Increasing Diversity and Inclusion in Scientific Disciplines: Crises and Opportunities


By Julia Tobacyk posted 08-22-2019 12:57


Communique 2019 Issue 3 Masthead

Scientific disciplines have some long-standing issues related to diversity and inclusion. Since 1901, less than 4% of Nobel Prize recipients in science have been women. Even more astonishingly, not a single Nobel laureate in science has been black.

In the foreground, a young woman in a lab coat stands at a lab bench. She is leaning over and looking into a microscope. In the background, other men and women are visible and also working at scientific tasks.While this historic picture appears bleak, a more diverse and inclusive science community appears to be on the horizon. Millennials are the most diverse and diversity-conscious generation yet in the United States and are expected to bridge the gap between the mostly white, older generation and a much more diverse generation. The SOT membership roster clearly reflects these generational changes. The overall SOT membership (of those who have identified their race) is 33% non-white, including 5% black and 4% Hispanic. However, the new SOT members (i.e., those who have joined within the last five years) are self-identified as 49% non-white, including 11% black and 7% Hispanic. These younger generations have a growing appreciation and expectation of diversity in their workplaces, and these changes have been seen in health care, medicine, technology, and higher education, according to a 2017 Forbes article. But certain aspects of the science community still have catching up to do.

Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), wrote in an online statement a few months ago, “I won’t go on another all-male panel.” These all-male panels are mockingly referred to as “manels” and have been an issue in biomedical research. In his statement, Dr. Collins referenced a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that shows that as women increasingly enter science fields, they are facing more biases and barriers in their professional careers than their male counterparts. Some examples of biases and barriers range from mostly men being selected for speaking slots or as panelists at scientific meetings to more serious, inappropriate biased behaviors such as sexual harassment of women in their workplaces.

Figure 1A is a line chart comparing how many men versus woman have received SOT Awards from 2009 to 2019. The line chart shows that over the last few years, more women than men have received SOT Awards. Figure 1B is a line chart comparing the number of male versus female leaders of SOT Committees. The difference between the number of male and female leaders has almost disappeared in recent years.This gender imbalance has been noticed in the past at SOT. In 2015, Tao Wang et al. published a piece in the SOT Communiqué blog about unconscious bias within SOT. Unconscious bias is an inborn, automatic tendency to classify others based on noticeable traits such as gender, race, and age, and to be realistic (and pessimistic), we humans highly rely on such unconscious biases in our decision-making on a daily basis. Wang et al. noticed that a much greater proportion of men were recipients of major SOT awards compared with women. The authors wondered whether men were being awarded more accolades based on their merits, or whether unconscious bias played a role behind the decision-making for award distribution among SOT members. Four years after the original post, during the 2019 IUTOX International Congress of Toxicology in Hawaii, Dr. Wang shared encouraging updates about how the SOT Women in Toxicology (WIT) Special Interest Group is on the path to combating unconscious bias by nominating deserving women for major SOT awards (see fig. 1A).

But it doesn’t stop with award distribution. In the last five years, SOT has made big strides to have a relatively even proportion of women and men as leaders of SOT Committees (see fig. 1B). Additionally, a snapshot of the 2019 SOT Annual Meeting reveals that the ratio of men to women Chairs and Co-Chairs for the 14 Continuing Education courses leaned more toward women, while the panels themselves were (mostly) a mixture of presenters from different races, genders, and ethnicities. (Editor’s note: the SOT Scientific Program Committee and Continuing Education Committee are cognizant of and try to maintain a diverse balance [work sector, gender, ethnicity, etc.] when approving and developing the Annual Meeting scientific program.)

A quote from the article about the importance of inclusiveness in organizations.Of course, unconscious biases and barriers aren’t limited to women but also apply to individuals from other underrepresented groups. Compared with any other underrepresented groups, the gender gap between women and men has received the most publicity and media coverage over the past decades. However, gender isn’t binary. A recent Nature article discussed a study showing that scientists from sexual and gender minorities often experience exclusion, unconscious biases, and harassment at work. This study found that “nearly one-third of physical scientists from sexual and gender minorities [LGBTQ+] in the United Kingdom have considered leaving their jobs because of their workplace climate.” These numbers are the highest for people who identify themselves as transgender. 

Collins in his online statement encourages scientific leaders not only to be mindful and aware of these issues but also to take action and eliminate cultural biases that tolerate gender inequality and discrimination against members of other underrepresented groups. But focusing on diversity is not enough. There must be an inclusive organizational environment that enables people from diverse backgrounds to strive, achieve, and visualize themselves as scientists. A good place to foster such environments is at professional societies like SOT. In 2001, SOT formed its first Special Interest Group—a subgroup of the Society designed to bring together scientists who share a common interest in issues relevant to specific communities—with the WIT Special Interest Group. Now, the Society has eight such groups focused on communities related to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality to accommodate an inclusive environment for the growing diversity among SOT members.

A quote from the article about how SOT has been making efforts for diversity and inclusiveness for many years.So, why are diversity and inclusion important in science? Diversity carries benefits in almost every life domain you can think of. For example, genetic diversity helps populations adapt to changes within their environment, whereas inbreeding reduces genetic diversity and increases the risk of undesirable genes. Similarly, with ideas, diverse thoughts drive innovation and bring different perspectives to problem-solving, but “inbred ideas” and intellectual homogeneity will slow down scientific progress. That’s why it is important for the scientific community to encourage participation of people across all sectors of the population. A more representative workforce can help foster innovative ideas and research that truly represent the society in which we live to address the complex, multifaceted problems we are facing.

How can we get to a place where people of all genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, colors, and races can strive and be their authentic selves in their workplaces? Breaking down these barriers and biases in the scientific community won’t happen overnight. These changes to create an inclusive work environment must start with us as individuals at our own workplaces. Another great way to spread and integrate these ideas is through professional societies. SOT has had diversity and inclusion practices since before the #MeToo movement and March for Science rallies, and even before it was popular for companies/institutions to release diversity reports. If these changes don’t start with individual scientists—people with high levels of education who have received years of training in experimental design and objectivity to see the world free from biases and barriers—then who else is going to care? 

The information presented in this article represents the views or opinions of the author. SOT does not propose or endorse any position by posting this article.