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16th November 2022

Diversity in STEM: Why you should care

Science always answers the question; now it needs to answer why it is full of straight white men
Diversity in STEM: Why you should care
Photo: Gert Altmann

Could you quickly name more than two female scientists? Or more than two scientists from an ethnic minority? I imagine a lot of people would struggle. In a world where science dictates all aspects of our lives — our response to pandemics, how we communicate, the medicine that keeps us alive, and a world that may even become uninhabitable due to climate change — this is a pretty sad thought.

It goes without saying that there are many talented scientists that belong in minority groups, but it is an inescapable fact that the scientific population is simply not representative of the general public. Those in STEM like to believe that scientific achievement is purely meritocratic, that they are on the podium merely based on their skills, without any sort of leg-up along the way. Unfortunately, that is not the truth.

It is a sorry state of affairs, especially when you consider the consequences of a lack of scientific diversity. A common misconception is that scientific advancements are achieved by brilliant individuals. In fact, almost all researches are conducted by teams of scientists, each with their own skills and expertise.

This is where diversity becomes important. Diversity in background leads to diversity in thought, and diversity in thought leads to rigorous research. Those with different upbringings, cultures, and educations will naturally approach problems differently. Having a selection of differing ideas and competing theories fosters an environment in which scientific research is put to the test.

Several studies have shown that diverse teams of scientists are more effective. According to Assistant Professor Yang Yang, an analysis of more than 15,000 medical science journals showed that “gender-diverse teams produce more novel and higher impact scientific ideas”. In a world where we are so reliant on scientific advancement, getting more minorities into these roles is crucial.

Like many workforces, the UK is suffering from an aging scientific workforce. Companies are desperate to hire young STEM graduates, yet there simply aren’t enough to fill the roles. If these same companies decided to invest more in diversity schemes and assist minorities in application processes, they could tap into a large talent pool. Companies could freshen up the stale, stuffy workplace full of white middle-aged men, and create a young, innovative, and exciting new business where diversity in thought is encouraged and scientific achievement is justly rewarded.

Scientific advancement is also inextricably linked to economic growth, and investment in certain sustainable scientific endeavours would provide jobs and boost the economy. In a time when sterling has been unpredictable and performing poorly, and it looks as though we are heading into a long-term recession, an economic kick is exactly what we need. To achieve this, we need to be producing far more scientists than we currently are — this is why seeking and aiding those who come from a variety of backgrounds is vital.

This lack of diversity in STEM is due to several reasons. As previously mentioned, very few can name scientists from minority backgrounds, alluding to a lack of role models in that area. The means many children won’t see a scientist that looks like them from a young age. Research from Indiana University has shown that “black students who identify as female were more likely to feel like they belonged in STEM, and therefore were more likely to work in their chosen field, if they had access to Black women as role models.”

Another reason are the inadequate diversity schemes offered by STEM companies. Although there has been a recent push to try and better these schemes, they remain scarce. In the case where they do exist, the schemes prove inadequate. Women and certain ethnic minorities are still under-represented in the STEM sector, and these schemes have done little to change that.

The blame also somewhat lies with the media. Often placed behind political gossip and quickly-forgotten scandals, scientific advancements rarely make the front pages. This gives way to a vicious cycle where public interest in science is decreased due to the absence of reporting in the media, then the lack of public appetite for scientific news lead to papers not running any STEM stories. If scientific reporting does not reach all corners of our society, people would less likely be inspired to pursue a career in STEM.

This is an urgent situation. Climate change is the biggest crisis of our lifetime, and without scientific advancement, the planet will be damaged beyond repair. We must find a way to produce more scientists to fill the ever-growing hole left in the STEM sector. School curriculum must be altered so students can look to a variety of STEM role models and their achievements and be inspired. Businesses must invest in diversity schemes, which must be further reaching and provide better assistance to minorities. The media must increase their scientific reporting to generate interest.

Most importantly, every member of the public should understand that science touches all parts of our lives, and we shouldn’t put down our newspapers upon reaching the science and technology section.

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