Let's talk... Long-term changes in STEM

Recent events have retriggered the common feelings of sadness, anger and disappointment…. but surprise? No. These emotions aren’t new.


The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement highlighted on the black experience in the STEM industry. Scientists on social media have been sharing their own experiences in STEM* by contributing to hashtags like #BlackInTheIvory and #RepresentationMatters. The common consensus is that STEM fields have not been the most welcoming to black scientists in the past.


There are a large number of reasons that the STEM industry is still largely considered unequal, one of the major reasons being performative actions. Performative actions are those that have little substance, usually performed for dramatic flair or attention. A performative, glory-seeking mindset caters to short-term contributions to change because the motivation is to be part of a trend rather than part of any real change. We have seen a lot more promises and claims to improve the experience of black individuals in STEM; it is imperative that in the future any equality-driven actions have genuine aims to fulfil an equal experience in STEM.


According to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour, being openly supportive of a more diverse community increases awareness of social issues. The study implemented interventions that targeted the perception of social norms to introduce pro-diversity attitudes towards their 'non-marginalised peers'. Their findings were that "marginalized students had an increased sense of belonging, reported being treated more inclusively by their peers and earned better grades". Whilst the events of this year have shown that increased exposure of the issues in STEM has led to more claims of support, we are yet to see as many real and/or effective improvements followed. Awareness is not the endgame. What are we doing as individuals and organisations to make sure these issues do not continue/repeat themselves?


An article by We Rep STEM does well to summarise the methodology and findings of Murrar et al’s research.


This same study suggests that constant exposure to pro-diversity messaging for long periods of time can have conscious and unconscious effects and an overall appreciation for diversity. Long-term change requires more than a declaration of support on social media platforms. The realities of racial disparities in the STEM experience deserve to be addressed with tangible solutions.


We’ve asked our network of scientists what performative actions they have experienced and according to our network, performative actions include:


Didn't get to contribute? You can have your say now.

People/institutions with down-to-earth mindsets make 'smaller', more attainable goals with a higher chance of success. These smaller changes are also more likely to become habitual.


‘Smaller’ actions that our network has said have made a difference to their experience in STEM include:

  • Support to stay in academia. The interest is there but [the] environment [is] ghetto @thecatalystinme. Make the general scientific environment more accessible and more welcoming to black scientists

These ‘smaller’ changes have a more positive impact on the experience of black STEMers than larger (and arguably performative) attempts.


All new behaviours need to be conscious; no one has ever learnt a new skill by willing it into actualisation. There are so many self-help resources with varying opinions on the best way to form habits but all require the same key ingredient: repetition. New/changed behaviours can take a long time to become ‘normal’ but repetition leads to the normalisation of a once foreign idea.


As a network, we have always existed to be the presence that is needed for the people we support. We will continue sharing genuine efforts of equality and opportunities in the STEM field.


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* STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

**EDI = Equality, Diversity and Inclusion


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References

Murrar, S., Campbell, M.R. & Brauer, M. Exposure to peers’ pro-diversity attitudes increases inclusion and reduces the achievement gap. Nat Hum Behav (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0899-5