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A portrait of exclusion in STEM

by David Garofalo

The homogeneity of people in science, math, and engineering, appears to be one of the most pressing issues in 21st century academia. What forces ensure that one group maintains a dominant presence in STEM? You are likely unfamiliar with the faculty hiring process. How did the department select for the most creative and original scholars, the quirky, seemingly brilliant people that are teaching your college and university science classes? Presumably there is some objective evaluation mechanism that teases out talent. But reality is often deceptive. Look a bit closer. Attend the college physics department afternoon tea and observe; experience the vibe at the engineering seminar; watch the astronomers giggle over jokes; follow the mathematicians as they gather for lunch, and describe them. Notice the common factors. Chances are good that you will find them in both appearance and demeanor. That should make you reflect. What kind of brilliance is it that is also accompanied by so much shared physicality? The answer is only skin-deep.

After years as a student in Italian universities in Bologna, Rome, Florence and Naples, and in American schools such as the University of California and the University of Maryland, I also taught and researched science in many different places. From graduate school at the University of Maryland, to part-time faculty at the California State University and Harvey Mudd College, brief stints at Pasadena City College and the College of the Canyons in California, a year at Fordham University in the Bronx, to full-time physics lecturer and researcher at Columbia University in Manhattan, to Southern Polytechnic State University and Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, and at conferences in the USA and abroad, I experienced the vibes in many settings including physics, engineering physics, and astronomy departments. I’ve seen the manufacturing of homogeneity in detail.

STEM venues share a remarkable similarity in both faculty and student body. Science as a professional endeavor requires talent, creativity, and hard work, but a lot of something else as well that is less discussed, if at all. That something else can ultimately decide whether or not you get to do science and it shows up in crucial places such as scientific conferences. Conferences on black holes, conferences on star formation and exoplanets, conferences on cosmology, string theory and the early universe. Conferences, conferences, conferences. In an age when dissemination of ideas can easily be accomplished online, such gatherings seem obsolete. But as a graduate student and then as a postdoc, you learn that attending such events is also important for other reasons. In the family tree of the research field, you are connected to your mentor, who has invested time and money in forming you as a researcher and future colleague. Beyond acquiring the tools of the trade, an understanding of the subject matter and its history, there is a critical attribute for which you are being tested in such venues: your ability to fit in. This is politely expressed as your propensity to be a team player.

In meeting the former mentors of your advisor and colleagues at large in conferences, the establishment evaluates you. Are you likely to adopt the main themes that characterize the lineage from which you come, or are you more inclined to develop ideas that make a sharp break with the past? Will you be critical of the field into which you are working to enter or will you make life easy and further strengthen the legacy? The results of this pop quiz are never made available to you directly, but are eventually disseminated widely through letters of so-called recommendation. Within them is sealed your future. If empowering bright young people to take ownership of their career paths is a virtue, this is where dark clouds begin gathering on the horizon.

But the test you are subjected to is not difficult to pass if you have the right mindset. Were you visibly impressed by the calculation carried out on the spot by your mentor’s colleague? Was it you who laughed loudest following your postdoctoral advisor’s joke? Did you nod following your graduate advisor’s explanation? Were you the one who most quickly got up out of your comfortable chair to follow your mentor? Advertising to your immediate community that you are a yes-man makes you widely palatable and more easily opens those first doors. Examples of kowtowing abound.

“It’s an historic moment!” exclaimed a faculty member in reference to the series of 3 lectures on physics that were about to enlighten the freshman class over the next three weeks by a well-known professor at a university I once taught at. And we lecturers were expected to join him for the Monday faculty seminar, where he would allegedly discuss with us the weekly instruction program, the details and nuances of the material he professed expertise in. But in attending these sessions, one quickly discovered they were actually about something else. In practice they seemed more like a pep rally designed to inspire awe in the lecturers, a useful thing to help maintain hierarchies. The well-known faculty member sat at the head of a long table, while lecturers huddled around impatiently to hear the words of wisdom that would enliven and inspire us in our teaching efforts. As the questions poured in from the mostly female group of lecturers, the excitement and self-satisfaction in our leader became more transparent, each time followed by a broadening of the shoulders and a protruding of the chest, the only parts we could actually discern. With colleagues in appropriately submissive roles, the man could finally hold court. “I do not say bullshit to students!” he exclaimed, referring to his unwillingness to water down difficult physics concepts. “But when I do, I tell them so!” he proclaimed, as though revealing a deep truth. And we had been lucky enough to witness it. The room quickly filled with awe, most of it genuine. The excitement was palpable. I saw lecturers trying to reposition their bodies in order to better come to terms with the revelation. One female lecturer was nodding her head forcefully in affirmation, perhaps admiration, as if the rocking motion would more easily allow her to swallow the gem that had just been delivered. But not everyone has the penchant for playing follow-the-leader. When my eyes returned from pointing to the back of my head, it was clear to all I would not survive long in this environment.

Because so many succumb to them, the pressures to conform in STEM are not a favorite topic of discussion. This makes change difficult. A nationally ranked research institution was hiring an assistant professor and a well-qualified scholar was among those invited for the final campus interview. But she was an independent thinker and had forged her own path. At least up to that point. After shining during the campus interview, the hiring committee met for final evaluations, and two members pushed for her hire, which instantly put the rest in a somber mood until a senior committee member stood up to save the day: “Yes. She’s articulate, knowledgeable, and basically an all-round exceptional scholar”, and after a short pause and perhaps a deep sigh, pointed out that “She is perhaps too smart! “, voiced with the air of someone who had just delivered the knock-down argument of the day. Weak spines and a re-vote ensured she was unanimously rejected.

This is not a space of precisely defined rules or prescriptions. If the establishment sees you as an extension of itself, you are given greater freedom to roam. Closely resembling your mentors constitutes an advantage. If you represent the quintessential nerd, the guy that never got the girl, your chance of reminding someone in your research circle of himself skyrockets, and this gives you leverage. If it’s clear to the group that your social sphere is unlikely to be more exciting than theirs, your leash is loose and a greater tolerance is exhibited toward any thinking drifting away from the beaten path as quirky or interesting. A STEM field is an ideal place for the socially awkward to seek shelter by molding their environment into a world where others appear as mirror images of themselves. If you don’t resemble your mentors and you don’t have the inclination to accommodate, you are likely getting in the way of that shelter-seeking project, and the road forward will likely become too bumpy.

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