the students affected by the travel ban. When the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] got slashed, that affected a lot of our students working on EPA grants. Right now, we’re planning one to talk about ending the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program.
What are some incidents of bias that happen in scientific fields?
JL: There are so many, but one geologist told me a great example. When she’s in a group of men, everyone assumes that she has the best handwriting, so she’s the scribe. Whenever they’re in the field, she has to write everything down, and she doesn’t actually get to touch and look at the rocks herself. Maybe she does have great handwriting, but people shouldn’t delegate based on their assumption.
GSP: At conferences, when I’m at someone’s poster and a male scientist walks over, the presenter will completely ignore me and talk to the man. It’s frustrating to be dismissed like that. Lots of my friends have had this experience.
I also had a great experience a couple of years ago. In a class where we read and discussed papers, the professor noticed that all of the men completely talked over the women. He actually stepped in and asked everyone to be more respectful. He didn’t put the burden on me or the other female students to say something.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a similar group in their own college or department?
JL AND GSP: Join our email list!
GSP: Just do it. My research doesn’t have much to do with inclusivity itself — I mean, I study really old rivers — but somebody has to do it. I don’t try to pretend that I’m an expert, but I do have a lot of experiences that are valid and relevant, and at least I can bring experts and information here to help address those issues.
JL: The U provides so many resources. At the Office for Inclusive Excellence, you can report a bias incident anonymously, or you can have them follow up with you to send you to the right places. They list all of the great organizations that can help with whatever you need.