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Researchers Use Framework to Address Inequity in Academia

Researchers Use Framework to Address Inequity in Academia

Kelly Wallace and Julia York, two graduate students studying Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, recently turned their attention from studying animals in the field to studying equity and inclusion in their own academic program. They teamed up on a recent paper to examine diversity and inclusion and develop a framework for other programs to evaluate their own efforts. The paper, "A systems change framework for evaluating academic equity and inclusion in an Ecology and Evolution Graduate Program," appeared in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Wallace is concluding her Ph.D. program, and she has earned the NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology and the Ford Foundation 2017 Predoctoral Fellowship. York is the recipient of a Stengl-Wyer Graduate Fellowship and her research on bar-headed geese was featured widely in the press.

With research, teaching and other demands, being a graduate student is a notoriously busy time in a scientist's career. Beyond your efforts to address the program's climate, what has been your area of focus?

KW: I'm a behavioral ecologist and social neuroscientist. I study how your social environment (who you hang out with, what your status is) influences how you make decisions. The animals I use for this work are actually two fish species: an African cichlid and a local guppy. These fish live in social environments like a schoolyard playground - some fish are bullies who patrol territories and fight to be the "king of the hill," and others form groups to defend against the bullies. I observe how these different fish solve puzzles and explore new environments, and then I measure hormones and neural signatures in the brain. 

JY: I work on the evolution of temperature sensation using both Antarctic fishes and the Texas leaf-cutter ant as model systems. I am interested in how animals adapt to new thermal environments by changing their sensory systems to give them relevant information about their surroundings. I use both evolutionary analyses and neuroscience techniques to answer these questions.

Why is it important in science especially to ensure belonging for everyone?

JY: I believe the two most important qualities of a successful scientist are innovative thinking and tenacity. Research has shown time and again that more diverse teams result in more innovative work, and, in fact, papers from diverse research teams are cited more often. So from a scholarship standpoint this is important. Tenacity requires that those diverse teams are inclusive and equitable, and engender a sense of belonging in team members, otherwise people leave more often and productivity is lost. It is also just more pleasant to work in a team where people are recognized for the merit and not how they present to others.

KW: In science, our job is to solve problems, and we work best when people from diverse backgrounds collaborate and attack a problem from unique angles. ... In any job, exclusive and inequitable cultures lead to poor job satisfaction, lower productivity, and lower retention. If your workplace culture is hostile towards women, are you really going to have half of your workforce to perform under their potential? What if I instead asked, "How many potential discoveries, cures, geniuses, or Nobel Prize winners have we missed out on because they were pushed out of science?" I think that perspective emphasizes the sense of urgency behind these issues. 

Were there experiences you or people around you had that motivated your work on the framework for equity and inclusion?

JY: I think we were inspired from our own conversations. Kelly and I work in labs down the hall from each other and talk about these issues frequently. It started to feel overwhelming, and we needed a way to think systematically about both the issues we observed or experienced and the work we were doing to counter those issues. The systems change framework has allowed us to consider both the work and issues in a paired manner.

KW: Julia and I have had many conversations about the challenges we and others have faced in graduate school, as well as the many efforts we've taken to address them. I think there came a point where we started thinking about how to actually fix the underlying structural problems rather than placing band-aids on them. I remember Julia walking down the hall one day, and she showed me this paper called the "Waters of Systems Change." She and I both immediately realized that this was the exact thing we had already been talking about, but now we had the appropriate words, the right language, to use!

Please describe the framework briefly, as well as how this approach worked in your own program.

JY: The systems change framework recognizes that inequity is systemic, and by that I mean that it exists across several modes: explicit, semi-explicit, and implicit. The framework encourages analysis and work at each of these levels, and provides people who might not "see" each component of the system a way to assess inclusion efforts across system modes. Although to our knowledge it hasn't been used in academic settings before, we argue this is particularly helpful for academia because these systems are complex, composed of variable individuals, and must address diverse stakeholder needs.

In applying the framework to our own graduate program, Kelly and I were able to reflect on the work we and several others have achieved in the last roughly four years. I think before we were in some ways trying anything that occurred to us, but using this framework we have been able to assess where inclusion efforts could be most effective by filling gaps and addressing specific concerns. Our department is now developing a Strategic Equity Plan, and I'm very proud of the work we've done and continue to do.

KW: The systems change framework emphasizes three modes where inequality arises. The explicit mode includes things like policies. The semi-explicit mode includes power dynamics. The implicit mode includes beliefs and mental models. The purpose of the exercise that Julia and I designed is to identify patterns using the systems change framework. In the exercise, you (the graduate program) identify the challenges in your program as well as the steps being taken to solve those challenges. You sort those results into the explicit, semi-explicit, and implicit. Then you see where the overlap is. You might end up saying "ok we're actually doing a good job addressing explicit policies, but we have a lot of work to do regarding implicit mental models". Now you have a jumping-off point where you can put some more time, effort, and research into the areas of greatest need. It also gives you a tool so that you can revisit the framework later and evaluate how you're doing.

You explain that a lot of graduate programs have succeeded in recruiting women and people of color, but that many graduate students come into an academic institution and find they don't want to stay in academia. Can you talk a little bit about why universities face more than a "pipeline challenge" in STEM?

KW: Academia, just like many professions, is a highly social experience. There's networking, politics, mentorship, emotions, teamwork, and competition. Successful academics who say they don't "play the game" simply haven't realized that the "game" fits them so well they don't even have to try. These implicit challenges build up over time, and you end up with underrepresented academics swimming through molasses to stay competitive. For many early-career researchers, leaving academia doesn't result from a lack of motivation or passion, but rather it's an act of self-preservation. While recruitment is critical in changing the face of STEM in the long-term, getting more diverse people through the door isn't the same as actually removing the barriers faced once we're here.

JY: In writing this paper for Ecology & Evolution, I did a lot of reading into the literature on the "pipeline" problem. From that research, I believe the primary issue is access to quality mentorship. Having access to a mentor that simply encourages you can be enough, and, sadly, many students do not encounter that in graduate school. Further, mentorship is of higher quality when the mentor and mentee have things in common, it allows them to connect on both a scientific and personal level and makes advice from the mentor more salient. Because professors are generally ~75% white and male, that means that white male students simply have more access to higher quality mentorship. In the paper, we discuss how the culture of STEM mentorship at predominantly white institutions prioritizes individual productivity and has shifted away from openly discussing race and ethnicity, that results in a lack of constructive psychosocial support for mentees of color which is a key component of effective mentorship. 

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Friday, 03 February 2023

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