Saturday, April 11, 2015

Diversity Stems From a Comic Strip, I Hope

This post was sparked by my abysmal failure to answer a simple question and the discovery of a brilliant comic strip.

I volunteer with several organizations, one of which employs a fair number of paleontologists and other scientists working in related fields.  The other day, our lab had a visit from one of the scientists whom I did not know by name.  Later, when asked who the visitor had been, I admitted I didn't know.  Then came the logical next question, “Can you describe him?”  I fumbled to respond, all the while, waging a vigorous internal debate.

Hey, I told myself, don’t make your first response one that centers on race.  (My sensitivity on this score is, I think, partly a generational thing, a product of liberal guilt in a baby boomer.)  So, I tried to avoid saying something like, “It was a white guy” (though it was).  And I shied away from an adjective that had came to mind – “sketchy” – because I was sure that response would get back to our visitor.  Why “sketchy?” I asked myself.  Because he looked like he’d been living in his jeans and baggy shirt for awhile, and he also had a really wild head of hair.  Oh, the hair.  Yeah, go with that, a mostly neutral attribute.

“He had a wild head of hair.”  I gestured with my hands, well out from my ears.

“Oh, must have been J_____.”

When I recounted this episode to my wife, we both realized that the visitor’s initial attributes that I had observed would have been mostly worthless to actual identify anyone within this group of paleontologists.

Gender?  Well, yes, being male narrowed the possibilities somewhat.

But, race?  In this case, not of much help since I think that all of the likely male suspects are white.

Dress?  Hey, paleontologists long ago embraced a concept of “very casual Fridays,” and they practice it every workday.

Bottom line, professional paleontology in this country, based on my experience with, admittedly, very limited samples, appears to me to be a mostly male, almost exclusively white endeavor (and practiced by folks who are have a decidedly relaxed dress code).  I’m not alone in that assessment (well, as far as gender and racial diversity is concerned).  Paleontology has been labeled “one of the least diverse scientific fields.”  (Molly Sharlach, Bones to Pick:  UC Berkeley Paleontologist Entices Diverse Students to Dig Her Field, California Magazine, Cal Alumni Association, July 25, 2014.)

Is this characterization in fact true?  Although statistics on women and minorities employed as paleontologists are elusive, the annual Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) gets us into the ballpark.  The relevant code in the 2010 Census Occupation Index (COI) is #1740 which includes, not only the occupation of paleontologist (and a couple of specialties in the field), but a host of other semi-related ones, such as geologist, geochemist, geophysicist, oceanographer, and seismologist.  Published tables aggregate all of these COI 1740 occupations into a single category, Environmental Scientists and Geoscientists.  That’s as close as I’ve been able to come with federal government statistics.

In 2014, women and most minorities were seriously underrepresented in employment as Environmental Scientists and Geoscientists, almost regardless of the standard against which such representation is measured.  Let’s focus, for the moment, on estimates for women and African Americans.  Women made up slightly less than a quarter (24.5%) of the Environmental Scientists and Geoscientists, a share that compares poorly to female representation in, say, Management, Professional, and Related Occupations (51.6%) or the entire workforce (46.9%).  African American representation is much, much more problematic.  In 2014, a mere l.3% of Environmental Scientists and Geoscientists were African American compared to 8.8% of individuals employed in Management, Professional, and Related Occupations, and 11.4% of the entire workforce.

Occupation Total Employed (000s) Women African American Asian Hispanic
Total (16 yrs+) 146,305 46.9% 11.4% 5.7% 16.1%
Manage&Prof 56,050 51.6% 8.8% 7.5% 8.7%
Environ/Geosci 91 24.5% 1.3% 3.9% 6.6%

(Source:  CPS Annual Averages Tables, 2014, Table 11.  Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.)

None of these data should be a surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to the issue of diversity in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  The picture painted by the many analyses out there on the subject is troubling.  (See, for example, Liana Christin Landivar, Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin, American Community Survey Reports, September, 2013.)

Among the factors long since identified as contributing to the underrepresentation of women and many minority groups in STEM fields are the relatively poor overall quality of education provided to many minority students; the inadequacy of math and science instruction; lack of attention to the needs of, and some overt discrimination against, women and minorities in the math and science educational pipeline; discrimination within STEM occupations that have long been dominated by white males; and a popular culture that offers relatively few examples of women and minorities in math and science and that perpetuates stereotypes that discourage their participation.  (For a strong statement on these issues, I recommend the New York Times editorial of December 10, 2013, titled Missing From Science Class:  Too Few Girls and Minorities Study Tech Subjects.)

That last – the role of the broader culture – has been on my radar because, as I rummaged through the copious statistical studies on diversity in STEM fields and occupations, I stumbled on a couple of illuminating stories that bring those societal barriers into relief.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson made a powerful, personal statement on this issue while participating in a panel discussion on The Secular Society and Its Enemies, an event hosted by the Center for Inquiry on November 10, 2007.  The relevant portion begins at the one hour and second minute point (1:02) of the video of the discussion.  The question to the panelists had to do with the statement made by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers about genetics and representation of women in the sciences.  Tyson began (eliciting a laugh at the outset, before turning serious),
I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life. So let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as in the community of women, in a white male dominated society.
(Though I’ve listened to the piece, I’m quoting here from the transcription by ecologist Meghan Duffy in a post on the Dynamic Ecology blog, May 1, 2014.)

