Professional organizations need to get better at capturing the true diversity of scientists, say researchers after examining the collection practices of 73 US-based science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) societies.
“In order to serve your communities as a stem organization, you need to know who they are,” says Nicholas Burnett of the University of California at Davis, USA. “If you don’t collect data that accurately describes who the people are, you can’t provide any really helpful resources.”
A team led by Burnett found that more than 60% of stem societies collect data on gender identity, race and ethnicity – but only 15% ask their members or conference attendees for information on sexual orientation or disability status. “This is the most shocking result,” says Burnett. Even fewer organizations – 6% – survey members about marital and family status or veteran status, and none survey people’s religion.
This shows that many stem organizations do not recognize entire groups of people, including LGBTQ+ and disabled academics, despite ample evidence that both groups experience discrimination and underrepresentation.
The number of choices in society surveys also varies greatly. Some organizations may only offer two options for gender identity (male or female) or disability (yes or no), while others have up to five times as many options. When it comes to ethnic groups, numerous different Asian groups are often merged into one.
If not enough options are offered, there is a risk that people’s identities will be erased or people will be prevented from responding to surveys. Making options more inclusive and detailed could also help societies provide tailored resources or funding opportunities, rather than running a single event aimed at all underrepresented groups, Burnett points out.
His team urges organizations to search several national survey programs for ideas. The National Science Foundation, modeled after many societies’ surveys, does not ask about sexual orientation, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does. The latter is also better at gathering detailed information about race and ethnicity, Burnett says.
Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, director of the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Respect, calls these recommendations “solid” and “actionable.” The ACS was not among the organizations Burnett’s team interviewed.
But organizational traditions, routines and constraints can make it difficult for societies looking to change their data collection practices, says Mukhopadhyay. ‘Attitudes are another set of barriers that can include misconceptions, as well as privacy and data security concerns and fears.’
However, Burnett is hopeful and says most of the companies the team has spoken to over the course of their work have been keen to improve. Though they often lack the resources and social science expertise needed to make change, he suggests that broader cross-societal collaboration could address these issues.
“The current state of affairs is that the over-represented groups are the ones making all the decisions about who gets recognized and who we’re trying to help,” says Burnett. “That needs to change.”