Equity and diversity in the Geosciences

People all over the world and from all walks of life interact with their physical landscapes, many in much more material ways that we tend to in the ‘western’ world. And yet the geosciences remain the most racially homogenous of the Science, Technology and Math (STEM) disciplines. Although there have been significant improvements in gender diversity within the geosciences in recent years, women remain under-represented within the discipline as a whole and particularly so at higher, more prestigious positions.

Assuming that everyone in the world has an equal right to participate in the geosciences and that the geosciences need the inputs of all worldviews to be equitable, humane and relevant, there are two relevant questions here. The first is why does the discipline either appeal to or cater to such a narrow demographic of researchers, and the second is how do we change this?

To this end, I engaged in a study of gender and racial diversity at a 2017 Canadian geosciences conference held at UBC with my colleagues Lucy MacKenzie, Marc Tadaki, Sara Cannon, Kiely MacFarlane, David Reid, and Michele Koppes. We collected both quantitative data on the demographics of conference attendees and their participation throughout the conference as well as qualitative observations of behaviours within conference sessions. Our results highlight two main findings. Firstly, women and people of colour are not evenly distributed throughout the conference – particular subdisciplines appear to either appeal to or support more racial and gender diversity than others. Secondly, we documented what we believe to be a ‘chilly climate’ for women in sessions where there were no female speakers, and we documented higher rates of audience disruption when people of colour were presenting than when white presenters were speaking (see figure, below). The detailed results of the study are published open-access here, and a summary was published in TheConversation.com.

Figure 7-1

We calculated a disturbance score for each presentation we observed. We did so by ranking three metrics of disturbance: 1) use of technology, 2) people entering and leaving the room, and 3) people talking. Each metric would be given a score from 0 (none) to 2 (lots), for a total possible disturbance score of 6 for a given presentation. The above graph shows the distribution of these scores for white presenters and people of color, as well as for sessions in which there were no female presenters (0% female), some female presenters (0-50% female) and the majority female speakers (>50% female). You can see, for example, that people of colour experienced the highest rates of disturbance; 70% of presenters of color experienced disturbance scores above 1, whereas only 40% of presenters in sessions without female presenters experienced disturbance scores above 1.

This study was my first foray into equity and diversity research. I have a lot to learn with respect to the equity and diversity conversation generally, particularly with respect to my positionality as a white person and how to be an ally. I learned a lot, particularly with respect to the use of binary categories of identity. Although I hope that the study is validating to many people who experience feelings of exclusion in geoscientific settings and I hope that the study provides an impetus for the geoscientific community to reflect on diversity, I know I have much, much more to learn.

I direct the reader here to Paulette Blanchard’s powerful piece in the American Geophysical Union’s ‘From the Prow’. She highlights the ways in which the geosciences directly support the oppression of Indigenous people and she challenges us to engage meaningfully with involving Indigenous people, voices, and ways of seeing into the geosciences. She asks “Does your work include the voices of the silenced and marginalized, or are you speaking for them?”. I do feel as though my prior work in equity and diversity has failed in this regard, and I look forward to moving forward with equity and diversity research that engages more deeply with centering the voices of marginalized demographics.