Lack of Progress on Diversity in the Sciences

Jul 2, 2018

It's no secret that the majority of scientists have historically been white men. A lot of effort and attention in recent decades has gone into making science more diverse and inclusive. Emily Cooperdock is a post-doctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and co-author of a study on the topic. She spoke with Living Lab Radio about science's progress on diversity in 40 years. 

Cooperdock is an ocean geologist, not a social scientist. She ended up doing this analysis of racial, ethnic and gender diversity because of a friendship with her co-author, Rachel Bernard.

They were both Ph.D. students at the University of Texas in Austin in geosciences, and one of the things that they bonded over was an unsettling feeling when they looked around at their peers and didn't see much diversity. 

It's something that jumped out to them and made them feel uncomfortable at times.

Cooperdock and Bernard started to look at the data regarding gender and racial differences, and discovered they had a good set of numbers for the past 40 years.

The data comes from a survey of earned doctorates that is sent out when individuals received their Ph.D. in a science program. The survey asks you to self-identify your field of study, what you did for your thesis, and your gender and your race.

The data is amalgamated by the National Science Foundation National Center for Science and Engineering statistics. They've been keeping the data since 1973 and it's publicly available. 

"So they're [the NSF] interested in it, and certainly the idea that there's been a need for increased diversity - really increased inclusion - in earth sciences has been around for decades now. There have been programs put in place in the past 20 years that have tried to primarily focus on engaging school age groups, and maybe undergraduates," Cooperdock said. 

But the programs aren't really there in the graduate level.

"Asian Americans in 2016 made up 6 percent of the U.S. population and they made up 6 percent of Ph.D. in these fields so they weren't considered underrepresented, even though they're clearly still a minority."

If you look at the underrepresented groups, they haven't been able to break out of the underrepresented category with the exception of 2017 with Asian Americans. "Hispanic, Latinos, Native American, and African-American groups are severely underrepresented," Cooperdock said.

If you look at the numbers there has been some increase in the raw number of Hispanic and Latinos earning Ph.Ds, but it is not nearly enough to outpace their rise in the U.S. population.

"So they're still severely underrepresented," Cooperdock said.

In order to make a drastic change in the demographics, Cooperdock believes that you need to make drastic changes to the system first. 

"As someone who is a postdoc right now and will be starting a faculty position next year, as I kind of become into these places of power, I want to make an active concerted effort to recruit and retain these students."

She added, "And one of the things I think that we need to do is bring them into the conversation to find out what are these invisible hurdles that they are facing." Perhaps those are the things that are not allowing those individuals to pursue their Ph.Ds.