Advancing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in STEM: Defining Challenges and Actionable Strategies

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For NYSCF, promoting equity in the scientific workforce is mission-critical: we need 100% of the available brainpower to reach treatments and cures as quickly as possible. During the 2021 NYSCF Conference, we convened a panel of staunch advocates for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) to foster discussion, raise awareness, and define actions that each of us can take.

Many of us have unearned privileges — for example, the land many of us inhabit isn’t ours — and unwarranted disadvantages — based solely on our background, skin color, sex, gender expression, orientation, religion, and more — and on the perception of these things,” said Raeka Aiyar, PhD, Vice President of Scientific Outreach at NYSCF, who moderated the discussion. “Our system has made it so difficult for these groups to succeed in STEM, that we have dismal ‘representation’ of many groups in our workforce.”

The life sciences and disease research field is no exception. Black people make up 11% of all employed adults, yet only 6% of all life sciences jobs are occupied by Black people. Similarly, Hispanic people make up 18% of the population, but just 6% of the workforce and 4% of management positions at biotech companies. In addition, the pay gap is substantial: the median earnings of Black and Hispanic full-time STEM workers are 78% and 83% of the median earnings of white workers, respectively. Furthermore, due to the well-documented leaky pipeline, these representation gaps are even larger in leadership and decision-making positions.

We use the term ‘underrepresented’ a lot, and while that is technically accurate, it is not the whole picture. This is why we say ‘marginalized’ and ‘minoritized’, because it is not a coincidence that this underrepresentation happens, but something that our system has done,” said Dr. Aiyar

Panelists engaged in an insightful discussion on the factors that have led to a lack of diversity in the STEM workforce, raised awareness of the unique challenges faced by minoritized individuals and the implicit biases driving discrimination, and devised actionable strategies that we can take both at the organizational and individual levels to change this reality. While the problems are complex, the good news is that there is a lot of momentum to apply DEIB values to change our field for the better. Read on for a summary of the key takeaways from the discussion, and watch the panel discussion below.

Panelists: Raeka Aiyar, PhD (The NYSCF Research Institute, moderator), Valentina Greco, PhD (Yale University), Shane Liddelow, PhD (NYU Grossman School of Medicine), Carolyn Rodriguez, MD, PhD (Stanford University), and Jean Shin, PhD (National Institutes of Health).


The consequences of low diversity in STEM

The underrepresentation of ethnic minorities and women in STEM arise from a system with deeply rooted racism and sexism that inhibits the success of these communities. These individuals consistently face barriers that prevent them from pursuing and persisting in their careers, or from advancing to leadership positions. 

We are currently losing incredible talent, and the underrepresented talent that is already in the system is not unleashed because of systemic oppression and marginalization, noted Valentina Greco, PhD, Carolyn Walch Slayman Professor of Genetics and Genetics’ Inaugural Vice Chair of Diversity at Yale University.

Impact of implicit bias. We all have unconscious associations or stereotypes that stem from our tendency to organize social worlds, but extensive research has shown that these biases are pervasive in STEM and negatively impact the success of minoritized groups. Breaking through the status quo leadership model, which is white, masculine and heteronormative, is very difficult and puts enormous pressure on minoritized individuals to constantly prove themselves. Moreover, because of their identities, marginalized groups suffer the ‘minority tax’: they are disproportionately asked to participate in diversity initiatives, serve on committees, and do administrative work, which places a greater professional and emotional burden on them.

Instead of unconscious bias, we refer to it as implicit bias because sometimes it is actually conscious – but it is embedded in a way that we cannot or will not deal with it as individuals,remarked Jean Shin, PhD, Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity at the NIH.

Imposter syndrome. Panelists highlighted that many underrepresented minorities fall prey to imposter syndrome (i.e. doubting one’s abilities and feeling like a fraud at work), not necessarily because they lack self-confidence, but because they are constantly made to feel that they do not belong in white- and male-dominated environments. Efforts to overcome imposter syndrome are often directed towards ‘fixing’ the individuals, rather than fixing the places where individuals work. Speakers noted that we generally lack understanding of the everyday practices (the language we use, how we stay in spaces together, how we discuss candidates, etc.) that discourage, exclude, and oppress these minoritized individuals, and that the overall culture does not make them feel at ease to pursue the high-risk/high-reward ideas that lead to breakthroughs.

