In my last post, I mention that academia seems primarily populated by a somewhat narrowly-defined group of people. And, really, this lack of diversity on many dimensions does not support the broad goals academia pursues.
Barbara Corcoran, real estate expert, entrepreneur, and Shark Tank star, has said the following of the corporate world, but I argue that we should be viewing academia, including the sciences, much the same way:
Who did I look for in a partner? Someone who was opposite…. And the bigger the business gets, the more it's gotta look like a giant crayon box with a million different colors. That's what gives the business its substance. Most people like to hire pals that they get along with that are similar to themselves. Always the wrong call.
Then, there’s religion. As a Christian, I am by far a minority in the sciences. And many scientists would like that trend to continue. But why? Even scientists who identify as atheists and study evolution admit that the theory is not always clear and we do not have all the information. But is more research enough? Isn’t it possible that we need to invite additional viewpoints into the discussion?
Of course, a scientist studying evolution might argue that it’s a dangerous idea to invite someone to the table who has assumptions. Would we find that the research has been manipulated? The results ill-reported, omitting results that might support evolution altogether? Well, of course this is possible. But it is bad science. And someone who staunchly believes in evolution is subject to the same temptations for scientific misconduct as someone who believes in Creation. We need multiple viewpoints to find the truth about anything. (If you’re not convinced that this last line is generally true, note that even as of 2010, women’s health was suffering due to preference for studying men in clinical trials.)
Rather than trying to make our students conform, we need to encourage them to question. Science professors who dismiss Creationist students don’t help the issue. Neither do Creationist students who learn (from well-meaning Christian/Creationist sources) to argue with their professors during precious class time. It is ok to teach someone without convincing them; it is equally ok to learn something but not believe it. And those are precisely the conditions when change can occur: when we allow two dissimilar things to combine. That’s science. Actually, that’s chemistry.
And it’s not only Christians who need representation in the sciences, for the record. Although my experience as a Christian has been tiptoeing around (much of) academia, knowing my faith is not welcome, I had an experience in my Women in Science and Engineering group that made me realize that this is, likely, a problem shared by other faiths.
My group of mentees at the time was actually a very diverse one, ethnically and otherwise, and included at least one girl who seemed to identify as Christian and one girl who identified as Muslim. During my sessions, I often have volunteers come in for my students to learn how to set up the equipment in my lab on my volunteer-subjects. The last volunteer was a Muslim female, and this came up as she was going to need to remove her headscarf to volunteer for us and I wanted to ensure her privacy by letting the girls know in advance to leave their phones in their bags (read: no pictures). My Muslim student had an immediate look of excitement and half-squealed, “She’s like me!” The day of their next lab when our volunteer arrived, I could see my student’s excitement getting to talk about faith and culture with my volunteer, another scientist-grad student in my department.
This is precisely what the Women in Science and Engineering program aims to do: to let our younger women see themselves in us, grad students and faculty in scientific disciplines. In this case, it was not only the fact that she was female, but that she also shared faith and culture, and perhaps more importantly, the intersection of faith/culture and gender. Diversity matters. Representation matters. It matters for scientific advancement, and it matters for closing the gaps.