Greater need to talk about equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM


Published: 22Feb2021


Lucia Wang, master’s student in Pharmacology and Therapeutics at McGill, shares her perspective on the role of equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM education.

Following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement through the second half of 2020, many have come to the realization that systematic oppression exists in many institutions throughout our society. As such, a wider conversation about equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) has become more and more relevant. While science is often regarded as being rooted in fact, with little room for emotion or opinion, scientists are not exempt from the experience of discrimination. In a 2020 Nature paper, “A diverse view of science to catalyse change”, a group of scientists worked together to highlight the idea that “valuing diversity leads to scientific excellence, the progress of science and, most importantly, it is simply the right thing to do”.

Discrimination based on gender, race, or sexuality is not something science students are unaware of. In fact, it is something that is touched upon in almost every first-year biology course. As we are introduced to the concept of DNA and its structure, Rosalind Franklin is often mentioned. Sitting in the lecture hall, there is a sense of outrage emanating from the collective student body at her being snubbed despite having made such a fundamental discovery, simply because she was a woman; students shift uncomfortably in their seats and whisper under their breaths to each other about how unfair the system was back then. Yet, despite the emotional reaction many of us experience, the topic is quickly glossed over, and we return to the science with Rosalind Franklin’s plight quickly retreating to the back of our minds. So why do we never explore why we feel this surge of negative emotion? Having witnessed firsthand this feeling of injustice, I can’t help but wonder whether it points to an underlying issue of which we are all aware, but do not discuss. Why is the example of Rosalind Franklin highlighted in lecture halls across the country? Is she merely a historical footnote that completes the story of discovering the structure of DNA? Or are our professors highlighting an issue of prejudice that they continue to see in the scientific community today?

In conversations I’ve had with my peers, it seems many of us no longer experience overt instances of racism or sexism, making EDI an issue that does not rest at the forefront of our minds. What’s more, the topic of EDI is not broached in any of the core classes that make up an undergraduate STEM degree. From the perspective of a third-year engineering student I spoke to, it seems as though “there is a limited discussion about race”, possibly stemming from “a lack of tools to articulate or think about concepts relating to EDI”.

In my own experience, I have never considered myself to be disadvantaged because of my race or gender, but my view changed when I was confronted with an explicit reference to EDI on an official form. I was applying for a scholarship to do research over the summer and, in the personal information section, there was a checkbox asking if I was applying in a field where women were under-represented. Up until that point, I had never really thought this to be the case — I was working with a brilliant professor who is a wonderful role model as a woman in science, and there are several others like her in my department. However, when I wrote to my professor asking what to do with this checkbox, she told me that I should “absolutely say yes”. This really opened my eyes to a tricky question that many women in science now wrestle with. A number of my peers agree that, while such measures can help to right the imbalances that exist, they often also plant a seed of doubt — “am I competing for the same prizes as my male counterparts, or am I getting extra opportunities simply because I am a girl?”. This is not an easy problem to solve. From my perspective, it may even be an impossible task.

Racial discrimination is another factor I had never personally considered to have had a detrimental impact on my education, but recent conversations with fellow McGill students have opened my eyes to the effects a lack of representation can have.

A recent graduate from the undergraduate pharmacology and therapeutics program told me, “[the] lack of representation affected [her] subconsciously, especially coming from a family with no STEM background”. Being a first-generation university student without many role models that “looked like [her] or have had similar experiences” led her to adopt a mindset of wanting to shrink out of the limelight, she explained.

A fellow master’s student said another problem that arises from a lack of representation is that “mentors often look for mentees that they can see themselves in”, whether that be an overt or subconscious decision. Thus, in a faculty dominated by white males, there can be “the unconscious promotion of one kind of person”.

So how can we move towards promoting EDI in science? Perhaps it begins with opening a conversation. Although I can’t speak from experience about the breadth of topics covered by a degree in the Faculty of Arts, my contact with non-science students leads me to believe they are more aware of the world’s social climate. In the words of a fourth-year philosophy student, “there have been conversations [in class] about EDI without explicitly calling it that […] the topic [EDI] always shines through when you talk about why something in history was written the way it was, and why we can accept some versions of the truth but take others with a grain of salt.” This concept of multiple versions of the truth feels foreign to STEM students who learn that there is always only one correct answer — fill in one bubble on the Scantron and move on to the next multiple-choice question. And yet, my peers unanimously express a desire for EDI conversations to be integrated into STEM education.

At McGill, programs such as the Race Project in student residences and the sexual violence education program, ‘It Takes All of Us’, have been very successful in facilitating the discussion of sensitive topics in a safe space. Along these lines, creating a safe and inclusive space in which to discuss EDI seems to be an achievable goal. Another idea suggested by many of my peers is a seminar series led by a diverse group of people open not only to students, but also faculty. While it is true that the student body can be very effective at instigating change, it must also come from the top down.

As a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics put it: “We [professors] need to educate ourselves a lot before we can feel comfortable educating others” and “people in positions of power are mostly white men so they aren’t necessarily the right people to lead these discussions”. Learning to be an ally is not an easy task, especially for people who are usually the ones in control. That being said, there are many examples of people in positions of power using their power for the better. The Melville Initiative is a bursary program in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics that focuses on providing research experience at the undergraduate level to students who are often hindered by systemic barriers and implicit biases. At the university level, McGill also has a strategic EDI plan to help promote EDI in research, outreach, the student experience, the workforce, and the physical spaces on campus. As we continue to push as a society for EDI to become a regular part of the conversation, there are reasons to feel encouraged. While large-scale change can take a lifetime to see, when we look at our own communities, there are small but real changes being made every day.

Discomfort seems to be an overwhelmingly recurrent theme in discussions about EDI, but this may not be a bad thing if it means that we are pushing ourselves beyond our own boundaries. When we talk about a topic that is often swept under the rug, we find ourselves looking inward and examining our own thoughts and feelings. This can be uncomfortable, especially in STEM, where we are so often focused on external facts. However, I truly believe adversity can be a catalyst for change. In opening ourselves up to learning from the experiences of others, we can become a more well-rounded and more accepting community.

The Faculty of Science responds: We hear you

The Faculty of Science recognizes its part in our collective responsibility to work against systemic and institutional discrimination, and to promote equity, diversity and inclusion within our community.

At the Faculty level, the Science Equity and Climate Committee (SECC) focuses on addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion directly, through the development of targeted policies and support mechanisms, and also indirectly, by promoting an institutional climate for working and learning in which all can thrive. In this context, the Faculty of Science is also home to a wide range of student-run groups and departmental committees that have been working to raise awareness and to support underrepresented groups.

Examples of EDI initiatives in the Faculty

Departmental groups engaged with EDI

University-wide resources

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If you have been affected by issues raised in this article or would otherwise like to share your perspective on equity, diversity and inclusion, please contact us through one of the following channels:

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