Making science more welcoming for underrepresented groups: a workshop.

It’s been a tough week for social justice in academic science. There was a series of racially insensitive tweets about “overpopulation” and Ebola, a misogynist metaphor occupied centrestage in a piece condemning the “new conservation” movement, and a New York Times Op-Ed helpfully informed us that academic science is no longer sexist (all links in this paragraph take you to responses to these outrageous statements, and not the offending pieces themselves, so I urge you to click through).

But in the middle of the week, I was part of something that made me a little bit hopeful, despite all the disappointment. Together with two grad student colleagues also from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, I planned and led a workshop on how to make science more welcoming for underrepresented groups in STEM. It was directed at the first-year grad students in our department, and was slotted into their weekly “professors on parade+professional development” class. Below, I’m going to describe what we did, provide links to all of the readings we assigned, and reflect a little bit on how I think it went.

Prep: One week before the workshop, I took a few minutes of their class to describe the workshop and inform the students of their reading assignments. Everyone in the class was asked to read this piece by John Johnson, where he describes an interaction in which he shifts from not recognizing his male privilege to being made aware of it. The class was also broken up into four groups and asked to read the following:

Group 1. The Survey of Academic Field Experiences study (you can see my reasons for assigning it here).

Group 2. a) An NPR report on a study that showed biases in response rates of professors to requests for mentoring from male and female students of different races

b) An article describing the prespectives of transgender scientists on how men and women are treated in academia

Group 3. The CV study, showing bias by faculty in the evaluation of male and female candidates for a lab manager position.

Group 4. A pair of articles from MIT students describing their experiences of micro-aggression or micro-privilege, depending on whether or not they fit the stereotype of the sort of student who belongs at MIT.

Students were asked to “please read with compassion and open-mindedness. The readings, even the scientific papers, describe people’s lived experiences. Don’t subject these experiences to critical analysis, rather accept them and focus on what you can learn from them.” All students were asked to glance at the readings for all groups and inform me if they found any of the potential topics for discussion triggering.

Intro: I began the workshop by describing how I had become aware of issues of social justice in general, and their relevance in science/academia in particular. Outlining my trajectory served two purposes: first, it illustrated that I have learnt everything I know about these issues only recently and that I am still learning; second, it emphasized that this was my first time running such a workshop.

We tried to make our aims for the workshop as explicit as possible–that we were trying to start a conversation, among this batch of students and in the department as a whole, about discrimination in academia, that we were trying to set a tone for how to have respectful conversations about these issues, and that we were going to focus on listening and learning as opposed to sharing experiences or opinions.

We thought quite a bit before the workshop about how to keep it from becoming too uncomfortable for anyone involved, including us. Deciding to discourage people from sharing their opinions on the readings (i.e. whether they agreed or disagreed with the readings) was easy–sharing opinions would have opened the door for statements like “I don’t think she should have been offended” or “I don’t think what happened to him was so bad.” We also decided to suggest that people not share their own experiences, positive or negative. This was a harder decision to make, especially because I was using my own experiences to illustrate concepts throughout the workshop. We worried that students may feel silenced, but realised that since we had no idea what their past experiences may have been, it would be very challenging for us to prepare to discuss them. We tried to explain this dilemma when suggesting that students not bring up their experiences, and encouraged them to share their experiences with us and with each other after the workshop, carrying forward the respectful tone we were trying to establish in the workshop.

Ground rules: to keep conversation as respectful as possible, we laid down some ground rules (thanks to Dr. Katie Hinde for suggesting most of these!). First, I asked students to try and distinguish between feeling uncomfortable and feeling attacked, acknowledging that it is perfectly normal to feel defensive when the actions of someone who shares an aspect of their identity with you are described negatively. But I cautioned that words spoken from a position of defensiveness are often the most hurtful.

I specifically suggested that students avoid making jokes and playing devil’s advocate, because both of these modes of conversation allow one to make statements without taking ownership of them (“I didn’t really mean it!”), and because of an inherent imbalance in how these sorts of statements affect people with different identities and experiences. We handed out a sheet with this xkcd comic and a modified version of this Derailment Bingo sheet as reminders of the sort of arguments to avoid. In the bingo sheet, we replaced the face in the middle with :(. Here’s a PDF of the sheet we used.

Definitions: I defined three terms that I think are crucial to any discussion about social justice: privilege, microaggressions, and intersectionality, giving examples for each. I used myself and my experiences to illustrate privilege and microaggressions, and used Michelle Obama’s “Mom-in-Chief” comments, and the subsequent white feminist furor, to illustrate intersectionality.

Discussions:  The students then broke up into their groups to discuss the readings for ten minutes (this gave those of us organizing the workshop a small break and a chance to regroup, which was nice). Students were asked to come up with a brief description of what they read, and to make a list of the three or four most important things they learnt from their reading. I had made my own list for each of the pieces, and for the most part the students’ points matched my own quite well. Feel free to email me if you want to compare notes on the readings. We ended up not discussing John Johnson’s blog post (partly because we didn’t have the time, partly because I forgot), and I’m still not quite sure at which point of the workshop to discuss it, even though I think it’s an important reading.

