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Leaders Urged to Support Diversity in STEM Ranks



Participants explore ways to blunt the impact of bias in science hiring, grant making and success. From left, Celeste Rohlfing, AAAS chief operating officer, Jo Handelsman, Suzanne Iacono, Brenda Manuel, Anna Han and Susan Fiske. | Juan David Romero/AAAS

Almost all of us harbor some form of bias, preferences for those perceived as “a good fit” or “like us,” yet this reality poses significant consequences in the fields of science, experts said during an event held at AAAS headquarters on Dec. 12.

Bias – conscious or unconscious – can determine who gets hired, what they get paid, whether they are mentored or tapped for research grants, all measures of success, said participants in the “Colloquium on Reducing Implicit Bias.”

While bias is found throughout the workforce, it is a concern to those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and medicine as the United States seeks to promote innovation and leverage diversity to achieve that goal and meet a projected workforce need.

“We are more diverse than any country on Earth and that is a driver for all the other greatness in innovation,” said Jo Handelsman, associate director for science for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “The reason for that is that environments that are more diverse are inherently of higher quality. So, by taking advantage of diversity we can play to the strength of America.”

Research also has shown that diverse groups reach more feasible and effective solution, are more innovative and reach better and more defensible decisions when solving problems, she said.

Wanda Ward, from left, an assistant director for broadening participation in the Executive Office of the President, took a lead role in producing a White House report on reducing the impact of bias in science. Shirley Malcom, directorate head of AAAS’ Education and Human Resources and Brenda Manuel helped highlight the report at the AAAS colloquium. | Juan David Romero/AAAS

In 2012, President Barack Obama challenged the federal government, colleges and universities, foundations and educational organizations to collaborate to produce 1 million more STEM college graduates by 2022 than currently projected. The Commerce Department identified a coming workforce deficit when it projected that STEM occupations would grow 1.7 times faster than other positions over a decade beginning in 2008.

Handelsman cited studies that show that bias can negatively impact diversity in STEM fields. Among factors that slow the growth of STEM graduates are the high rates at which students abandon the field.

“Retaining these people is one way to address the numbers,” she said at the 12 December event. “We are also focusing on how we improve the quality of the students, both through how we educate students and through the gathering of a more diverse and talented workforce.”

Bias also plays a role in the livelihoods of scientists working in federal agencies and institutions, federally funded academic institutions and the private sector, said the participants, citing research.

In one study, for example, 127 faculty members in the fields of biology, chemistry and physics representing six of the nation’s top research universities were asked to review two job applicants with identical qualifications, one with a randomly assigned male and the other with a female name.  

The professors, whether male or female, were more likely to report that they would hire the male after rating him higher on factors including competency and offered to pay the male candidate $4,000 more than they were willing to pay the female candidate, according to the 2012 Yale study Handelsman cited.   

The discussion comes on the heels of a White House report entitled “Reducing the Impact of Bias in the STEM Workforce: Strengthening Excellence and Innovation,” issued on Nov. 30.

The report recommended that federal agencies take steps to reduce bias in the federal grant making process at federal institutions and federally funded academic institutions, urge their leaders to advocate for a diverse workforce and have agencies such as the Office of Personnel Management assume leadership roles to limit implicit bias in federal hiring and among federally funded institutions of higher education.

Participants from federal agencies echoed points made in the report saying effective remedies include requiring the collection of data to track the makeup of the federal workers, holding implicit bias training, establishing conflict resolution programs and providing work flexibility.

Suzanne Iacono, head of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Integrative Activities, Brenda Manuel, NASA’s associate administrator for diversity and equal opportunity and Anna Han of the National Institutes of Health each described steps their agencies are taking to limit bias in hiring and the grant making process.

The National Science Foundation has increased the ranks of female grant reviewers by permitting them to participate in the review process virtually and offering training for new reviewers on how best to analytically critique grant proposals, said Iacono.

NASA has been conducting compliance reviews, said Manuel, noting that the agency also held a summit to discuss ways to reduce implicit bias in the award of grants and plans to do so again next year.

NIH has worked to ensure its database of job opportunities for positions in NIH laboratories and on its research projects  – known as intramural research positions  – reflects a broad array of qualified scientists from diverse backgrounds as potential job candidates, Han said.

Susan Fiske, a Princeton University professor of psychology and public affairs, made clear the challenge ahead, saying bias can be ambiguous and ambivalent. “People like people who are like themselves and they talk about issues like fit. ‘This person fits in very well,’” she said. “That’s ambiguous because it’s not that someone is being hostile to someone. It’s someone being comfortable with someone like them.”

Ambivalence shows up when someone in a hiring positon says they like someone and, at the same time, do not respect them, a proven barrier to a job offer, she said.

“Bias is more complicated than we thought it was 50 years ago. It’s not your grandparents’ bias,” Fiske said. “In the 21st Century what it means is that individuals can’t be expected to notice.” Fiske said it is up to institutions to spark change by collecting hiring-pattern data and for group leaders to make building a diverse workforce a vocal priority.

[Associated image: Juan David Romero/AAAS]