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Opinion: Does STEM culture contribute to a lack of diversity?

A diverse set of perspectives is fundamental to scientific innovation
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

Visualize a stereotypical scientist in your head. Maybe they’re socially awkward, or maybe they’re some eccentric, cold workaholic with a propensity for convoluted descriptions and a terrible fashion sense. Maybe they understand binary better than human emotions.

Take whatever wild stereotype you visualized and ask yourself this: are they a white male?

It’s okay, you can admit it. They probably are.

By now, we’ve all heard about the seemingly constant lack of diversity in the sciences. There are initiatives to try and combat this, such as specific opportunities for minoritized groups or scholarships for women in STEM. 

We’ve also all heard about current issues that are in need of scientific solutions: the proliferation of artificial intelligence and, subsequently, the importance of cybersecurity; the innate human need for medical services as we age; the ongoing climate crisis; and rising sea levels worldwide. 

It’s undeniable that our need for qualified scientists is increasing as drastically as the earth’s temperature. In the coming years, we will need every mind we can get to make meaningful contributions to these fields. 

And yet the world of science still fails to draw on all the talented minds across the world. Minoritized groups are nowhere near being properly represented in these fields, and the endeavours of those who manage to make it through are often pushed under the rug.

Lack of diversity 

Is this another article about the need for diversity in STEM? 

Yes, it absolutely is.

These aren’t just some half-baked claims that I’m making as a queer person of colour in STEM. I fully understand the inherent bias I may have on this topic. Therefore, for all the die-hard scientists out there, we’re going to take a look at some of our beloved data.

The numbers don’t lie: enrolment numbers show that about 435 of the 1,115 undergraduate students enrolled in mathematical and physical sciences in 2016 at U of T identified as female. That means that only about 39 per cent of those who had enrolled in the field were women — and this low percentage doesn’t even account for people who don’t identify as men or women, nor does it account for other marginalized groups. The numbers are slightly lower for undergraduate engineering majors — around 380 out of 1186 identified as female, which clocks in at a measly 32 per cent. 

It’s clear that these numbers only decrease as we examine enrolment statistics for masters and doctoral programs in these fields — suggesting that the number of academics who fall into the demographics we’ve mentioned is quite low, which is absolutely the case at U of T. 

The demographic statistics on the provost’s website of the professors in engineering and mathematical and physical sciences in 2021 is frankly ridiculous. I’ve counted zero female professors who are currently described in the physics and mathematics category, and only two out of the five engineering professors listed are women. While these numbers may not be holistic, it’s still concerning that there is such little representation at U of T.

Lack of documentation leads to lack of accountability

Despite what I’ve gathered from this data, I’ve also found that there is actually very little information accessible about the demographics of science students and faculty at U of T, aside from their genders. In fact, the only real demographic data I could find about U of T’s enrolment is the gender of the students, which begs for a change in the university’s transparency policies. 

And yet, as we continue to lament the lack of diversity and representation in these fields, there is very little being done to amend this discrepancy. While initiatives to improve representation for underrepresented communities have emerged over the past few years, enrolment numbers seem to hover around the same percentages. Is there something in the water that leads us to believe that the sciences are only for a certain type of person?

It’s been said before, but I’ll echo the sentiment: there’s a toxic aspect to STEM culture — both from an outsider’s perspective, and the perspective of someone in the thick of it — that isn’t addressed nearly as often as it should be.

Cultural perceptions about who constitutes a scientist, especially in ‘hard sciences’ such as mathematics, physics, or engineering, are undoubtedly part of the reason why it’s so difficult for women and minorities to break into these fields. The issue doesn’t lie in their ability to do scientific research — it lies in the world that they have to try and break into. With so few minority groups in scientific fields, the onus is always on the people who make it through to represent their entire community. When a racialized or disabled or non-male scientist makes a mistake, it’s easier for it to reflect on that entire demographic as a whole.

The fiercely competitive nature of academia may contribute to this culture as well. In the sciences especially, expectations are sky-high — and that fails to consider a more diverse collection of academics. Only 10 per cent of scientists and engineers self-identify as disabled. While this number may be underestimated, the culture of stigmatization in academic environments is surely a factor in it.

Accommodating disabilities in STEM is not a difficult or unreasonable request, yet, more often than not, students with disabilities fail to receive the accommodations they need in order to be successful.

Why should we care?

Perhaps all of this begs another question: who cares whether the science is done by a scientist of a certain race, colour, or gender? Surely, science should stay the same no matter who does it, right?

While it’s true that the same conclusions can be reached by multiple scientists, it’s also true that diverse perspectives are the very things that lead us to scientific innovation. It is entirely fundamental to have diverse viewpoints contributing to the forefront of science, because these things are relevant to everyone, everywhere. In other words, we need one-dimensional perspectives in the scientific community like we need open head wounds. Plus, we’ll need scientists of all demographics to mend those metaphorical wounds.

Now, this is not to say that we should just hire more people simply on the basis of their race, gender, or sexual orientation as an easy fix for this discrepancy. It is, however, a call for action. The root of this issue is multifaceted, but my belief is that it lies in the culture. If we want change, it needs to be induced culturally, not just by throwing money at the problem. 

Calling out toxic subcultures when we see them is a great start; so is empowerment. Rather than making minority groups change — which is a difficult feat in such a restrictive culture — it’s better if all of us as scientists work on our perceptions, lest we forget that science is for everyone.