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Prioritizing STEM diversity, equity, and inclusion requires rethinking graduate education

Equity in Science: Representation, Culture, and the Dynamics of Change in Graduate Education

Julie R. Posselt
Stanford University Press
240 pp.
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How do you engage with an institution that was not designed with women or people of color in mind? How do you dismantle years of discrimination and unequal treatment? When addressing such questions, I am reminded of a saying my mother liked to use. When asked “How do you eat an elephant?” she would reply, “One bite at a time.”

This approach works in many contexts but is especially applicable to the challenges faced by academic institutions as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields aim to increase diversity and become more inclusive and equitable. Although the importance of these elements to the scientific enterprise is implied, many STEM educators hesitate to participate in discussions surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion because they think they lack the knowledge and/or training needed to engage intelligently, or because they fear that their efforts will not result in change. However, as institutions begin to prioritize diversifying STEM, faculty must consider how their teaching and mentoring approaches affect these issues. In Equity in Science, Julie Posselt demonstrates how we can take steps to mitigate systemic discrimination in STEM education.

Posselt examines existing equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts across a number of graduate STEM fields, including astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and psychology. Her case studies—which include an ethnographic assessment of a geology field course; a comparative analysis of the trajectories of high-diversity STEM graduates; and an overview of the barriers, lessons learned, and design of several STEM Ph.D. programs—reveal key ways that privilege and power operate in scientific organizations and have created a culture of exclusion and sameness. The book closes with targeted recommendations for how individuals, departments, and scholarly societies can create systemic and sustainable change.

So how does Posselt suggest we dismantle our “elephant”? What does that first bite look like? She argues that we must revisit and reorganize the practices and priorities that have been socialized throughout STEM culture, and she encourages readers to reimagine the community’s boundaries of what constitutes good science and to rethink the practices and the qualities we associate with good scientists. The only way to ensure that science is equitable, she argues, is to restructure scientific culture through a lens that respects and shows cultural differences and encourages those in nonmarginalized positions to acknowledge their power and privilege and the benefits that are conferred to certain groups. We must also center the voices, needs, and stories of people from marginalized groups.

Posselt argues that we must design STEM graduate programs with a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens that dismantles traditional community norms and values, including assumptions about scholastic ability, admission requirements, and curriculum structure. She lays out recommendations for the retention and recruitment of traditionally marginalized groups in graduate programs. These recommendations include downplaying or eliminating Graduate Record Examination scores as admission criteria; creating “bridge” programs that create a clear and intentional pathway through the STEM pipeline at various critical junctions; providing faculty mentors that share students’ identities; and tracking program-level data, disaggregated by race or ethnicity and gender. She even provides recommendations for improving equity and inclusion within existing scientific collaborations, including ways to manage impervious and wayward colleagues. Here, she advises how to assess a collaborator’s willingness to change and discusses how to overcome different types of resistance.

Posselt argues that advancing the movement for diversity, equity, and inclusion in science requires more effective collaboration across boundaries that typically separate scholars. She highlights how these collaborations tend to lie at the intersection of diverse identities, including gender, race, economic status, and discipline. Although its conclusions and recommendations are not exactly novel, the book succeeds in illustrating the depth to which diversity, equity, and inclusion are lacking at every level of STEM culture.

About the author

The reviewer is at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Washington, DC 20036, USA; the Department of Biology, University of the District of Columbia, Washington, DC 20008, USA; and STEM Innovation Consulting, Washington, DC 20018, USA.