Be more like Harry: creating inclusive spaces in STEM

Creating a fair environment where everyone from all races, ethnicities, and genders should have the same chance and opportunities to excel is a critical part of the commitment to equitable and meritocratic treatment. However, in a recent article published in Science Advances and reviewed in Nature, author Erin Cech concluded that this is not the case. Cech skillfully applied the concept of intersectionality to determine if white, non-disabled, heterosexual men (WAHM) in STEM experience more equitable and inclusive treatment and professional respect, increased monetary compensation, and more job satisfaction when compared with members of 32 other intersectional gender, race, sexual identity, and disability status categories. Using a survey of 25,324 U.S. STEM professionals, Cech concluded that WAHM are uniquely privileged in STEM. Statistical analysis showed that these privileges were not impacted by skills or training, work ethic, job title, socioeconomic status, or family responsibilities. Instead, many of these advantages remained as “premiums” attached to WAHM status itself.1,2 

To many of us, this is not a surprise. It is yet another example of the devastating effects that institutional and structural racism can have on professional-level STEM-based diversity recruitment and retention efforts. Unfortunately, many organizations have created diversity initiatives as a marketing/recruiting tool but do not understand the difference between diversity and inclusion in the workspace. Put simply, diversity efforts are concerned with representation and who is included. Diversity efforts should not be confused with the creation of an inclusive environment. Inclusion does not simply mean that people from various groups are included; it is concerned with what their inclusion in that organization or environment means. Just because diversity exists within a particular space, it does not mean that everyone is being included and treated fairly. 

Some organizations opt for easy solutions, such as unconscious bias training and resource groups, hoping that this training will reduce unconscious bias in attitudes and behaviors in hiring and promotion decisions and in interactions with colleagues.

Sadly, this is a common mistake. Some organizations opt for easy solutions, such as unconscious bias training and resource groups, hoping that this training will reduce unconscious bias in attitudes and behaviors in hiring and promotion decisions and in interactions with colleagues. These are a good start, but not long-term solutions as simply increasing awareness is not enough. 

Instead, teaching people to manage their biases, change their behavior, and track their progress is important. This training provides information that contradicts stereotypes and allows learners to connect with people whose experiences differ from theirs. Moreover, it is not just a one-time education session; it entails a long journey. This might be exactly what was missing in the environments of some of the STEM professionals whose surveyed responses were analyzed for Cech’s study. So, rather than providing unconscious bias training as a check-the-box exercise, organizations should take an altruistic approach and make a real, long-term commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion because they think it is worthy and essential.

Those most effective in the STEM diversity, equity, and inclusion space have done deep personal work around their privileged and marginalized identities, examined their wounds, and built their emotional intelligence. They are curious thinkers, deep listeners, and excellent communicators. Consider this scenario: Jane makes a suggestion at her organization’s meeting; everyone ignores it. Ten minutes later, Joe makes the same suggestion, and the meeting attendees say, “Wow, Joe! What a great idea!” Jane thinks, what just happened? If she brings it up to a colleague, they will likely say, “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” Being ignored in a meeting is a molehill, but molehills matter, because advantage accumulates via molehills. 

Now, let’s consider Jane’s colleague Harry, who is an emotionally intelligent individual who is self-aware and self-reflective. If Harry had attended this meeting, he would have said, “Jane made a suggestion that I think we should discuss,” and then repeated Jane’s suggestion. He would not necessarily have to say Jane’s suggestion was good, nor would he chastise his colleagues for ignoring her. His aim would have been to ensure that everyone is heard. Be like Harry. 

Many people from all races, ethnicities, and gender are doing impactful work in the STEM diversity, equity, and inclusion space. Others are open to creating more equitable and inclusive STEM environments for everyone but are unsure how to go about it. You need to look no further than The American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB). ASCB plans to develop programs to educate and equip members (and the larger scientific community) about how to be inclusive and equity-minded (look at the ASCB diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plan). However, ASCB realizes that this cannot be simply a top-down approach. Therefore, it also has different types of diversity initiatives and committees for individuals to get involved with ( The Minorities Affairs Committee (MAC) and other ASCB committees and groups, such as Women in Cell Biology (WICB) and LGBTQ+, are always looking for volunteers to step out of their various identities to participate in initiatives to institute a collective change and connect with diverse people who are scientists just like you. 

The simplest way to help others make different choices is to make them yourself and do it openly. As you shift the patterns of your own perception in systems of privilege, you make it easier for others to do so as well, and harder for them not to. Simply by setting an example, rather than trying to change others, you create the possibility of their participation in change on their own time and in their own way. This way you can widen the circle of change without provoking the kind of defensiveness that perpetuates paths of least resistance and the oppressive systems they serve. Be like Harry, and you’re on your way. 


  1. Cech, E. A. The intersectional privilege of white able-bodied heterosexual men in STEM. Sci Adv 8, eabo1558 (2022).
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About the Author:

Leslie Caromile is an Assistant Professor at the UCONN Health – Center for Vascular Biology.