Tyson went on to describe how, from the age of nine, after a visit to the Hayden Planetarium, he wanted to be an astrophysicist.  As he put it,
And all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of nature, the forces of society.  Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, “Don’t you want to be an athlete?” . . . .  Now here I am, one, I think, of the most visible scientists in the land and I want to look behind me and say, “Where are the others who might have been this?”  And they’re not there.  And I wonder, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not[,] simply because the forces of society had prevented [them] at every turn?  At every turn!
It’s a nasty Catch-22.  A lack of diversity in STEM ranks dissuades women and minorities from considering joining those ranks, perpetuating the underrepresentation.  There’s a lot of blame to go around.  Even the Google Doodles get a share.

Google Doodles, those little animated pieces that grace the Google logo on its search page and that celebrate special dates and special people, completely ignored women for its first seven years.  In a piece written for Scientific American, Megan Smith and Brian Welle (vice president and director of people analytics, respectively, at Google) acknowledged that Doodles missed the mark for women and people of color, a lapse they posited reflects the cultural biases in science and technology workplaces, including Google’s, where women and minorities are largely absent or invisible.  This is pernicious, they argued, because:
Visibility matters.  An abundance of research shows that seeing very few people like oneself represented in a profession leads people—especially girls and students of color—to feel less welcome and makes them more anxious than they would feel in gender- or race-balanced professions.  It can create debilitating performance pressure.  Ultimately fewer women and minorities will pursue computer science as a profession or persist with the career once they are there.   (Time to Raise the Profile of Women and Minorities in Science, Scientific American, September 16, 2014.)
Yes, Google Doodles may be trivial little things, but the messages they convey matter.  They are one of the myriad sources in our society of subtle and not so subtle signals about who belongs in the sciences and technology.

And so I thought it was a stroke of genius that Dwight Carr, an electrical engineer and the STEM program manager at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, turned to comic strips in an effort to change those societal messages and signals.  At his request, the APL’s Technical Communications Group developed Fifth Period, a comic strip hosted on the APL website.  Carr has said, “A key reason the comic strip was developed was to encourage students to delve deeper into STEM-related topics and keep them coming back.”  (Gina Ellrich, APL Develops Comic Strip to Bring STEM Disciplines to Life, Johns Hopkins University Gazette, February 2013.  Another article, which is the one that put me on to the strip, appeared in the Spring, 2015, issue of the Johns Hopkins Magazine.  It was written by Lisa Watts,and titled APL’s Fifth Period Comic Targets the Next Gen of STEM Talent. )

Fifth Period is a superbly drawn strip that is engaging, informative, and, best of all, funny, even as it takes on its serious mission of attracting girls and minorities to STEM fields of study and work.  It features a racially and ethnically diverse group of high school students – Sophie, Tomás, Emma, and Marcus (yeah, their initials make up the STEM acronym) who are into different aspects of science and math while, clearly, leading typical teenage lives.  In its few panels, each strip manages to present some issue or problem from the STEM fields that has grabbed one or more of our heroes, offer insight into the issue, and leave the reader with a laugh.  Accompanying each strip is a bit of text that elucidates the basic principles underlying the issue and suggests activities readers might undertake, questions for further thinking, and relevant resources.

Here’s one of my favorites which captures much of what I love about the strip.

Titled Tomás Has Gas, this strip ran on December 7, 2012.   It is reproduced here with permission of the Applied Physics Laboratory.  Its accompanying text explains that, in a decomposition reaction (such as when baking soda and vinegar are mixed), larger molecules break apart into smaller ones, which occupy ever greater volume and, in turn, build pressure.

We got close to paleontology in one strip, well, at least, in the text explaining the storyline.

This strip is also included in this post with permission of the Applied Physics Laboratory.  It appeared on December 20, 2013 and is titled The Homework Expedition.

I do have a quibble about the explanation for this strip.  As Tomás describes it, he and Sophie are on what is essentially an archaeological dig, which is an appropriate characterization because they are exploring articles made by humans.  But the explanation slides almost immediately into geology, comparing the layers of paper in Tomás’ backpack to layers of sedimentary rock, and noting that geologists use fossils in sedimentary layers to date the rock.  Better, I think, to have stuck with archaeology and not blurred the lines between fields.  I initially lamented the omission of paleontologists in the explanation, but I already encounter enough folks who confuse paleontology and archaeology.

Regardless, I am quite taken by Fifth Period; it needs and deserves a very much larger audience.  Web traffic to the strip is pretty sparse, reportedly only 400 unique views a month (appearing in this blog probably wont be of much help on that score).  In fact, manual labor seems to be carrying the load – APL’s Carr has delivered thousands of copies to schools and career fairs.  Now, in an ideal world, . . . .

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