Diversity, harassment, and other big stuff: A letter to my earth science buds

Context: I originally wrote this as an email to colleagues within my field of geology / paleontology / geobiology. It was aimed at young-ish faculty members (both men and women) who mentor students. I decided that sharing it more broadly beyond the original recipients might be useful. Everything written here is my opinion and doesn’t reflect anything about my employer.

Dear geology / paleontology / science friends,

I’m writing to you because I am concerned about diversity and equity in our field and I’m concerned that we aren’t doing enough to make a difference. I’m worried because I spend a lot of time listening to the experiences of students and scientists who are white women, people of color, LGBTQ, and/or members of other marginalized groups. If you’d like some data to back up my anecdotal evidence, here are some recent data published in Nature Geoscience.

Our field is super, super white. It’s also very male at the tenured ranks. If you want to read some research articles about why that is, here are some places to start: a bibliography focusing on gender and one on all marginalized identities .

OK so the data indicate we have a problem. If you’re not doing your best to actively address this problem, then you are adding to it.

Where do I begin?

1. Being a (white) woman in this field can totally suck sometimes. I have been harassed verbally and physically. I have been bullied, made to feel less than, excluded, and ignored. However, I have the privilege of being a straight, cis, white woman from a well off background with two parents who went to grad school and a love of bourbon and beer. I’m rolling in privilege. So if things can be hard for *me* imagine how hard it is for those who have more marginalized identities.

2. If you think people are over-reacting to an incident of bias (conscious or unconscious) just remember — you have no idea. I have to check myself on this all the time. When my first instinct is to think “that’s not really such a big deal why is X making such a big deal out of it” I have to stop myself and remind myself again and again that I have NO IDEA what it’s like to be a person of color, LGBTQ, or any other marginalized group in this field. So instead of assuming people are over-reacting, I try to listen first.

3. I love drinking with y’all but no one should have to drink to be successful in our field. I don’t think you all realize how much camaraderie and informal networking takes place over beers. Think about who you are excluding from those interactions. That doesn’t mean you can’t get trashed with your science buds anymore, it just means you need to be conscious of making an effort to include everyone in other moments and settings. And when you sit down to write that paper or that grant, or sit down to accept a new grad students or post doc, think about where your collaborators are coming from and why you’re working with them and not someone else.

4. Field work. Many of us think it’s essential to become a ‘real’ geologist/paleontologist. But physical abilities / familiarity with the outdoors should never get in the way of someone’s desire to be an earth scientist. My parents took me camping and paid for me to go on backpacking trips as a teenager. That shouldn’t be a requirement for being a geology major. Should we ask students to try new things, prepare them in advance, and support them through the experience? Yes. Should we force them into uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous situations in a misguided attempt to teach them? No.

5. It should not be up to marginalized groups to fight for all of the solutions to problems that impact them. If someone gives you advice and possible solutions, listen to them and do your best to make them a reality. Don’t put the onus on them to make change happen. Be an ally — use your privilege to support those who have less privilege than you. The time I’ve spent writing this I could have been writing a grant or a draft of a paper. But instead I’m using my time to try to improve our discipline. It’s the same for your students — it’s not that they care more about “identity politics” than science — it’s that they care SO MUCH about science that they want to make it better for themselves and for everyone else. Do you want that too? If so, then step up and do the work.

6. Assume you will mess up and be OK with that. Is your discomfort or fear really more important than making sure all students with the desire to succeed in our field have an equal chance to do so?

7. If you see something happening in your department, in the field, at a conference, do something*. Use your position of power. Tell the harasser it’s not OK, interject into the conversation or interaction, district the harasser/bully, do whatever you need to do. Not being a harasser or a bully or a racist is not enough. You need to do your part to stop these incidents from happening. If a student or colleague decides to file a formal complaint, support them. It’s so so degrading and discouraging to have these things happen to you and it’s even worse to know that the people you respect and trust are doing nothing to help you make it stop.

8. Help your URM students find community. Offer to pay for them to go to meetings like NABG and SACNAS. If you’ve never heard of either of these organizations, ask yourself why.

9. This has focused mostly on students but I want to emphasize that this also goes for your colleagues as well. Who in your department is working on issues of diversity and equity? Is it only white women and faculty of color?

10. Does this letter make you feel defensive? Like you’re being accused of doing something wrong? Are you annoyed at me right now? That’s OK. Be annoyed at me. Then take a deep breath and go back and read this again.

11. I know some of you are familiar with much or all of what I’ve said here, and are already doing your part. Thank you for that. If you aren’t, that’s OK too. Take this moment to start educating yourself (and do it without making people explain things to you that are easily google-able).

In summary: Listen. Use your privilege. Ask for change. Question the demographics of our field, of your department, of your lab. Support your students. Be a better ally.

I’m happy to try to address any questions you might have. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I’m trying, and that’s what I’m asking of you too.

Sincerely,

Phoebe

p.s. if you want to read some personal stories about how harassment impacts women in science, check out this website. I know people in some of your departments who have perpetrated similar behavior. I’m sure you know them too.

*unless you feel personally unsafe doing so in which case — get help!

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