Advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion: a how-to guide – Physics Today – DC Initiative on Racial Equity
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Looking around the lunchroom on my first day at my first job in physics—as a summer student in a Canadian national laboratory—I was shocked to see that almost all the scientists present were white men! I loved that job and was thrilled to be paid to do physics, but I was disappointed in the lack of diversity at the lab. I expected that things would get better as I continued in my career. Surely, I thought, the diversity of the general population would begin to be reflected in physics. But 20 years later, my optimistic expectation has proven naive. The lack of diversity in physics is still striking. Moreover, the issues in the field go beyond representation. Insidious inequities, pernicious discrimination, and systemic barriers continue to prevent the inclusion of everyone in physics.

The numbers confirm that many groups are underrepresented in physics: Data from a recent NSF report demonstrate that among recent PhDs awarded in physics, Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people, women, and individuals with disabilities are underrepresented by factors of about two to five.11. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, NSF 19-304, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (March 2019). The representation of individuals in physics identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and additional identities (LGBTQIA+) has received less attention, but those groups are certainly underrepresented too.22. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors, National Academies Press (2020).,33. T. J. Atherton et al., LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community, American Physical Society (March 2016). And representation gaps seem set to persist for a long time. To take just one example, currently only 13% of senior authors of articles in physics are women. That number is rising by only 0.1% per year—at that rate, it will take 258 years to come within 5% of gender parity!44. L. Holman, D. Stuart-Fox, C. E. Hauser, PLOS Biol. 16, e2004956 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004956

What factors lead to those disparities in representation? What are the challenges faced by equity-deserving groups? Why should physicists be motivated to effect change? What can physicists do to help the field improve? This article is a call to action for all physicists to work together on concrete and sustained efforts to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI; see the box on page 46) through awareness, collaboration, and engagement.

Concepts of equity, diversity, and inclusion

Equity: Treating people of all identities and backgrounds fairly and respectfully with regard to opportunities, access, treatment, power, outcomes, and resources.

Diversity: Embracing differences, which may include race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, family status, disability status, sexual orientation, age, and socioeconomic situation.

Inclusion: Intentionally creating welcoming and respectful environments and systems in which inequities in power and privilege are addressed and everyone is given an opportunity to flourish.

Awareness: Molehills and mountains

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Both academic research and lived experience have shown that individuals from underrepresented groups face a pattern of barriers that can be conceptualized as “molehills”—namely, challenges that may be individually surmountable but that add up over time to create a substantial cumulative effect.55. J. Gvozdanović et al., Implicit Bias in Academia: A Challenge to the Meritocratic Principle and to Women’s Careers—And What to Do About It, Advice Paper no. 23, League of European Research Universities (January 2018). Even a single molehill may be sufficient to deter an individual from entering the field or to motivate their departure. Individuals who do persist face disadvantages that compound over time. The summative effect of molehills creates a mountain that members of underrepresented groups must overcome (see figure 1). The result is a loss of talent, a lack of recruitment, and other inequities that hamper the full realization of human potential in physics.

Young children are often described as little scientists, but their joy for experimentation and discovery may be adversely affected by negative stereotypes and cultural beliefs. Gender identity, sexuality, and race or ethnicity are strong and persistent social bases for stereotyping. Students with disabilities also face accessibility barriers—particularly the high financial costs of disability accommodations in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).66. M. A. Sukhai, C. E. Mohler, Creating a Culture of Accessibility in the Sciences, Academic Press (2017). All of those obstacles result in enrollment gaps in physics among underrepresented groups.22. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors, National Academies Press (2020).

The sense of belonging felt by students with diverse backgrounds is important in determining their persistence and success. Factors affecting that sense can include their peer group, the presence of role models, and the pedagogical approaches used by instructors.22. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors, National Academies Press (2020).,77. L. M. Aycock et al., Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 010121 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.15.010121 Perhaps the biggest negative factor those students face is discrimination or exclusion because of their race, ethnicity, gender identity, socioeconomic class, disability status, or sexual identity. Given that today’s student body is more diverse than ever—16% of physicists ages 17–25 identify as LGBTQIA+—such discrimination may have a significant effect on overall retention.33. T. J. Atherton et al., LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community, American Physical Society (March 2016).

Individuals who have been sexually harassed are particularly likely to feel like they don’t belong.77. L. M. Aycock et al., Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 010121 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.15.010121 One recent survey of attendees at a US conference for undergraduate women in physics revealed that 74% of the 455 respondents had experienced sexual harassment. Most of them probably experienced gender harassment, which comprises a range of put-down behaviors, including sexual and sexist remarks and inappropriate jokes. Gender harassment is often deemed less severe than similar types of behavior, but it, too, has serious ramifications. Its pervasiveness is alarming.77. L. M. Aycock et al., Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 010121 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.15.010121

Other research indicates that scientists who identify as members of multiple marginalized groups, like women and people of color who are also part of the LGBTQIA+ community, face greater risks of harassment.22. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors, National Academies Press (2020).,33. T. J. Atherton et al., LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community, American Physical Society (March 2016). Members of those groups are also likely to face microaggressions, subtle and often unconscious actions that express prejudicial views toward marginalized people. Microaggressions negatively affect individuals’ experiences in the field and the likelihood of whether they will ultimately choose a career in physics.22. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors, National Academies Press (2020).,88. F. Henry et al., The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities, UBC Press (2017).,99. D. W. Sue et al., Am. Psychol. 74, 128 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000296

Myth of equity

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The gender, race, and ethnicity of graduate students entering the job market have been shown to influence perceptions of their abilities and have ramifications on both their hirability and the salary they are offered.1010. A. A. Eaton et al., Sex Roles 82, 127 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-019-01052-w In one recent study, a curriculum vitae (CV) was created for a hypothetical doctoral student applying for postdoctoral positions. Eight versions of the CV were produced. All were identical except for the name, which was changed to reflect gender (female or male) and race (Asian, Black, Hispanic, or white). A total of 251 physics and biology professors at eight large US research universities were each sent one of the CVs and asked to rate the candidate for competence, hirability, and likability.

The physics faculty had more gender bias than their counterparts in biology. Although they rated the female candidates as more likable, they ultimately viewed male candidates as more competent and hirable than female candidates. Race and ethnicity affected ratings too: White and Asian candidates were rated as more competent and hirable than Black and Hispanic candidates. Black female and Hispanic male and female candidates were rated lowest in hirability, which demonstrates how race and gender intersect in physics.

Biases undermine the advancement of individuals from underrepresented groups.55. J. Gvozdanović et al., Implicit Bias in Academia: A Challenge to the Meritocrati


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