Brainstorming: We had two brainstorming activities. First, we tried to make a list of all of the axes of identity along which people may discriminate or be discriminated against. Our readings focussed mainly on gender and race, and we felt it was important to broaden the conversation to include as many aspects of identity as possible. This was the most participatory part of the workshop. We decided beforehand that we would write down anything anyone mentioned, but none of the suggestions were too far from what I anticipated. Here’s a list that combines what we came up with and what I’d written down in my notes (there were a couple I forgot to bring up during the workshop):

  1. Gender
  2. Race
  3. Sexual orientation
  4. Age
  5. Appearance (weight, height)
  6. Gender identities (cis/trans)
  7. Class and poverty
  8. Disability and mental health
  9. Religion
  10. Language abilities
  11. Region/country of origin
  12. Marital/relationship/parental status
  13. Political affiliation
  14. Personality (introversion/extroversion)
  15. Hobbies

Next we asked students to spend five minutes to think of ways in which they could modify their own actions to make science more welcoming for women and minorities. Their suggestions ended up focussing on avoiding bias when hiring undergraduate lab or field assistants, which we didn’t quite anticipate but perhaps isn’t surprising given that several of the readings focussed on mentoring and student evaluation bias. I tried to shift the discussion to more day-to-day actions, describing some of the behaviour I find most ubiquitous and problematic (e.g. interrupting and talking over women, and men and women of colour, not attributing our statements/ideas to us in discussions, etc.). I ended by mentioning the steps to being a good ally outlined in this Robot Hugs cartoon, and showing this video that explains how to apologize. 

Overall, I think the workshop achieved the aims we laid out–to start a conversation, and to establish a tone of respectfulness and learning for that conversation. Most of the students seemed interested and concerned and willing to engage in discussions about issues of bias and discrimination in science. There were two or three instances of students saying problematic things, and our responses were okay but not great. We certainly expected some defensiveness and derailing, but it’s difficult to prepare for if you don’t know exactly what form it’s going to take (I guess this is true of all teaching, but responding on the fly seems especially hard when these unanticipate-able statements may be hurtful to those of us leading the discussion). I also need to figure out how to structure the “solutions” part of the workshop better, and find a way to guide students into thinking about how their day-to-day actions may perpetuate discrimination. A lot to learn before the next iteration of the workshop, but as my first step in broadening the conversation about discrimination in science, I think it went quite well!

[Note: a previous version of this piece’s title had “women and minorities” in place of “underrepresented groups.” I now understand why the earlier wording indicates a venn diagram in which minority women don’t quite fit, and why the current wording is preferable, hence the change!]

14 thoughts on “Making science more welcoming for underrepresented groups: a workshop.

  1. Couple more points:
    1. We emphasized that because we have all grown up in a biased and prejudiced world, we can all sometimes be part of the problem. We did this to try to avoid pointing the finger at particular groups of people, though I think by the end I slipped into some finger-pointing myself.
    2. It really helped to discuss the studies before the anecdotes (i.e. keeping Group 4 for the end), so that we could counter questions like “how do we know she was treated badly because she is a girl?”

  2. What a wonderful idea! I may try to do something similar on my department. Thank you for doing this AND for providing useful links that can serve others to do so as well! Very important work that should be done everywhere. Gotta start somewhere…

    1. Thanks Kristin! I’ve been thinking/debriefing about the workshop over the last week, and there are a few more things you might keep in mind if you try this:
      1. Having a team of people leading the workshop is really good. It allows multiple people to take a crack at responding to difficult/derailing statements, and helps to avoid defensive arguments between students and workshop leaders.
      2. The thing that makes this workshop pretty different from a lot of the women-in-science workshops is that we said NOTHING about how women/minorities should act to make their lives in science better. The onus for change was put entirely on perpetrators of prejudice/discrimination, which is all of us. This worked only because it was a semi-mandatory event for all first years. Voluntary attendance at such an event may make it trickier–if people who are often subject to prejudice make up a majority of the audience, I might structure it differently. Feel free to email me if you’d like to bounce ideas around for how to fit the workshop to your audience.

      1. These are good things to keep in mind. The women faculty and grad students in my department have recently started a discussion group, and I will suggest we cover some of these readings. Ideally in the near future, a few of us would pull some on-board male colleagues to present this to the department as a whole. I will definitely message you once we get this off the ground, likely in
        January or February. Thank you again! 🙂

      2. Awesome! Looking forward to hearing how it goes–any lessons/tips you have from these discussions would be really useful. The more brains thinking about how best to have these conversations, the better!

  3. This sounds like a fantastic workshop. I was wondering if you could post (or link, or somehow share) your definitions of privilege, microaggressions, and intersectionality. I know these things are happening in the world, but when asked by others for definitions, I often struggle to come up with something concrete. Thanks!

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