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Shirley Malcom: Institutional Barriers to Equality Are 'Hobbling the Ability to Move Forward Together'

Institution leaders and others in the science community must do more to create welcoming environments for women, minorities, and other under-represented groups, and "call out unfairness whenever and wherever it appears," AAAS Director of Education and Human Resources Shirley Malcom wrote today in a Science editorial.

"The science community prizes objectivity, but research indicates that this isn't necessarily reflected in the behavior and choices of scientists," according to Malcom, who is also the co-chair of the Gender Advisory Board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, as well as co-chair of Gender InSITE, a global initiative.

News, November 5, 2014 Shirley Malcom

Shirley Malcom | AAAS

The 14 August editorial's publication comes a month after Science and AAAS leadership received a letter about recent incidents in which content in Science and Science Careers reinforced damaging stereotypes about under-represented groups. "Indeed, as Science's Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt pointed out, the journal regrets these unfortunate incidents and is pursuing better oversight strategies, including diversity sensitivity training for staff," Malcom wrote. "While Science looks internally to make improvements, AAAS continues to look outward to its society colleagues to discuss larger structural barriers to quality and diversity in science."

In encouraging this discussion, AAAS is continuing its longstanding leadership around fairness, equity, and diversity in science and engineering, Malcom noted.

In the 1950s, for example, AAAS stopped all annual meetings in the "Jim Crow" South. And, three decades later, the association pulled its meeting out of Chicago to respect the ban on meeting in states that did not ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. It held the first fully accessible professional meeting in Boston in 1976, long before passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in 1972 it established the Committee on Opportunities in Science to advise what is now a mostly female AAAS Board of Directors on diversity issues. Long before public support of the rights of LGBTQ individuals, AAAS in 1975 passed a nondiscrimination resolution.

Despite efforts by AAAS and others, however, stereotypes and implicit bias still cause people to be seen first as members of under-represented groups, before they are seen as scholars, peers, and colleagues. Institution leaders must look carefully at the policies, structures, and behaviors in their workplaces, according to Malcom.

The STEM enterprise needs creativity and diverse perspectives, said AAAS President Geri Richmond in this 2014 interview. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

"Gender and minority awareness and fairness must be treated in the same way as research integrity, including discussion of bystander responses to unfairness and abuse," Malcom wrote.

"The larger science community must examine all its institutions and workplaces in light of today's changing cultural, educational, and business landscape, accepting responsibility to call out unfairness whenever and wherever it appears. We can only address collective global challenges if we disconnect from the structures of the past that are hobbling the ability to move forward together."

[Credit for associated teaser image: Flickr/UC Davis College of Engineering/CC BY 2.0]