12 ways to combat discrimination in STEM

Lisa Willis shares advice for championing equity, diversity, and inclusivity in academia.

Lisa Willis - 08 July 2021

[Files from Matt McCreary and Andrew Lyle.]

Lisa Willis is an associate professor (biological sciences) in the Faculty of Science. Her research is centred on understanding women’s health issues through glycobiology and glycoimmunology.

Lisa Willis is an associate professor (biological sciences) in the Faculty of Science. Her research is centred on understanding women’s health issues through glycobiology and glycoimmunology. Willis is a strong advocate for diversity in STEM. Photo credit: Dawn Graves


When it comes to improving equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI) in academia, our individual actions can have a significant and direct impact. We know that many barriers prevent people from marginalized groups from fully participating in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Every one of us bears responsibility for the way things are—and indeed, the people that I have met through my EDI education program InclusiveSTEM want to make a difference. However, they often find the magnitude of the problem overwhelming. They don’t know how to create change. 

This is the problem that my co-authors, Devang Mehta and Alexandra Davis, and I set out to fix. Our objective was to show people how they could make a difference. We wanted practical solutions that are easy to implement—concrete steps that individuals can take in their labs, departments, and faculties. We landed on these 12 principles to help us all reduce bias and discrimination. 

1. Learn the basics.

The first step is familiarizing yourself with how diversity in STEM makes for stronger science with more diverse perspectives. It’s also important to learn about the barriers—and their history—that exist for marginalized groups in STEM.

2. Acknowledge biases and privilege.

A critical principle is recognizing our own biases, which are products of the society we were brought up in. Unconscious bias can be diametrically opposed to our consciously held beliefs, so it is critical to let go of the assumption that we are not discriminating and instead examine our actions. It’s also important to recognize privilege. For example, English has become the international language of science and is one of the more difficult languages for non-native speakers to learn.

3. Do your research, listen to those around you, and then be vocal.

Take responsibility for researching EDI topics yourself, listen to teammates, and learn how to effectively and productively work against discrimination when you see it.

4. Be strategic about who you work with.

Being a team that values diversity and works toward improving participation and lived experiences of people from marginalized groups requires keeping many important factors in mind. From applying for funding to serving on a hiring committee, there are many important ways to put this into practice.

When applying for jobs, ask potential employers about their EDI philosophy and activities. When serving on a hiring committee, set up inclusive hiring criteria. Include an EDI statement illustrating how the hiring group values diversity, and ask for the applicant’s professional EDI statement.

5. Restructure retention and advancement programs.

Ensure that your focus is not only on diverse hiring practices. Retention and advancement practices merit equal attention, from keeping in mind societal differences in salary negotiations to the distribution of teaching and research duties.

The Faculty of Science welcomes diversity—from our programs that engage K-12 learners in science, to our undergraduate and graduate programs, hiring of staff, and leadership positions. We recognize the importance of equity and inclusivity in employment in the faculty and for students enrolled in our programs. Support for diversity and the desire for inclusivity are central to our decision-making and activities.

Equity, diversity, and inclusivity are central to the University of Alberta’s Strategic Plan For the Public Good (2016), as well as its Strategic Plan for Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity (2018), which commits to "cultivating an institutional culture that values, supports, and promotes equity, human rights, respect, and accountability among faculty, staff, and students."

EDI is a key pillar in the Faculty of Science’s new Strategic Plan 2020-2025 UAlberta Science Ahead. Visitualberta.ca/science/diversity to learn more, and find more EDI resources curated by Lisa Willis atwillisglycobiologylab.com/curated-list-of-edi-resources/

6. Generate a code of conduct.

Scientists come from all different backgrounds—different countries, rural and urban settings, and religious upbringings. Part of reducing discrimination in the workplace is creating a positive work culture, and overcoming potential conflicts requires a shared vision. Creating a code of conduct as a team is an excellent step in creating a more inclusive and positive work environment.

7. Be inclusive.

Science is a team effort. The most effective teams are not those with the smartest people, but those in which people work together and everyone feels they have the opportunity to participate. Learn how to reach out to team members to avoid isolating people from marginalized groups and create an inclusive environment—from social activities, to dissemination of information, to group projects and collaborations.

8. Be intentional.

There is a huge body of evidence that demonstrates that people from marginalized groups are less likely to have access to the scientific activities used to determine “success” in the course of career progression—such as invitations to speak at conferences—and are more likely to be burdened with activities that require extra effort with no corresponding value.

Combat this imbalance by being intentional in your approach to scholarly activities. Invite a variety of diverse people to speak at conferences and seminars, publicly introduce people using their titles and last names, and nominate people from marginalized groups for awards. Ensure people from marginalized groups are not performing a disproportionate number of administrative and organizational tasks, such as lab ordering and note-taking.

9. Be supportive.

Most scientists experience imposter syndrome, but for people from marginalized groups these feelings can be magnified. Studies show that feedback and support have a major impact on people from marginalized groups. Learn how you can create a supportive work environment.

10. Rethink the status quo in science.

The fact that modern STEM education produces discriminatory outcomes—and that people from marginalized groups continue to experience them—implies that we all need to rethink long-standing norms in our community. Rethinking established processes through the lens of EDI and comparing processes with others can be a powerful way to generate new ideas that address structural bias and discrimination.

11. Make action a habit.

Being consistent and persistent in this work is critical to combating bias and discrimination. It isn’t sufficient to make a one-off effort and consider the matter closed. Instead, start small and work your way into larger changes, rewarding yourself for sustained effort, and tracking your progress so you can see how far you’ve come.

12. Embrace these final thoughts.

The magnitude of the problem we are faced with can feel overwhelming. It’s clear there is much work still to do. Fortunately, it is also clear that small changes can have a big effect, especially in the lives of our trainees and colleagues. Every one of us has the power to make a difference. Let us start using that power to change culture.