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SEA Change Seeks Culture Shift for Diverse Scientific Enterprise

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Shirley Malcom at the July 2018 Science and Human Rights Coalition Meeting
Shirley Malcom shares updates on the SEA Change program with attendees of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting.  | Adam Cohen/AAAS

An initiative designed to prompt academic institutions to adopt systemic changes to attract, retain and advance underrepresented minority groups, women and people with disabilities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics has gained the attention of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

The SEA Change program – short for STEM Equity Achievement – was launched earlier this year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to help transform the culture of the scientific enterprise, beginning with institutions of higher education.

In a June report on sexual harassment, the National Academies recommended academic institutions participate in the SEA Change program to address sexual harassment of women in the sciences, engineering and medicine programs. The report also recommended that funding for research on diversity be tied to participation in SEA Change.

“Through SEA Change we want to provide a structure – a scaffold, if you will – around which colleges and universities can declare their values in STEM, can engage in self-revealing and move to self-healing,” said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS’ Education and Human Resources programs, at a Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting held July 12-13 at AAAS’ Washington, D.C., headquarters.

Recognizing the pivotal role of academic institutions, SEA Change outlines a voluntary structural approach to ensuring the scientific community supports diversity and inclusion. Colleges and universities are called on to establish systems to recruit and keep a diverse student body and faculty in STEM disciplines. The systems also would seek to reduce attrition and build pathways to achievement.

The voluntary program is inspired by Athena SWAN, a United Kingdom program set up in 2005 to address the underrepresentation of women in STEM leadership roles. As a first step, interested institutions conduct a self-assessment, gathering data on the makeup of both their STEM faculty and student body as well as conducting a study of their policies, culture and climate. The institutions specifically focus their assessment on the role of underrepresented minorities and women, and they are also encouraged to assess the role of people with disabilities. Rather than aiming to meet predetermined student or faculty participation benchmarks, the institutions identify systems and processes that pose barriers to equity and inclusion and then draft an action plan to address institutional barriers.

Institutions that successfully complete self-assessments and identify goals can earn the first of three awards, a bronze award. Participating institutions need to demonstrate progress on reaching their goals to maintain bronze award status. Institutions can then apply for higher-level awards – a silver for demonstrating the beneficial impact of reaching their goals and a gold for emerging as a model to other SEA Change participants by sharing their lessons learned.

“Academic institutions have significant influence and power in their communities, nationally and worldwide, and thus play a vital role in ensuring respect for and promotion for human rights,” said Maureen Kearney, director of AAAS’ Center of Science, Policy and Society programs, at the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting.

The National Academies report also recognized the powerful role that academic institutions play in creating an atmosphere that refuses to tolerate harassment. “The most potent predictor of sexual harassment is an organization’s climate – the degree to which those in the organization perceive that sexual harassment is or is not tolerated,” the report noted. “This means that institutions can take concrete steps to reduce sexual harassment by making systemwide changes that demonstrate how seriously they take this issue.”

The report – “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” – explores the effects of sexual harassment on the career advancement of women in STEM and identifies recommendations for preventing and addressing harassment.

Among steps academic institutions can take to change their culture is participation in the SEA Change program and applying for its awards, the report said.

The National Academies also recommended that federal agencies and private foundations encourage and support institutions working toward SEA Change awards. Funding agencies could require applicants to hold a bronze-level award to be eligible for research grants on diversity, the report said. The academies’ recommendation echoes efforts made in the U.K. to boost the Athena SWAN equity program; in 2011, the U.K.’s Department of Health announced it would require medical schools to hold silver-award status to be eligible for National Institute of Health Research funding.

The academies’ recommendation is likely to spur institutional changes, noted Beth Ruedi, project director in AAAS’ Education and Human Resources programs. If funding opportunities were also tied to SEA Change award status, it would take off even faster, she said.

More broadly, SEA Change also seeks to identify and address institutional issues that diminish diversity in STEM.

Malcom, for instance, shared a personal story at the Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting, noting that she never encountered a black faculty member, save for one teaching assistant, during her undergraduate years at the University of Washington in the 1960s. The reality sent her, a black woman, a message of not belonging. At another point, a counselor advised her to consider changing her major from pre-med. Malcom knew she was smart enough to succeed even if underprepared after being educated in segregated schools in Birmingham, Alabama. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in zoology, a master’s in zoology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a doctorate in ecology from Pennsylvania State University.

Perceptions of teachers and officials about the innate abilities of students impacts institutional diversity, said Malcom, citing research studies. “The extent to which professionals in STEM fields believe that innate talent is required for success is a strong predictor of the representation of women and blacks in those fields,” she said.

SEA Change is now a pilot program specifically designed for academic institutions. In the future, participation in the program will be open to individual departments or colleges within an institution. Ultimately, institutions will not be able to advance to a silver award unless a certain number of departments hold a bronze award – setting up what Malcom called “a virtuous cycle of collaboration.”

Currently, six academic institutions are expected to submit program applications in the fall along with requisite self-evaluation materials in contention for the bronze award. Under the program, institutions work to accomplish goals they set. There is no limit to the number of institutions able to earn a bronze rating. The first bronze awards will be announced at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Academic institutions, Malcom said, must “reject the prevailing culture of STEM” and “seek a culture in which equity, diversity and inclusion are normative and much more reflective of the values we espouse than those we currently practice.”

[Associated image: 4frame group/Adobe Stock]