Last year’s social justice uprising sparked many conversations about how marginalized groups are often excluded. It’s not always because of conscious prejudices: Often, integrated systems and cultures limit opportunities for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others.
It’s a conversation that has been burning in university science departments across the country since last year when the journal Nature Communications published a study which suggests that the careers of STEM students are negatively affected when mentored by women.
The newspaper faced an immediate reaction scientists from all over the world. It was eventually withdrawn, but a group of women scientists felt there was more to be said about how the Academy of Sciences reinforces and perpetuates prejudices against under-represented groups in their field. The 24 co-authors published a new article that appeared last month in the journal PLOS Biology: “Promote inclusive measures of success and impact to dismantle a discriminatory reward system in science.”
One of the co-authors of the article is Ana K. Spalding. She is Assistant Professor of Maritime and Coastal Policy at Oregon State University.
Spalding recently spoke with John Notarianni of the OPB about the article, the systemic injustices the academy of science must address, and his own experiences of career bias.
John Notarianni: Science prides itself on being quantifiable, but in this article you show how the very measures of success in science are often inherently biased. For those of us who are not in academia, can you explain to us how academic citations work – and how this system is inherently racist and sexist?
Ana K. Spalding: Our motto as academics is our articles and quotes. So our “value”, in quotes, is recognized in terms of the number of papers we have; how many people cite our newspapers. Treat quotes as recognition; like “like” on Instagram.
Effectively, this is how our work is viewed in the world – and by the world, I mean the academic world.
Notarianni: It sounds pretty straightforward. But what is wrong with this system?
Spalding: Well, the problem with this system is that there is some evidence that white men tend to cite themselves and their friends or colleagues more, so academia has consistently excluded people of color and women.
Examples of systematic exclusion include women of childbearing age, for example, in whom activities or collaborations take place outside of normal working hours. If you are raising your children, pregnant or breastfeeding, you cannot attend these kinds of meetings and events outside of working hours.
So it’s just a system that perpetuates collaborations within certain groups of people and therefore citations within those same groups of people.
Notarianni: And in your article you notice how these systems are perpetuated as well, don’t you? Basically the system prioritizes cisgender white males who end up being the ones making decisions that affect the careers of the next generation of scientists, right?
Notarianni: You are a full professor at Oregon State. You identify as a black female, and that makes you only the fourth titular black female at OSU out of 839 titular faculty members, according to your account. I wonder how have you encountered these prejudices in your career?
Spalding: Oh, that’s a great question. It’s interesting because it’s my life and my story, so I don’t see myself as “the fourth”. But, when you look at those numbers, I think, OK, wow: it’s impactful.
Particular experiences have been, for example, in class, things like students wondering if I have the expertise; or students – usually men – for volunteer recommendations on how I can improve my teaching and things like that.
Other examples are being the only person of color in a room, and how comfortable I feel or not in that setting. Again, these are things I haven’t really thought about unless you tell other people like you, of which there aren’t many in academia. You think this is normal. So it was through conversations with other people that I realized that was not the norm; that I was working twice as hard to get that validation, that recognition.
Notarianni: One of the things you focus on in this article is the importance of mentoring in the careers of young scientists. But he also points out that traditional mentoring can perpetuate some of these problems; that students who find themselves in a toxic or unfavorable relationship with a mentor often don’t have much recourse in academia.
And you bring up this idea of multidimensional mentoring. What does it look like and why is it so important?
Spalding: This is super important from a representation point of view. On the one hand, if there are only four titular black women at OSU, how can we expect graduate students – black women or generally people of color – to feel represented?
Another element, I think, is that it would include all the interests of the students. As we’ve talked about before in perpetuating a cycle, people tend to train mentees – graduate students, undergraduates – in our likeness.
However, this does not necessarily work. The next generation is really interested in the opportunities to make an impact. It’s not just in terms of the number of quotes, but actually changing the world.
So multidimensional mentoring requires recognizing the student – their interests and student needs – recognizing their identity and who they are, who they want to be, and being able to say, “You know what? I can’t help you with that, but I have a colleague, someone who can.
It’s not just about me as a mentor, as a shining star; it’s about the students.
Notarianni: It’s also worth pointing out that there are a lot of people doing this mentoring work right now. But you’re saying it’s really important that the whole institution really supports this process, isn’t it?
Spalding: Absolutely yes. Part of the idea of building a multidimensional mentoring model is that the responsibility doesn’t just lie with the faculty members who engage in it; this is part of an institutional and systematic change that must occur and must be supported at the highest levels of academic leadership.
This can include presidents, rectors, chancellors of university systems, both in public and private institutions, to support this – what you might call a sea change in the way we train the next generation of students. ‘academics.
Notarianni: You advocate broadening the way the academy views scientific impact: that it’s not just citations, but a much broader scope of impacts that this work has. What would it look like?
Spalding: In the tenure system and having recently experienced it – I’m a new full professor – we have our job descriptions which include research, teaching and service, for the most part. In the narrow definitions of what research, teaching and service include, this is where the problem lies.
The impact we have in taking care of students is not just in terms of getting them through the program, but all of the other elements of multidimensional mentoring that I mentioned.
Other impacts include things like working with agencies, working with policy makers, working in science communication, working in K-12 education; all of what they call the “broader impacts” of our research and the time it takes to get things done are not always quantified or assessed as part of our job descriptions.
Notarianni: Well, if science universities adopted some of the changes you’re proposing – to broaden the impact of academy measures and rethink mentoring – how do you think the careers of marginalized students might change?
Spalding: I think it would be a much more welcoming space. It would be a place much more open to curiosity.
I think our ability to think differently about problems and potential solutions to some of the great challenges of our time would be… the opportunity would be so much bigger and broader that we would in fact directly reflect the experiences of marginalized students and communities. : just different ways of thinking.
It would be a much nicer place for me and for the generation to come as well.
Notarianni: If I could ask you to think even more broadly, what impact do you think this might have on the world beyond the academy?
Spalding: I mean, ideally it would be a much more fair and equitable place.
Again, we would find solutions not for the few, but for the people who are actually the most vulnerable to things like climate change and other environmental changes.
My area of research is the environment, so I’m focusing on that, but it could extend to social policies and global concerns: really thinking about the places that matter, the people that matter, and finding solutions that work for those people. and to these places.
This would enable and empower a different set of people within our global human community.
Listen to Ana K. Spalding’s full conversation with OPB’s John Notarianni using the audio player above.