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#Scio14 Expanding the Dialogue on Diversity: Privilege and the Pursuit of Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As I was completing my doctorate studies, I was mounting an insane amount of student debt. I needed to finish. I wanted to finish. However, working an outside job or even a teaching assistantship kept taking up mind space and time and prevented me from just getting things done. I was so financially strapped that I was on food stamps that last year of my studies. I needed them and I am thankful for them.  I graduated, but my entire existence immediately after graduation was insecure until the semester before I started my post doc. I was lucky blessed to have kept continuous employment so that I could pay my car note, insurance, cell phone bill, and feed myself. But I wasn’t able to pay rent – so I had to leave the house I was living in. I abandoned my credit card debt… and my student loan debt…don’t ask. I was living hand to mouth. (I still am to be honest, but better off than I was then).

Guess what I wasn’t doing during that time? Writing up my manuscripts.  Publish or Perish…It was more like: I’m this close to perishing from real-world threats. The ivory tower’s threats to my existence would have to take a number. I didn’t have the time or energy or the resources to write up and submit my manuscripts to a publisher. I was worried about keeping myself safe and fed and warm and able to be contacted by potential employers. During that time (and occasionally since) I would dream about how much more easier my life would be if I had been a Basketball Wife

Imagine instead of witnessing trite drama about philandering men or clothes or celebrity parties, audiences I would had the camera crews following me on world-wind adventures to do ecology research or hands-on science outreach programs to inner-city youth.  But I would have happily served up drama: giving audiences high doses of my side-eye and indignation and my verbose clap-backs as I served petty heifers ladies at a glorious brunch. (ahh, I dream.)

But seriously, my imagining myself as a Basketball Wife (or the wife, girlfriend of any baller/rappers/affluent man) is about dreaming of how financial security would have benefited me professionally.  In that dream scenario I can pursue my science without fear of homelessness or hunger.  I could also use those resources to do the science and outreach I want to do without having to wait on a major grant in order to do it. Yes, access to money and people with know-how makes a big difference in whether or not one can participate let alone survive and thrive in (academic) science.  There hasn’t been nearly enough conversation about the roles that (many different) privileges play in science career access and success.

During ScienceOnline2014 February 27-March 1, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina, that will change. I am facilitating a panel on diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that moves beyond the conversations we have had in the past.

Session: Expanding the dialogue on Diversity

Expanding the dialogue on diversity and broadening participation of minorities (gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and ethnicity) includes addressing the role that social and economic barriers play on who is able to participate in science, technology, and engineering (STEM). This panel will address how the intersection of class and other minority labels must be considered in 21st Century STEM outreach and inclusion efforts. Addressing & admitting how privilege affects WHO has access to STEM education & opportunities is a very important part of the solution to plugging up the leaky pipeline.

The goals of the session will be to 1) define privilege and examine the different types of privileges we each may have, 2) elucidate the small but insidious ways prejudices around privilege allow some to become successful in science and discourage others, and 3) offer real tactics for individuals (to share with others) to make science and science communication more accessible to all students.

The conversation starts right now.

How has privilege, any type*, benefited you in your pursuit of STEM study/career?

How can we, as online science communicators, leverage our respective privileges to make STEM more accessible, diverse, inclusive, and retentive to broader audiences?

You can comment below as well as follow the hashtag #scioDiversity, plus the conference hashtag #scio14. I will use these comments as conversation fodder during session on Thursday, February 27, 2014, 2:30 PM EST. It will be lived streamed, so if you are participating in one of the Watch Parties from around the world, you will get a chance to participate live in the discussion as well.

* any type of privilege includes and is not limited to: cultural/racial privileges, academic/familial/social nepotism, academic pedigree, gender or cis-status, age, professional rank, accolades, socioeconomic status.

Resources for this session

A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity

A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good

unpacking the invisible knapsack

Aggregator of Diversity Bloggers

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. biochembelle 9:11 am 02/23/2014

    I grew up in a fairly rural area in a solidly middle class family (at least by my definition – dad worked in textile plant; mom, odd jobs, admin assistant, then RN). When it came time to head to college, my parents took out loans to cover tuition, as did I. One of my first profs at university I now realize was more than a mentor – he was a sponsor. He brought me into the department, connected me with research and teaching assistant opportunities, so I could earn some money while gaining relevant experience without working late shifts. I racked up some credit card debt to cover other expenses, but I never worried about covering bills. My parents also were able to continue providing health insurance coverage for me while I was an undergrad, and given ongoing severe migraines, having those medical bills and prescription costs under control was important.

