By Aliya Ahmad Nabil
Science is often viewed as the bastion of rationale and objectivity. True meritocracy is therefore expected from a sector that advocates for evidence over tradition. Despite this, the existing scientific workforce is yet to be representative of the increasingly diverse society in the Western world.
This article focuses on the lack of racial diversity in the scientific workforces in the West as most of the existing data on this issue (which I have used to support my arguments in this article) is based in this region. This, however, should not limit the ideas and arguments in this article from being interpreted for application to a local context, and will hopefully open more room for discussions on diversity in STEM in Malaysia.
Why are there less minorities in science?
Despite discoveries in science being historically multicultural (for example, ancient Chinese, Indian and Islamic civilisations contributed greatly to science pre-Renaissance), the expansion of European power in the world led to the development of Eurocentric science appropriated from earlier discoveries from other parts of the world . The rise of interest in racial science (science that was concerned with the justification of differences between races both physically and mentally) in the 18th and 19th century, meant that there was a perceived scientific basis for the inferiority of ethnic minorities. This resulted in several things. Firstly, the ‘internalization’ of racial stigma in society. This is described as the ‘ very profound psychological and social introjection of negative images and meanings contained in stereotypes into the construction and understanding of one’s self-identity’  and secondly, the reduction in appeal of science to ethnic minorities who already had very high barriers to entry. This means that regrettably, people from ethnic minorities have either been less involved in ‘modern science’ due to the latter, or found it difficult to express intellectual resistance to discrimination in science due to the former.
In contemporary times, the barriers to science for ethnic minorities seem to be less ideological but still structural. What I mean by this is that although scientific theories in the 21st century tend not to be explicitly racist or offensive, and are therefore less likely to be ideologically incompatible with ethnic minorities, there are still structural barriers to entering science. The structural barriers exist at different steps of the process towards a career in science. Advancement to each of these steps require approval from academic gatekeepers who may possess implicit biases that influence their decisions.
One way of gaining considerable experience within science before taking the first leap into academia is to be mentored by a senior academic. This is a highly informal process in which the senior academic makes the ultimate decision without needing to justify it to other higher authorities or adhere to standard criteria.
A study investigated the manifestation of implicit bias within academia under the informal setting of mentorship requests . Emails from fictional prospective students were sent out to 6500 professors at top universities in the United States from 89 disciplines. The fictional students were randomly assigned different names indicating race and gender but sent out the same message requesting for mentorship before applying for graduate school. The results of the study found that there was a statistically significant difference in the likelihood of a response to an email between white males and women and ethnic minorities. Interestingly, the bias for white males did not differ when faculties were more diverse.
This finding means that implicit bias cannot be attributed solely to a group of individuals wanting to associate themselves with similar individuals. This raises the question of whether increased representation in positions of authority is enough to solve the diversity problem. I would suggest that because the value of objectivity is seen as central to science, minorities in senior positions may want to distance themselves from being seen as homophylic, therefore show no interest in prioritising minorities. This indicates the need for an intervention to overcome the implicit biases that all people within a sector may possess due to socially constructed stereotypes of ethnic minorities and social pressures.
Whilst acknowledging the existence of structural barriers and their relation to implicit bias, it must not be forgotten that the culture of science today, although not explicitly Eurocentric as it was in the past, still carry remnants of Eurocentrism. The historical exclusion of minorities from scientific research means that minorities are understudied (or have been studied under inhumane conditions ). This also means that the science that has developed in the absence of minorities, is less culturally sensitive and constructed using masculine European values.
Benefits of increased racial diversity
Evidently, there is a principled and moral case for ensuring that science (or all sectors for that matter) is racially diverse. However, there are also various studies to support that there are positive outcomes of racial diversity to industries and workforces, independent of the social justice reasoning. Racial diversity in itself is valuable for organisations.
A study was conducted investigating the relationship between the racial diversity of a corporation and long-term performance . The study found that above moderate levels of diversity increased long term performance. The researchers also hypothesised that organisations are ‘knowledge-based’ meaning that a superior knowledge base is required for organisation survival. Firms operate better when the knowledge base is more heterogenous and this seems to be the case when employees are more racially diverse. This analysis can be carried over to science especially since science as a sector, is naturally dependent on innovation. Therefore, it should be in universities’ interest to purposely recruit for diversity.
Another study investigated the effect of racial diversity on educational outcomes such as retention, satisfaction with college, intellectual self-concept, and social self-concept . The results showed that increasing racial diversity leads to increased interracial socialising and consequently a positive increase in the educational outcomes investigated. This study is especially relevant to my argument as the lack of diversity within science manifests within the formal education checkpoints. Therefore, if increasing racial diversity has an overall benefit to the entire student body, there is even more reason for it to be promoted.
This article provides some insight to contextualise the present lack of a diverse scientific workforce. Recognition of the consequences of the historical exclusion of ethnic minorities from science on present-day is necessary to understand what can be done to overcome these barriers. Although this article does not provide the solutions to the lack of diversity, an understanding of how it has come about should encourage a sense of responsibility to fix systemic injustices. This, supplemented with the additional proven merits of diversity in the workforce mentioned should trigger more discussions and optimally actions to increase equality in science.
- Harding, Sandra. 1993. “Introduction: Eurocentric Scientific Illiteracy – A Challenge for the World Community.” In The “Racial” Economy of Science, by Sandra Harding, 2. Indiana University Press.
- Stepan, Nancy Leys, and Sander L. Gilman. 1993. “Appropriating the idioms of science.” In The “Racial” Economy of Science, by Sandra Harding, 179. Indiana University Press.
- Milkman, Katherine L. and Akinola, Modupe and Chugh, Dolly, What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations (December 13, 2014). Milkman, K.L., M. Akinola, and D. Chugh. “What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway into Organizations.” Journal of Applied Psychology, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2063742 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2063742
- Brandt, Allan M. “Racism and research: the case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.” Hastings Center Report 8, no. 6 (1978): 21-29.
- Richard, Orlando C., B. P. Murthi, and Kiran Ismail. “The impact of racial diversity on intermediate and long‐term performance: The moderating role of environmental context.” Strategic Management Journal 28, no. 12 (2007): 1213-1233.
- Chang, Mitchell J. “Does racial diversity matter?: The educational impact of a racially diverse undergraduate population.” Journal of College Student Development 40, no. 4 (1999): 377.
Aliya Ahmad Nabil is a graduate from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Translational Biomedical Research. Previously, she was an intern at the Science Media Centre in London and also has work experience in healthcare public affairs. Her interests include science and healthcare innovation, policy and communications.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Science Media Centre Malaysia