Creating an Inclusive Environment in Science

By Brigette Smith, 2018 SPS Intern, USA

Scientists come from all different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. There is no demographic restriction to scientific study; the only thing that truly matters is one's knowledge and motivation. Ideally scientists should recognize the importance of diversity on a level that would allow it to transcend barriers other disciplines may not have the opportunity to, although in reality there is still much work to be done to improve diversity. Scientists now understand that collaboration is key to the pursuit of knowledge for humankind and that each individual has their own skill set and special knowledge on specific topics that makes them a priceless asset. The foundation of the scientific community relies on the diversity of its members so that when everyone is brought together they can achieve something greater than themselves.
According to the most recent NSF study on Science and Engineering graduate students, the fields are still heavily dominated by whites and men. We are able, however, to see an increase in the diversity and numbers of underrepresented minorities pursuing careers in STEM areas thanks to diversity efforts in recent years. Many groups have formed to help empower and promote minorities in STEM which offer guidance and resources that their members might not have had access to. This shows the large impact that support and encouragement can have on someone’s decision to pursue a career in a particular field like STEM.  The scientific community has gotten much better about encouraging minorities to pursue scientific study and positions in laboratories, yet there is still much work to be done for the community to become fully representative.
Diversity alone isn’t enough for science to continue to progress; everyone in the community must feel welcome and valued. Inclusivity is the intentional involvement of groups that may normally be excluded and is necessary in a professional environment so that everyone can perform optimally.  Since bias and discrimination are common in this world, underrepresented groups are accustomed to experiencing situations where they are discouraged from voicing their ideas or reservations about a project; this is the enemy of progress. It is important to make certain that everyone in the lab feels respected and supported by their colleagues in order to promote communication and collaboration. By continuously working to create a safe and inclusive environment, you can create equal opportunities for colleagues to thrive. Here are a few way to help create this type of environment: 
Educate yourself: Most importantly you must educate yourself on the issues. Learn about the history and the oppression groups have faced. Be knowledgeable about the culture and the current problems facing the community. This means doing research, going to cultural events, and talking to colleagues about their experiences and hardships. Always remember to be respectful and recognize they may not want to share everything with you, and you are not entitled to that. It will mean a lot that you made the effort to learn more. Although you may never be able to really understand what another group has gone through, this should not be an excuse for you to be ignorant.

Check in when you see discrimination taking place and respond accordingly: When people are being discriminated against they often feel they aren’t in the position to speak up or can be nervous about doing so. If you notice this happening, ask the person if this is something that they would like to speak out about and offer your support by being a secondary voice; it is important you don’t pressure them into this if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. This not only shows them that you care about the way they are treated but also brings more attention to the action itself so that it can hopefully be resolved.

Challenge stereotypes: Stereotypes are a product of long-standing societal expectations. We have implicit ideas about a group based on what we have heard and seen throughout our lives. One way to challenge this and help break those implicit stereotypes is to force yourself to break them. This means using examples or images around the workplace that go directly against the social norms in order to combat the ideas ingrained in us by society. Use examples of a person in a group performing a task that you wouldn’t normally associate with them, for example, a woman working in construction. By continuing to do this you can help break stereotypical associations in your mind.

Use gender-neutral language or ask about pronouns: Some people prefer to be called pronouns that do not fall into the gender binary society has imposed. Someone’s pronouns are a part of their identity and something as simple as using their preferred pronouns can show that you support them as they are. When unsure, gender-neutral language is the safest bet; it is better to avoid using the wrong pronouns, even by accident. It is also best to use gender-neutral language when addressing a group. This will help make all members of the group feel included and encouraged to engage.

Be visible as an ally: Making yourself visible as an ally can be as simple as wearing a bracelet or putting up a poster. Publicly identifying yourself as an ally is a way to show colleagues that you openly support them and their lifestyles. This can go a long way in making them feel welcome and reassuring them that they are in a safe creative space. Another great way to be a visible ally is to invite conversation and constructive criticism. This shows your willingness to evaluate your behavior and make changes to yourself in order to be as supportive as possible. 

There is a lot that can be done to ensure that your professional environment is inclusive. If you are interested in learning more, here are a few links that may be beneficial:

Diversity Doesn’t Stick Without Inclusion

Imagery and Stereotypes

Implicit Bias

Project Implicit

Tools for Preventing and Addressing Discrimination in the Workplace

Gender Inclusive Language

Preferred Pronouns

Written by: Brigette Smith, 2018 SPS intern for The Optical Society 



Posted: 11 July 2018 by Brigette Smith, 2018 SPS Intern, USA | with 0 comments

The views expressed by guest contributors to the Discover OSA Blog are not those endorsed by The Optical Society.


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