    In grad school, I lived in a relatively low cost of living city. I was married, and my spouse worked full-time, so along with my stipend, we were fairly financially stable. I had a supportive PI who didn’t hold strictly to [x] days off guidelines; this was important due to health issues of my own and of family.

    When it came time to move for postdoc, my spouse went to new city and found an apartment while I worked furiously on my dissertation. My dad was in a position to provide a small loan when we moved, and without it, we could never have afforded to secure an apartment. I also don’t know how I would have afforded living in Boston on my own during the first few years of my postdoc.

    And then there’s the obvious privilege – I am a cis, white woman. In biomed and even chemistry, at the grad and postdoc level, I’ve never been the only one. In my current lab, aside from my PI, I am one of 3 member – all white, cis women. In discussion on Twitter recently about the underrepresentation of African Americans among STEM faculty, something tressiemcphd said really put that privilege into perspective:
    Do you know what 3% looks like? Or, better yet, what it feels like?
    I can’t understand what that feels like, because on the rare occasion that I ended up being one of one or two women in a room of 20, when I went back to my lab, 30-40% of my colleagues looked a lot like me.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Deneck 10:25 am 02/23/2014

    I realize I am very privileged. A lot of these things have to do with me growing up in Germany, but maybe my input still helps:

    First: Being German IS in itself a privilege.

    1. In Germany, your parents don’t have to be able to afford living in a ‘good school district’ for you to go to a good school. You have free choice of school, limited only by the number of students the school can take in per year and how public transport to that school is organized.

    2. University entrance is easy because it is socialized. You apply to a central agency that coordinates the student places in the public universities across whole Germany. According to your grades, personal priorities for Universities and time spent on the waiting list, you will get a place somewhere, eventually. Since I had to do a year of civil service anyways, I got into university as a C-student.

    3. Higher education is free in Germany. Yes, no $10k per year :P Only living costs had to be paid for by my parents. I didn’t even have to take a job on the side. I did, but I didn’t have to, really.

    4. German higher education is high quality. Since the admittance is easy, and they have no contract with parents paying tuitions, the teachers have no problem making exams tough. So, although I was a C student in high school, barely made it through most university exams, I was a B-student at graduation (and an A-student in my doctoral degree).

    Second, I am an academics’ kid:

    There was NO doubt whatsoever that I would be able to make it to and through University at any point in my life. That again has to do with me being German.
    I am not proud of it (anything but that), but in Germany, the social status of your parents determines the social status of the children. This is how that works: we have three types of secondary schools. One is supposed to prepare you to be a general worker at age 16, one is supposed to prepare you for craftsmanship and enter our apprenticeship-based training system at age 16 and one prepares you for university entrance at age 19. At the end of primary school, the teacher gives recommendations to the parents which kind of secondary school would be best for the children. Apparently, the kind of school recommended highly correlates with the parents’ social status and my parents are musicians with formal education from a prestigious arts academy in Germany. You can, of course, ignore the recommendation, as you have free choice of school, but most parents tend to follow it.

    In my case, I did get the recommendation for ‘Gymnasium’ but I hope that wasn’t just because of my parents
    status. I was also a straight A student in primary school. They also did an IQ test with all fourth graders and I turned out to be ‘gifted’. My parents actually pondered sending me to Scottland where there was a school for gifted kids (back then such schools were not that common, especially in Germany).

    Why was I so smart? Again, because I was and academics’ kid. My parents had a house full of books and they supported ANY activity I wanted that would teach me something. We travelled every year, I tried different sports and learned to play several musical instruments, we visited museums and the opera alike. All these things. By the age of 9 I knew I was going to be an academic.

    This kind of upbringing also gave me an enormously broad knowledge and interests in skills not taught at University. These skills made the difference later. When applying for a doctoral student position AND for my postdoctoral position, my non-curriculum (technical and programming) skills made the difference.

    Finally, this kind of upbringing left me with an independence and self-confidence that I have only seen matched by my sister’s.

    Third: I was the child of a German and a Mexican. Yes, for most people that’s a disadvantage. But not for me. Because my Mexican mother grew up bilingual (Spanish/English) and so I grew up bilingual, too: German and English. Fluently speaking English (almost native) is an *enormous* advantage in the STEM fields.

