‘Equity in Science’

Author discusses new book on how disciplines promote -- and don't promote -- equity.

September 1, 2020
 

In 2016's Inside Graduate Admissions (Harvard University Press), Julie R. Posselt explored the way top graduate departments admit students. She found that the departments -- across disciplines -- said they were committed to diversity. But dig a little deeper and they were more concerned about recruiting from a relatively narrow stream of undergraduate institutions, and not sacrificing Graduate Record Examination scores.

Posselt, associate professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, takes a similar approach in her latest book, Equity in Science: Representation, Culture, and the Dynamics of Change in Graduate Education (Stanford University Press). She challenges the belief of many scientists that science is a meritocracy. Instead, she finds patterns of bias against scholars and graduate students who are not white men. She also finds numerous efforts to improve and diversify science.

She answered questions via email about her book.

Q: Why isn't science a meritocracy? Why is it so shocking to people that it isn't one?

A: Meritocracy presumes that heredity and privilege are not the grounds for advancement -- that talent, hard work and achievements are. However, scientists’ measurements and impressions of talent and the disciplines’ most prized achievements are very much a function of a person’s privileges, including their family background. Unequal access to high-quality schools at an early age is cited by the Educational Testing Service as a root cause of racial disparities in Graduate Record Examination scores, for example. And we know that universities are most likely to hire faculty from a small set of top-ranked Ph.D. programs in one’s field, whose admissions processes unduly rely on those scores, as my previous research showed.

There are a few reasons that it can be shocking to scientists to hear that their system isn’t meritocratic: the main one is that they are entangled in cultures where members’ own legitimacy (and therefore, their sense of belonging) hinges on the sense that they deserve the place they have at the table. Many simply are unaware of, or in denial about, the role that gender, race, class and other intersecting systems of privilege play in shaping what counts as merit. This lack of awareness has at least two powerful roots. One is that most scientists are from backgrounds that have sheltered them from the structural and everyday barriers associated with being a person of color and/or a woman, or outside the gender binary.

Scientific and educational institutions have a role in their members’ ignorance, too. For centuries, there has been a tendency to treat the human dynamics associated with the functioning of scientific institutions and education as separate from the subject matter. The human how of science has been decoupled from the what of science. This has hardened the boundary between natural sciences and social sciences, and that boundary has had real consequences: it has led to a general distrust of social science, and it justifies scientists' focusing their training narrowly -- with little professional training in how to equitably select, serve and manage students and research. To be fair, social science has been developing along lines that make its knowledge increasingly inaccessible. One of the book’s main arguments is that we need to build capacity for cultural translation: the ability to decode and appreciate knowledge outside the narrow disciplinary and social perspectives to which we have been socialized.

Q: Could you describe what you studied about various disciplines and why you took that approach?

A: My goal for the last six years has been to understand the inner workings of organizations that are making advancements in closing the racial and gender disparities that typically characterize science. The book synthesizes lessons from this research with a systems perspective on organizational change that is informed by quantum dynamics. My research purposefully examined a combination of micro-, meso- and macro dynamics of change, which is consistent with systems thinking. For example, I studied micro-level, everyday communication dynamics in a geoscience field course in which I was a participant observer. Working with doctoral students, I also conducted case studies of changing meso-level organizational practices (e.g., admissions, recruitment and mentoring) in psychology, chemistry and applied physics departments that had come to be more diverse than is typical in their fields. Finally, for the macro-level perspective, I looked at the efforts of disciplinary societies in astronomy and physics to reduce field-level inequalities.

I took this multilevel approach for a few reasons: we know from decades of research that inequalities are created and reproduced through a combination of structural factors, organizational practices and individual interactions and cultural beliefs. I think of equity as reconfiguring structures, cultures and systems to reduce disparities and empower marginalized groups. If this is the goal, then it stands to reason we similarly need change on each of these dimensions for equity. But it’s hard to pay attention to them in depth simultaneously, so each chapter of findings generally shines a light on micro-, meso- or macro patterns, while the theory and conclusions chapters emphasize how they all fit together.

Q: Pick a discipline and talk about what you found.

A: Entanglements are common in complex systems, and I found in a very prominent psychology Ph.D. program that improvement within one domain of activity -- recruitment -- was entangled with inertia in other areas in ways that undermined their change efforts. After an embarrassing year of not admitting any students of color, the department got very busy creating a public image of being committed to diversity. This impression management was pretty successful, and within a year or two, they were able to attract a critical mass of Latinx and Black students. But because they had not been attending to engrained racism in their curriculum and teaching, the climate in large labs, or unchecked harassment in mentoring relationships behind closed doors, those same students experienced a real sense of bait and switch.

The quality of their day-to-day experience differed painfully so much from the image of a department commitment to diversity that had been presented. Their well-being really suffered, students left or changed advisers, and when we concluded the research, the department was struggling to maintain their progress in compositional diversity because current students were warning off prospective students from enrolling. Had it not been for a supportive student organization, attrition would have been quite high. It all suggests that we have to look inward to realize change as much as we change our outward image, and that systemic change is not only adopting a number of more inclusive practices, but also attending to the conditions and relationships in which those practices are provided. We need to step back and recognize couplings, feedbacks and how ripple effects in one area of practice can create interference with others if we’re not careful. And the role of humility cannot be overstated. We have to be willing to accept that we are all works in progress.

Q: What should disciplinary societies do to change things?

A: Disciplinary societies have the potential to be the dark horses of change in the higher education system. People usually look to universities to lead change efforts, for good reasons, but disciplinary societies have convening power, they provide recognition and rewards, they are able to aggregate information from throughout an otherwise decentralized field, and they can reflect and urge community values. Each of these functions can be leveraged toward equity, both in graduate education and the fields more broadly. For example, how societies gather and what we talk about when we do, who is recognized, the ways information is aggregated, which values are reflected back as norms to the community. Societies are culture maintainers, and therefore they could presumably help be culture changers, too.

There are plenty of practical things societies can do. They can convene department chairs, Ph.D. program chairs on a regular basis for discussions about emerging research evidence about how to select and serve students. I found leadership at the program and department level is crucial for enabling change, but that department leaders are often ill trained for their roles and have few chances to connect with others to share ideas and learn. Because departments and graduate programs in the same field often have more in common than departments in the same university, there’s a clear niche for societies to drive positive change.

Societies should invest in creating platforms and tools for the health of their communities and the members. The American Geophysical Union recently created an ethics and equity center online, for example; the American Chemical Society has a great individualized development plan tool they’re propagating for graduate students. The American Physical Society has been leading an effort to create innovative ways for racially minoritized students to enroll in Ph.D. programs.

Most societies have honors and awards for their members, and they should both be tracking the demographics of who is receiving these awards as well as whether they are rewarding the knowledge and skills it’s going to take to make their disciplines more equitable and inclusive.

Finally, societies can also lead for equity by advocating for practices directly. The American Astronomical Society’s presidents and boards have not shied away from speaking up on behalf of minoritized groups when major incidents occur in the field, and when the evidence became apparent that the GRE was posing a barrier to access. There’s a special kind of bully pulpit that society leaders have.

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