We were delighted to interview Kirstie Whitaker, Research Fellow, Alan Turing Institute, about their recent Diversity in STEM project.
- Why is diversity such a challenge in STEM?
Traditionally science was done by one individual doing their individual work. But in the 21st century, the most interesting science is collaborative. And that means bringing together different people. As a profession we sell science – including to future generations of researchers – as a pure quest for facts that is bias free. It isn’t and it never has been. We don’t give anyone any tools for how to build consensus between people with different views and life experiences.
We need to tackle this issue in the way we teach STEM subjects in school. For example, biology is taught as fact until you are an undergraduate. It’s only at university that you realise how uncertain many of the things you’ve learned really are. They’re more like pretty solid guesses than facts! We must also change how scientific research is acknowledged. If we only reward new findings that confirm what we already think we leave great biases in the literature and build a “feed forward” cycle that means the same thoughts and investigations are conducted over and over again. Having a system that rewards new ideas and competitive theories will help build an environment that welcomes people from diverse backgrounds.
- As a woman in tech, what can I do to support the diversity agenda?
The first thing is to be gentle with yourself, and not to take on too much of the burden as the only woman or person of colour in a group. Once you’ve done that, you can speak up when you are able and draw people’s attention to where you see it is needed. The vast majority of people in science aren’t bad people – they just don’t see their bias. Thirdly, support other women and members of other traditionally underrepresented groups as best you can. And that includes recognising your own biases. We’ll improve the STEM working environment more effectively together that apart.
- Tell me about Gamechangers for Diversity in STEM.
The Gamechangers for Diversity in STEM event was really exciting because it was made up of really incredible people. We selected 40 participants from 100 applications who were doing great work in improving diversity and inclusion in STEM, working towards better support of black and minority ethnic people, LGBTQ+ people, gender diversity, disability, and victims of sexual harassment. We had people working in groups on topics they thought are important, and on the second day these projects all pitched to a panel of funders and policy decision makers. We gave out 4 prizes totalling £3,000.
It was a challenge for the organisers to balance our goals of running a community building event and also giving out prizes! We made it clear to the participants that the money was to supercharge the ideas and reward pitches that were particularly compelling. All of the projects are excellent, and we want all of them to succeed. Some of those that didn’t win a prize are already going on to do great things, such as the Scientists are Human project. The projects covered a huge range of ideas, from mapping safety of LGBTQ+ scientists on field trips in countries where it is not safe to be LGBTQ+ to harnessing the power of school breakfast clubs to educate kids and their parents about STEM.
- What happens next with the winning projects?
We will follow up with them 2 months after they won at the end of November, and again 6 months later. We want to stay in touch with teams, projects and individuals. We don’t just care about the projects, we also want to know if we helped the participants build connections and make the positive change they’re working towards a little easier. We would love to know if the Gamechangers event helped people supporting each other better.
- If you had to name just 3 things that would help make STEM more diverse by 2028, what would they be?
To break this cycle you have to promote women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and those from LGBTQ+ backgrounds. We need funding for these initiatives, so people from these backgrounds don’t have to advocate for themselves. We need to get real credit for the work we do to make science a better place. That means changing the way we assess the quality of science. For example, people look at the first and last author on research publications and always value their work ahead of others. But that isn’t true collaboration! There’s too little reward in the current system to supporting and training others. Another example is that you’re more likely to be successful if your peers think you are good, i.e. you think like them. We need to recognise and incentivise people to think differently in order to get the very best creative solutions to the really hard problems.
Find out more about the Gamechangers: Diversity in STEM project