Pandemic Intensifies Inequities in STEM

written for the Colorado College Summer 2021 Bulletin

The pandemic is a magnifying glass on the structural and systemic problems of society, widening the disparities between us. Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) woke up to headlines announcing their daily struggles and highlighting persistent problems. From the New York Times asking: “Could the Pandemic Prompt an ‘Epidemic of Loss’ of Women in the Sciences?” to prestigious scientific journals publishing studies reinforcing harmful systems of power and perpetuating outdated stereotypes, there is ample evidence from the last 18 months of the systematic failures and enduring systems of oppression within science.  

It is not a leaky pipeline.

The STEM workforce does not reflect the working population, with less than 30% of STEM positions held by women, almost all of whom are white. While gender parity exists in some STEM disciplines at the undergraduate level, this is not true as one moves up the ladder. For example, women make up 38% of undergraduate and 42% of graduate degrees awarded in earth sciences, but less than one-fifth of these women are employed in the field, aka: the leaky pipeline. The leaky pipeline suggests that loss is passive, reinforcing the idea that if only more girls were interested in science, there would eventually be more women in higher-ranking positions. This is not true. The pipeline is not passive, it has valves that hold people back based on their gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and physical abilities. It reinforces the idea that only some belong. For women, these valves include bias in letters of recommendation and prestigious awards, limited access to resources, and disproportionate amounts of unpaid service (see Marin-Spiotta et al. Advances in Geoscience for references and additional discussion).

The systematic societal problems of bias, discrimination, and harassment are barriers toward advancement within STEM. Behaviors persist because of historical structures of exclusion, large power imbalances, and a culture that encourages people to look the other way. A 2018 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine report found that 50-60% of women across all levels in STEM — undergraduate to faculty — are sexually harassed and stressed that federal regulations (i.e., Title IX and Title VII) are not sufficient to address nor end these pervasive behaviors. Actions do not have to be illegal to be harmful. If efforts to broaden participation in STEM are to succeed, we must acknowledge and address the institutional structures, policies, and cultures that continue to exclude.

Reimagine science.

Scientific misconduct should include the mistreatment of people as well as data. Scientific societies have updated their codes of conduct and rescinded awards and honors; acknowledging that hostility within science is exclusionary, harmful to the creation of knowledge.

The pandemic has shown scientists that we can be gracious and supportive. We are not perfect, but we can grow and be better. Schedules are flexible, mental health matters. We are more than scientists. We are people. Our jobs, our careers do not define us. We are sisters, mothers, friends, and caretakers. We are artists, explorers, and musicians.

As we celebrate the many differences that make us who we are this summer, please remember that everyone cannot afford to be gracious. Black, brown, and Indigenous communities experience(d) greater COVID-19 infection and death rates, greater rates of unemployment, while also making up a disproportionately large fraction of essential and frontline workers. These disproportionate impacts are intensifying the inequities present within STEM and have the potential to undo much of the progress made towards increased inclusivity. Please remember, the work is far from over, it really has just begun.

Associate Professor of Environmental Science Rebecca Barnes is a biogeochemist and ecosystem ecologist who teaches in CC’s Environmental Studies Program. She is on the leadership of 500 Women Scientists and is co-principal investigator of two multi-institutional NSF funded programs aimed at increasing the equity and inclusion in the geosciences: developing evidence based mentoring programs to increase the retention of women in the geosciences (PROGRESS) and the ADVANCEGeo Partnership, a project aimed to improve workplace climate by addressing bullying and harassment in science.