An Introduction to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in STEM

written by Alison Mao and Heather Lau of the Biochemistry WIDE committee

Due to the collaborative nature of science, having diversity in our groups brings valuable differences in perspective that spark innovation. Our endeavours to solve problems and understand the world benefit greatly from the inclusion of people that differ in facets of their social identity, such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, and economic class. However, women, individuals with disabilities, and people of colour are historically marginalized groups that are severely underrepresented in science  (Fisher et al., 2019; White and Massiha, 2015). While it is easy to mislead ourselves into thinking that we have made great strides away from discrimination against historically marginalized groups, our views are still prone to implicit bias (Pritlove et al., 2019). This predisposed attitude toward others is based on stereotypes and assumptions from our culture that we often develop without being aware of it. Implicit bias steers us toward unconsciously biased behaviour against our best intentions, which has adverse effects within the context of perceiving researchers from underrepresented groups. In the first installment of our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion series, we hope to highlight the importance of diversity and the challenges faced by underrepresented groups in science due to implicit bias.

Diversity among scientists drives innovation and facilitates scientific excellence (Hofstra et al., 2020). The collaboration of scientists with diverse backgrounds results in exposure to a wider range of ideas and scientific questions that are more representative of the community as a whole. In particular, scientists from underrepresented groups tend to address missing relationships between concepts that would otherwise remain unexplored (Hofstra et al, 2020). A Nature study found that researchers in diverse groups anticipate greater challenges to their ideas and reflect more deeply on their work, thereby producing more meaningful contributions. In addition, groups composed of ethnically diverse researchers write papers that garner more citations with higher impact factors than papers from groups of the same ethnicity (Freeman and Huang, 2014). Since diversity enriches science, it is essential to address the obstacles that hinder the inclusion of underrepresented groups.  

The underrepresentation of historically marginalized groups in the scientific workforce can be partially attributed to disadvantages that they face in the early stages of their education. High schools in Ontario divide students into academic and applied streams; the academic stream grants students access to theory-based courses intended to prepare them for university or college, while the applied stream emphasizes hands-on learning. The system for determining academic streams in high school is susceptible to implicit bias and disproportionately places Black students in the applied stream in comparison to other racial groups. According to a 2017 report from the Toronto District School Board, 39% of Black students are enrolled in the applied track in contrast to 18% and 16% of white and other students of colour, respectively (James and Turner, 2017). On the other hand, 53% of all Black students are designated for the academic track in comparison to 81% of white students and 80% of other students of colour. Black students in the applied stream are at a disadvantage as they continue on to higher education because they do not have access to preparatory courses. In a survey regarding post-secondary plans, the Toronto District School Board found that only 25% of Black high school students were accepted by a university in Ontario in comparison to 47% of white students and 60% of students from other racial groups. Overall, an early bias toward placing Black students in applied streams obstructs their access to education, thereby contributing to their underrepresentation at higher levels in the workforce.  

Differences in socioeconomic background further contribute to a disparity in students’ preparedness for higher level education. Schools based in communities with low socioeconomic statuses tend to have less physical resources and lower expectations for teachers and parents. At the student-level, a previous study in the US found that students with low socioeconomic backgrounds were offered weaker content by their schools. The education gap was notable in mathematics, where socioeconomic status and exposure to mathematics content shared a positive association (Schmidt et al., 2015). In addition, greater opportunities to learn mathematics were also associated with higher student achievement. Since mathematics is an essential subject for understanding many concepts in science, students with low socioeconomic statuses suffer from the differences in curriculum. Furthermore, they are less likely to be able to access tutors and learning opportunities for additional enrichment. Students over 16 years of age from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to pursue studies in science and those students who choose to continue studying science are less likely to achieve the academic standing required to continue in higher education (Cooper and Berry, 2020). The gap in access to education faced by students from low socioeconomic backgrounds places them at a disadvantage at later stages of their careers.

