Defining Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity to Build Better STEM Communities

Today we continue our series of regular posts on the Trellis blog for science community managers interested in diversity, equity and inclusion. This installment was authored by Rosanna Volchok, The New York Academy of Sciences. Additional series coordinators are Jennifer Davison, Urban@UW, University of Washington, Josh Knackert UW-Madison Neuroscience Training Program, and Marsha Lucas, Society for Developmental Biology. You can find all of the posts in the series here.

How clear our your diversity, equity and inclusion values? Image credit:
How clear are your diversity, equity and inclusion values?
Image credit:

In our first post, we introduced the concept of the science community manager as an agent of change. The ideals of inclusion and representation are so deeply woven into the fabric of community that community managers are thus uniquely positioned to help maximize diversity and foster equity. But what exactly do we mean when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion? And, more importantly, why do these concepts matter when we seek to build community within and across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields? In this post we’ll examine these three core terms in more detail.

Diversity is a characteristic of groups, not individuals

“At its core, diversity refers to a dimension of difference, and, accordingly, it is a property of groups, teams, or communities rather than individuals.”

While diversity is thrown around in different, and sometimes conflicting, contexts, Kenneth Gibbs, Jr., PhD of the National Institute of General Medicine Science (NIGMS) offers community managers a clear and usable definition of diversity as it relates to social identity. According to Gibbs, diversity in STEM refers to “cultivating talent, and promoting the full inclusion of excellence across the social spectrum” in a way that includes both people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds and those from traditionally well-represented backgrounds. At its core, diversity refers to a dimension of difference, and, accordingly, it is a property of groups, teams, or communities rather than individuals.

By the numbers, the lack of diversity in STEM fields is clear: in the United States, white men constitute about 50% of scientists and engineers employed in STEM field and, in all racial and ethnic groups, more men than women work in STEM occupations. Attrition rates among students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in STEM are much higher for students of color than they are for white students. With data suggesting that the STEM workforce is no more diverse today than it was in 2001, some business analysts have suggested that engagement and outreach efforts need to be “more strategic.”

Quantitative data alone does not adequately show how diversity challenges in STEM are often the byproduct of deeply ingrained systemic issues and firmly established cultural biases that are disproportionately felt by women, people of color, and others with identities traditionally underrepresented in STEM disciplines. Community managers cannot focus solely on making our engagement efforts “more strategic”; we must focus on building communities that are welcoming and supportive of a broad range and intersection of identities, skills, and perspectives.

Equity: ensuring community members are fairly getting their needs met

“…equity might best be understood as a perpetually moving target, necessitating that community managers must be focused yet adaptable in their efforts.”

The experience of being part of a community does not depend solely on one’s membership. To build an equitable community is to understand that the concept of fairness is not absolute and that historical and cultural context matters, particularly when it accounts for a long-established precedent and current expression of inequality felt among certain groups of people. Equity, in this setting, is a concept of social justice predicated on the understanding that there exists a dire need to address the injustices visited on entire groups of people who have been underserved by their schools and unsupported in their places of employment.

Accordingly, community managers must move beyond the question of “how many members of X background are in the community” and ask themselves whether the community spaces they build enable each member to access the resources they need in order to thrive within the group. However, there is no panacea for inequity nor is there a one-size-fits-all strategy for moving towards an inclusive, diverse, and just community. Even with a growing body of research on the topic, most studies still include a disclaimer to make it clear that “proven” strategies are meant to promote learning and are not intended to be wholly proscriptive. As a result, equity might best be understood as a perpetually moving target, necessitating that community managers must be focused yet adaptable in their efforts.

Inclusion is about the quality of the community

“To ensure community members feel supported, empowered, and represented, we have to prioritize outcomes over optics.”

I suspect we’ve all heard–and have probably used–the proverbial seat-at-the-table metaphor when speaking about efforts to increase inclusion of underrepresented people in STEM disciplines. Activist and lawyer Vernã Myers offers us a variation: “diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Civil-rights activist and educator DeRay Mckesson summed it up even further at the 2017 Change Catalyst Tech Inclusion Conference: “Diversity is about bodies and inclusion is about culture.”

Regardless of semantics, we know that diversity initiatives alone do not ensure that people from typically underrepresented backgrounds will be fairly included, supported or represented. Diversity initiatives without a commitment to addressing inclusion can actually result in a host of “pains”; efforts may be perceived as hollow and can actually result in backlash. The quantitative results of diversity initiatives may look good on an annual report, but increasing numbers in the short-term doesn’t result in qualitative changes to the experience of community membership. Nor will it result in the institutional change necessary to support a diverse community over time. To ensure community members feel supported, empowered, and represented, we have to prioritize outcomes over optics. For community managers, the end goal of applying a lens of equity to diversity initiatives is thus about driving systemic and cultural change.

Because the lack of diversity in STEM communities is largely structural in nature, because people do not have an “equal”, let alone fair, shot at success or representation, it is incumbent upon us as community managers to build more equitable STEM communities. This work does not simply lead to more ethical processes and outcomes – the pursuit and advancement of equity and inclusive systems makes for better science by creating the space for “multiple cultures to be embraced, diverse research questions to be asked, different research methodologies to be considered, and multifold interpretations of data to be explored” (Mack et al., 2014).

Next steps…

While the concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion are complex, and there may be a strong urge to do nothing rather than do something wrong, there are resources present to help community managers begin to discuss and address these issues in their community. See here for a collection of key actions and corresponding sample strategies on how to promote diversity and inclusion in science and technology workforces. It is, however, also important to understand that even experts who have been working in these areas for years or even decades are constantly evolving their understanding of and approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As this series progresses, we will highlight just some of these resources, and will try to present an accessible approach to this complex set of ideas. Our next post will discuss one of the best tools at a community manager’s disposal: community guidelines.