Field Notes - DEIB in STEM: Breaking Down the Barriers

July 21, 2023
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
Two professionals working in STEM.

By Laura Remillard, Program Manager, Master in Translational Research and Applied Medicine, Stanford University, School of Medicine.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) initiatives have been on the rise these past few years. These movements have raised awareness and have started the conversation on providing equity for underrepresented groups in education, particularly STEM fields. 

We have heard of the importance of assessing DEIB in higher education and know of the benefits when a workplace or school embraces DEIB initiatives in STEM. Of STEM fields and the importance of working with diverse populations, Joyce Sackey, MD, FACP and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Stanford School of Medicine, says, “Those fields rely on intellectual assets, that benefit even more when you convene a team of people of diverse backgrounds.” She said that teams who work together and embrace diversity, share more imagination. 

However, many organizations have yet to start examining their status on overcoming equity issues. Many organizations do not have a clear mission statement recognizing the importance of diversity. The negative workplace climate is another hurdle that needs to be overcome. Many organizations deal with an unintentional bias toward race, gender, or diversity. Some students in higher education may face academic bias (i.e., assuming that someone from a certain ethnic group would do better in STEM fields than another ethnic group). These educational barriers can also manifest themselves with a high cost of living for students from underrepresented areas who have no support system. The lack of accessibility for individuals with disabilities also is a challenge.

This lack of representation from these various groups has an impact on the individuals themselves. Dr. Sackey brings out, “When you are the only black woman at the table, you stand out. You have an awareness that you are carrying on your shoulders a whole group. It’s a burden you are carrying. An internal burden. You are ‘on’ all the time.” 

Melissa Seymour, MBA, Chief Quality Officer for Bristol Myers Squibb, said when she first started working in pharmaceuticals, people would automatically assume she was in sales. “Biases are built in. If you are not intentional about it [challenging them] it will go away. It’s important to assess DEIB in STEM. It has to be intentional.”

Where to go next

To overcome these challenges, start with an operating plan. Starting in school, develop pathways so that every student has a STEM pathway that is accessible. This includes preparation and support. Ms. Seymour says a need to capture girls and diverse candidates early in their growth is key. “Middle school…otherwise, you lose those candidates. Put emphasis on programs that introduce science and math in interesting ways to young people.”

In higher education, admissions can develop explicit strategies for recruitment for diverse populations. Having a designated person in the admissions committee would ensure that the committee is keeping diversity in mind. Making sure that all members of the admission committee are on the same page in regard to DEIB, is essential. 

In addition to having specific strategies for recruitment, establishing assessment systems can also be affective. These could include establishing a system of support that is diverse, using appropriate data for comparison when assessing diversity and using third-party assessment systems to conduct audits. 

Breaking down the barriers of DEIB in STEM can be summarized with problem awareness - understanding what the problem is. Looking at the root cause and analyzing it is the second step. Where does the problem come from? Third, ask yourself, ‘Do I care about the problem and the people who are impacted? Once you do that, you can know how to correct the problem, but ultimately, are you willing to do so?

Once the barriers are broken down, you will be able to celebrate diversity and bring out the best of a group, says Dr. Sackey. “Anything that requires people to work with other people you have diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, and diversity of background.”


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