Beyond the education system, the representation of women, individuals with disabilities and racial minority groups declines sharply at top positions in the workforce. The figure below shows data from a 2014 study by the Royal Society, which highlights the decrease in representation of women, individuals with disabilities, and racial minority groups from the undergraduate level to professorship in the biological sciences (The Royal Society, 2014). Although approximately 51% of the general population in the UK were women in 2014 and the majority of undergraduate students are female, the representation of women shows a sharp decrease at the professorship (Office for National Statistics, 2011). Similar trends are present in both the United States and Canada, where medical students are predominantly women but only 16% and 15% of medical school deans are women, respectively. Individuals with declared disabilities show the most significant degree of underrepresentation, comprising fewer than 10% of undergraduate students and fewer than 2% of professors. In comparison, approximately 21% of the general population have a mental or physical disability in the United Kingdom (Disability Information and Advice Line, 2017). The evident underrepresentation of marginalized groups demonstrates the insidious nature of implicit bias in our education system and workplace culture, which prevents them from attaining positions at the highest levels.

In addition to the challenge of accessing education, the success of historically marginalized groups in science is hindered by a biased perception of their merit. Perceived merit is a significant factor for being selected for opportunities and awards, but individual and systemic biases influence its assessment (Witteman et al., 2019). For example, a Lancet study on CIHR applications to two programs from 2011-2016 revealed that funding panels are influenced by implicit bias (Witteman et al., 2019). Applications to the Project program were primarily assessed for their proposed research whereas the merit of the principal investigator held the greatest weight in scoring applications for the Foundation program. While there was a 0.9% difference between the success of men and women in the Project program, women were 4% less likely to be successful in the Foundation program. Simply being women lowered the reviewers’ perception of their merit, thereby decreasing their chances of success; one might expect a similar outcome for researchers from racial minority groups. That discrepancy impedes the career progression of women and other underrepresented groups, which has a significant impact on early-career researchers that depend on funding to establish themselves. Due to the impact of implicit bias on their perceived merit, researchers from underrepresented groups have a more difficult time acquiring the experience and achievements required to advance in their careers.

Researchers from underrepresented groups face further challenges in their career progression because they often do not receive recognition for their contributions to the extent of their peers. A separate study determined that women and people of colour introduced more novelty to their fields of study, where novelty was defined as the first link between concepts (Hofstra et al., 2020). While their presence enriches the overall quality of a group’s research, their own research is taken up by fewer people and therefore has less impact despite the novelty (Hofstra et al., 2020). The existence of this DiversityInnovation paradox emphasizes the underlying bias against historically marginalized groups in science, which greatly affects their ability to enter and progress in the field. A study focused on US doctoral recipients found that people of colour are 25% less likely to become research faculty and 10% less likely to continue in research at all after obtaining their PhD relative to their non-racial minority colleagues (Hofstra et al., 2020). Outside of academia, the timeline of career progression for women in science is even longer in industrial roles (The Royal Society, 2014). The lack of recognition for contributions made by historically marginalized groups inevitably contributes to the significant decline in their representation at top-level positions.

The underrepresentation of historically marginalized groups and roadblocks to their career progression raise concerns for the future of diversity in science. Recently, institutions worldwide have taken steps to promote diversity at the highest levels. The European University Association (EUA) and the European Universities Continuing Education Network (EUCEN) conducted the INVITED project in 2019 with the European Students’ Union (ESU), which surveyed institutions to develop policies that will promote the inclusion of underrepresented groups. Kirsty Duncan, the Minister of Science and Sport in Canada, launched the Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) program in 2018 to provide institutions with funding for EDI-related initiatives.

Furthermore, the Canadian government initiated the “Diversity in STEM: Relaunch your career, a pilot project that provides opportunities for women and indigenous graduates with STEM degrees to work with Natural Resources. Accommodations for individuals with disabilities have also become more common in academic and workplace settings. These promising developments occurring at the government level will provide more opportunities for researchers belonging to underrepresented groups. In addition, awareness of implicit bias and actively changing our mindsets as individuals will be necessary to level the playing field for underrepresented groups in science. When we seek to understand and change the world through science, the differences in perspective that arise from diversity are ultimately essential to making progress.

For more information on the Wellness, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (WIDE) committee, visit us at our website!


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Witteman, H. O.; Hendricks, M.; Straus, S.; Tannenbaum, C. 2019. Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant of the science? A natural experiment at a national funding agency. The Lancet, 393(10171), 531-540.

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