Turning up the flow won’t fix the STEM pipeline problem

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A STEM career progression pipeline showing barriers to progression at each stage. From Australian Academy of Science (@Science_Academy).

Since the 1970s, a “leaky pipeline” metaphor was used to describe the attrition of women and minorities from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Since then, much research and scholarship has been devoted to understanding where and why women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and racial minorities are leaving STEM at disproportionate rates. Traditionally, lack of recruitment at young ages has been cited as one reason the United States is failing to produce equitable numbers of female, queer, and minority scientists and engineers. But if recruitment is the biggest issue, then given the United States’ multibillion-dollar investments in STEM recruitment and retention over the past ten years, why haven’t we reached gender and racial parity in STEM yet? [1]

It’s clear that there’s more to the STEM pipeline problem than just turning up the flow. Many experts are now turning to hostile workplaces as the biggest reason for attrition. @DrMonicaCox, Department Chair of Engineering Education at the Ohio State University, tweeted today “Dear Academia, Stop recruiting #WOC and leaving them to fend for themselves in environments that are toxic. This is a form of abuse, and it needs to stop.” [2] Scientists and engineers on Twitter and other media seem to echo Cox’s sentiments, sharing their own counter-narratives that have led them to leave STEM altogether. In a 2014 article in Fortune, Kieran Snyder surveyed 717 different women to hear about their experiences in the tech space and better understand why women are leaving the field at such astonishing rates [3]. Many of the responses Snyder quoted in her article talked about how isolating it was to be a woman in a tech workplace:

I was the first and only person at my small company ever to take maternity leave. […] I (cluelessly!) agreed to go back to work part-time starting when my daughter was six weeks. There was no set place for me to pump [breast milk] while I was at work, so it was perpetually inconvenient and awkward to work at the office for longer than a couple hours at a time.

This kind of liberalism, where everyone is treated the “same,” clearly isn’t enough, and can be cripplingly isolating for women and minorities as they navigate the kinds of traditionally white, heterosexual, and male-dominated spaces typically associated with STEM work environments.

STEM workplaces, both in academia and in industry, can remain grueling even for those who become leaders in their respective fields. Just a few weeks ago, @Phil_Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at THE, asked Twitter “what’s the most terrible behaviour you have witnessed at an academic conference?”, and received several hundred responses [4]. One particularly terrifying experience was shared by @AtheneDonald, Professor of Physics at Cambridge, who wrote “The guy pinning me to the wall in a bar telling me how much rather he’d have sex with me than another senior woman at the conference.” [5] Another response came from @merylkenny, Senior lecturer in Gender & Politics at the University of Edinburgh, who wrote “A middle-aged man in my (former) dept sending me a text asking me when I was available for sex from the audience while I was on a panel” [6]. These are egregious examples of sexual harassment, and yet in academia, most of these instances just get swept under the rug.

What can we do to start pushing for the radical changes we need to create a more equitable and inclusive environment in STEM? One potential starting point is to root new STEM training programs in Critical Race Theory (CRT), a framework that recognizes racism as something that is woven into American institutions, and therefore is a systemic feature of society [7]. California State University, Northridge’s BUILD PODER program is an brilliant example of CRT in action, by teaching undergraduates in biomedical research to become their own advocates and successfully confront institutional barriers and instances of inequity and discrimination on campus [8]. CRT has also been applied to high school science classes teaching “students from oppressed cultural groups to […] develop problem-solving skills (e.g., strategies for activism, resistance, institution-building, and self-sufficiency) that can be used to challenge and dismantle oppressive agents.” [9] Widespread CRT-rooted education and training will be necessary to dismantle the kinds of self-propagating systemic and institutional racism that allows for structural determinism.

Academic unions can also play a role in transforming institutions into more inclusive and equitable places. Just this week, after more than a year of direct actions and bargaining, postdocs at the University of Washington will vote to ratify their first contract, having bargained for provisions including paid sick and bereavement leave, increased salaries to cope with the rising costs of living in Seattle, a small pool of funds to support childcare costs for postdocs, and grievance procedures in the event of discrimination or harassment. It is clear that there is still a lot of work to be done, but this first contract is a tremendous start at providing new protections and chipping away at some of the reasons women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and racial minorities choose to leave STEM.

Works Cited:

[1] National Science and Technology Council. “Federal Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education 5-Year Strategic Plan: A Report from the Committee on STEM Education.” 2013. PDF file. obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/stem_stratplan_2013.pdf

[2] @DrMonicaCox (Monica F. Cox). “Dear Academia, Stop recruiting #WOC and leaving them to fend for themselves in environments that are toxic. This is a form of abuse, and it needs to stop.” Twitter, 4 June 2019. 3:53am., twitter.com/DrMonicaCox/status/1135862214139793409

[3] Snyder, Kieran. “Why Women Leave Tech: It’s the Culture, Not Because ‘Math Is Hard’.” Fortune, 2 Oct. 2014, fortune.com/2014/10/02/women-leave-tech-culture/.

[4] @Phil_Baty (Phil Baty). “Ok, what’s the most terrible behaviour you have witnessed at an academic conference?” Twitter, 19 May 2019. 3:24am., twitter.com/Phil_Baty/status/1130056519389720576

[5] @AtheneDonald (Athene Donald). “The guy pinning me to the wall in a bar telling me how much rather he’d have sex with me than another senior woman at the conference.” Twitter, 19 May 2019. 4:23am., twitter.com/AtheneDonald/status/1130071446028541955

[6] @merylkenny (Meryl Kenny). “A middle-aged man in my (former) dept sending me a text asking me when I was available for sex from the audience while I was on a panel” Twitter, 19 May 2019, 3:49am., twitter.com/merylkenny/status/1130062825735557120

[7] Bhambra, Gurminder. “Critical Race Theory.” GLOBAL SOCIAL THEORY, 29 Oct. 2017, globalsocialtheory.org/topics/critical-race-theory/.

[8] Carrie L. Saetermoe, Gabriela Chavira, Crist S. Khachikian, David Boyns, and Beverly Cabello. “Critical Race Theory as a Bridge in Science Training: The California State University, Northridge BUILD PODER Program.” BMC Proceedings 11.S12 (2017): 41–55. Web.

[9] Codrington, Jamila. “Sharpening the Lens of Culturally Responsive Science Teaching: A Call for Liberatory Education for Oppressed Student Groups.” Cultural Studies of Science Education 9.4 (2014): 1015–024. Web.

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