Taking action

Achieving racial, ethnic, and gender equity in the STEM workforce will require a cultural shift involving not just institutional and organizational action, but also individual changes. Panelists discussed several such organizational initiatives and recommendations for individual actions.

“We need to act on multiple levels: first, the top leadership needs to invest in their own education; second, multiple lenses have to be present at the table when a decision is made; and lastly, we need to scrutinize each and every single decision we make,” said Dr. Greco.

Actionable strategies that funders and institutions can take to improve workforce diversity

Senior leadership. Educating people in positions of power about DEIB issues is one of the most important steps toward transformational change. Because no one escapes their lived identity and we cannot completely bypass our implicit biases, top leadership needs to ensure that a broad diversity of lenses are present at the decision table to achieve the most equitable outcome.

“I think that making DEIB goals and outcomes part of the formal communication that is coming from leaders and part of the reward structure that is passed down is probably a solution,” said Dr. Shin

Funders. Several big funding bodies are developing methods to promote diversity and inclusion across the biomedical enterprise, including HHMI and NIH with its sweeping UNITE initiative to end structural racism. Also, funders are increasingly requesting that applicants address how they can contribute to an equitable and inclusive culture by providing DEIB statements along with their grant submissions (including NYSCF’s fellowship and early career awards). However, panelists noted that ensuring accountability on DEIB issues is a critical step. Implementing processes (in the form of progress reports, for example) will help make sure that these statements are transformed into action and these efforts are driving real change. 

Organizations and institutions. Institutions can greatly influence the biomedical research landscape and advance DEIB in multiple ways. Panelists suggested that incentivizing universities to assign a DEIB representative to each departmental chair would allow leaders to continuously be advised on diversity issues and held accountable for decision-making processes and any potentially discriminatory actions. Likewise, writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for hiring that serve as a guide for all parties involved in recruiting and making DEIB efforts part of the reward structure of an organization has been shown to have a big impact on diversifying the workforce. 

Stitching it into compensation has been very successful,” noted Carolyn Rodriguez, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and Associate Professor at Stanford University.Linking diversity efforts to department chairs’ bonus is very helpful, as well as setting specific criteria for how many times one has to meet with the diversity representative, and ensuring that the DEIB representative has a seat at the leadership table.”

Actionable strategies that individuals can take to improve workforce diversity

Mentorship and sponsorship. Mentorship is an integral part of professional and personal growth, and critical for the development of conscious individuals that enact DEIB values. All panelists emphasized the importance of diverse mentors, including outside of one’s institution, to support diverse aspects of an individual’s career development. They also mentioned sponsorship, which involves taking dedicated and concrete actions to advance someone’s career (for example, by advocating for minoritized colleagues to be in the room, or nominating someone for an award). Both of these complementary approaches can be effective tools to help minoritized individuals grow and succeed.

“As an ally and a mentor, I also have to realize where my limits are. In areas where I cannot give a lived experience and advice, I help mentees build a mentor team. No one can do it all, and having a team helps to lighten the load for those who might otherwise be overcommitted because of their status as underrepresented minority individuals,” remarked Shane Liddelow, PhD, Assistant Professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Allyship. All of us are in the position to be allies to others, and taking on DEIB issues requires not just minoritized individuals, but an entire community. Panelists noted that those of us in positions of power or privilege have an opportunity and even responsibility to support those who do not. Thus, training ourselves and others to become allies on DEIB topics and sharing the workload is critical for sustainable action.

Fostering a healthy and interconnected environment. Regardless of our role and position, we can all contribute to a more inclusive environment by checking in with others, listening to their concerns, and learning from their experiences. The more we connect and talk to each other about DEIB issues, the less isolated we feel, and the more likely we are to take action. Joining societies or associations, creating specific tags at scientific conferences, and teaching students to present themselves in a few sentences in meetings, are all great ways to promote connections and learn about different perspectives

One of the most important things is to listen.” added Dr. Liddelow. “It is really crucial to listen to those who are less represented, learn what their concerns are, determine at the institutional level what might be an effective solution to address these concerns, and then help either that individual or find the most effective person to raise these issues with.

Further resources

To help all of us continue our education on this mission-critical topic, please see this collection of DEIB resources shared during the panel discussion.

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