12 ways to combat discrimination in STEM

Faculty of Science researcher Lisa Willis shares steps and advice for championing EDI in science.

Andrew Lyle - 11 February 2021

When it comes to actions individuals can take to improve equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI), specific steps can be helpful—and providing that advice is just what biologist Lisa Willis has set out to do with a new paper. Many barriers exist that prevent people from marginalized groups from fully participating in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Both the Faculty of Science and the University of Alberta are strongly committed to reducing these barriers to create a more inclusive and equitable community, but individual actions can have a significant and direct impact.

”Every single one of us bears responsibility for the culture of discrimination and bias that is pervasive—not just in STEM but in society,” said Willis, lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. ”The objective is to teach people how they can make a difference with practical solutions that are easy to implement. Many people that I have met through my EDI education program InclusiveSTEM know that there is a problem and would like to make a difference, but find the magnitude of the problem overwhelming and do not know how to create change. We hope that this article will inspire people to act.”

Willis lays out 12 concrete steps that individuals can take in their labs, departments, and faculties to take action on these important topics.

“I think the key is to remove barriers that are preventing people from taking action,” said Willis. “I hope that people will see how easy these principles are and will start participating more fully in the conversation about EDI in STEM as well as start taking action.”

Get started learning about the principles below—and read more in the full article for detailed advice on how to implement each principle:

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 your biases and your privilege.

A critical principle in combating bias is recognizing your own biases—products of the society you were brought up in, and which include both conscious and unconscious biases. Unconscious bias can be diametrically opposed to your consciously held beliefs—so it is critical to let go of the assumption that we are not discriminating and instead examine our actions to recognize when they are discriminating against someone. It’s also important to recognize privilege in addition to our biases. 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 your friends and colleagues, 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 taking place.

4. Be strategic about who you work with.

From applying for jobs or funding to serving on a hiring committee, there are important factors to keep in mind to be a part of a team that values diversity and works toward improving participation and lived experiences of people from marginalized groups.

When applying for jobs, ask potential employers about their EDI philosophy and activities. When serving on a hiring committee, set up inclusive hiring criteria. The job ad should use non-gendered terms, such as “the applicant will'' instead of “he/she will.” 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 the focus is not solely on hiring programs—pay equal attention to retention and advancement practice. From keeping in mind societal differences in salary negotiations to the distribution of teaching and research duties, the team offers advice on principles to keep in mind while evaluating these programs.

6. Generate a code of conduct as a team.

Scientists come from all different backgrounds—different countries, rural and urban settings, religious upbringings, and many more, explained Willis. 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, and the most effective teams are not those with the smartest person, but the teams where people work together the best and where 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 which are used to determine “success” in the course of career progression, such as invitations to speak at conferences, and more likely to be burdened with activities that require extra effort with no corresponding value.

Combat this unbalanced effort versus recognition 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, nominate people from marginalized groups for awards, and ensure people from marginalized groups are not performing a disproportionate amount of administrative and organizational tasks, such as lab ordering and note-taking; have a rotation for these activities.

9. Be supportive.

Most scientists experience imposter syndrome, but, for people from marginalized groups, these feelings are reinforced by being told they do not belong and are not good enough to succeed in science. 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.

As examples, when judging CVs and fellowship applications, how much attention is given to past disparities in opportunity and outcome? Do peer-review processes in your community journals, in your funding organisations, and in your institute’s tenure processes implement good EDI practises?

11. Make action a habit.

Being consistent and persistent in this work is critical to combatting 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. There is much work to do to combat bias and discrimination in STEM before we can even come close to achieving equity for people from marginalized groups. However, all journeys must start somewhere and it is long past time for the STEM community to start making a real concerted effort to change the culture

“Fortunately, it is also clear that small changes can have a big effect, especially in the lives of our trainees and colleagues,” Willis adds. “Every one of us has the power to make a difference. Let us start using that power to change the culture in STEM.”

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI) are central to both the University of Alberta’s strategic plan For the Public Good and the Faculty of Science’s strategic plan UAlberta Science Ahead. Learn more about engagement and EDI initiatives in the Faculty of Science, including EDI resources for members of our community and groups, initiatives, and ways you can get involved in the Faculty of SCience.