    Fourth: I’m a White German Secularized Agnostic Dude (hells not a WASP :P ). Although part of my genetic heritage is Mexican, I look very Southern-German (that’s not the tall, blond, blue-eyed type, but still). Together with my upbringing (see above) I perfectly fit into the white dude academic circles, other than the other immigrant children (especially the many Turkish ones).

    I must however point out, that my sister is also making her way through Academia, in Germany, and she is a woman and she doesn’t look very German. But she is at least as successfull as I am. When I heard all the stories about discrimination faced by ethnic women in the USA I was very concerned and asked her about these things. Apparently my sister has expererienced nothing but support. I can’t say how glad I am about this.

    So, yeah, I am overall privileged by my genetic, cultural and societal heritage.

    Link to this
  3. 3. iGrrrl 10:59 am 02/23/2014

    I think I had two major privileges that also relate to being WASP. One was financial. Even though I grew up in hand-me-downs from other families, playing with other kids’ outgrown toys, it didn’t stay that way. After the death of a great-grandmother during my teens, we became more financially secure. I never took out loans for college or in grad school. It is an incredible privilege that very few of my life decisions were made only on the basis of finances. I was expected to make it on my own, but from my childhood experiences, I knew how to live on little money, and did so. Yet in grad school/adulthood there was always, in the back of my mind, the security of at least some family money. I might have had to scrimp and scrape, but I would never starve.

    The second was my family background. We ate a lot of creamed chipped beef on toast and beans and bread, but the dinner conversation covered things like the history of monotheism, the concept of the Prime Mover, and the differences in ‘flavor’ of Hesse in translation or the original German. My father was born into a family of Missouri dirt farmers. My mother was born into the Social Register world. Both of them had left the narrow environments they started in, and that example mattered in ways that I’m still coming to understand. It never occurs to me that there might be some implicit reason why I shouldn’t be anywhere, try anything.

    Link to this
  4. 4. aliceparker 2:23 am 02/24/2014

    I had a scientist father who bought me my first chemistry set when I was 5 years old. But, after my parents divorced, I had infrequent contact with him. His encouragement and role modeling was gold though. It got me through the tough years of poverty, trying to prove myself, and feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Not having it easy is sometimes a blessing in disguise because we learn how to make things happen with little resources and we learn how to work hard. However, not having early parental support and encouragement, little mentoring and attention from teachers and the lack of a supportive scientific community are key reasons women leave science and engineering. It is very lonely to be the only woman in a group, department or division and the lack of community support plays a big role in lack of retention of women.

    Link to this
  5. 5. KitchenPantryScientist 9:37 am 02/25/2014

    Although, like many kids, I grew up fairly unaware of my privilege. By the time I was in my 20′s I was starting to understand how lucky I was to have been born into so many advantages.
    My dad, a physics professor, kindled my interest in science from an early age, and I always assumed I’d go to college.
    Much older now, I am fortunate enough to be able to work part-time teaching microbiology and do extensive science education volunteering. I try to make science accessible to all kids, by using ingredients for experiments that many people have in their kitchens, like milk, eggs and baking soda.
    My eyes were opened wide one evening though, when I was doing science with some urban kids and moms who are working hard to bring their families to more stable situations.
    As I poured milk onto plates for a surface tension experiment, one of the moms asked if she could use milk that had gone bad to do the project at home. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was teaching kids to do science with perfectly good FOOD. Even fresh milk is a privilege I hadn’t ever considered.

    Link to this
  6. 6. KitchenPantryScientist 9:38 am 02/25/2014

    Like many kids, I grew up fairly unaware of my privilege. By the time I was in my 20′s I was starting to understand how lucky I was to have been born into so many advantages.
    My dad, a physics professor, kindled my interest in science from an early age, and I always assumed I’d go to college.
    Much older now, I am fortunate enough to be able to work part-time teaching microbiology and do extensive science education volunteering. I try to make science accessible to all kids, by using ingredients for experiments that many people have in their kitchens, like milk, eggs and baking soda.
    My eyes were opened wide one evening though, when I was doing science with some urban kids and moms who are working hard to bring their families to more stable situations.
    As I poured milk onto plates for a surface tension experiment, one of the moms asked if she could use milk that had gone bad to do the project at home. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was teaching kids to do science with perfectly good FOOD. Even fresh milk is a privilege I hadn’t ever considered.

    Link to this

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