The New Alchemy of “Informational Diversity”

Diversity, Katherine W. Phillips writes in Scientific American, is both harder to achieve in science and engineering workplaces than we might hope, and a more worthwhile goal if innovation and new ideas are our aims.  At first glance that argument seems like it would bring some criticality and some urgency to the correction of racial, gender and other forms of discrimination in places of STEM employment. Alas. I think Phillips while trying to support more inclusive practices in science and engineering is actually marshaling some newly subtle means for keeping the social relations of STEM pretty much just as they are.

The basic findings she offers, based on her study of decades of others’ diversity research and some of her own, combine familiar and novel claims about diversity. First, a familiar claim: People of differing backgrounds have different ideas about what should be done in scientific and technical settings, which in turn fuels innovation.  And here, a less familiar one: When we are in dialog with people of  backgrounds that differ from our own we listen more acutely to their points, expecting those ideas to differ from our own. Thus we are more open to new concepts, more diligent in inspecting that incoming information than when in a “homogeneous” setting. We are “jolted into action” by the expectation of intellectual dissonance. The social conflict and discomfort often associated with efforts at social diversity thus have “an upside,” as Phillips puts it, because these feelings put us on our inventive mettle. Voila! Even more innovation!

This concept of “informational diversity” practically sings with meritocratic promise, converting discomfort to democracy, fear to productivity. I find it troubling in many ways.  Among the many selective denials of power and oppression operating here, let me just take on the most basic: the very perception that one is facing a person of “differing background” involves a raft of presumptions.  It involves reproducing ideas of what counts as difference, and operating from the idea that demarcations in skin tone or national origin or economic status are in all instances indicative of unique life experiences.  It also presupposes that we know what we are seeing: That a person’s meaningful identifications are visible and known to us.  I’m not just talking about so-called invisible disabilities and the immense presumptions we make every day about one another’s sexualities (both unto themselves huge factors); I’m talking about a huge range of personal circumstances, both advantaging and disadvantaging, that are not knowable through any external expression.

What’s more, while tremendous privileges and penalties inhere in different identifying characteristics there is little determinacy to life experiences associated with such characteristics.  To  presume that “difference” is there is to reify one’s own sense of what matters about the person one is encountering, ironically closing off any real consideration of how privilege and penalty might be operating in that moment, in that institution, or crucially, as residuals of one’s own ascribed identity.

And in that consoling sense of knowing “who” we are looking at and what matters about them, we generate and regenerate delineations of races, ages, physical and intellectual abilities, and other familiar taxonomies that keep our entire social system (including the hierarchies of opportunity in STEM education and work) ticking over.  Make no mistake: to deny the social instrumentalities of race, gender, sexuality or ability in 2015 would be just as bad, enacting a willfully naive worldview that terrifies whether in the hands of either right or left. Rather we need to think more about our presumptions of difference than Phillips’ analysis suggests; we need to grapple with our starting points for the project of “diversification.”

Diversity isn’t merely harder than we might presume, as Phillips writes; it is in fact much harder, with inequity and injustice supported by much more complex and self-justifying logics than her interpretation here acknowledges.  For example, as Patrick Grzanka makes beautifully clear in his book on intersectional scholarship, the inequality that characterizes so much of our culture  “is not based in identity; but rather inequalities produce social identities.” Think about the way that “racist, xenophobic, immigration laws produce ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals’ and ‘noncitizens’” as he suggests, and you can start to see how seemingly positive attributions (“here is a black person with a new idea,” “here is a successful company with a female CEO”) don’t solve the problem. Those formulations can help sustain essentialist concepts about human difference that ground discriminatory social structures, converting systems of oppression to mere methods of distinction in our minds.

The idea that we “listen differently” to those we expect to have different life experiences than our own does nothing so much as prove that we operate from stereotypes.  And while it may be a new research finding, it operates on somewhat stale ideas of the nature of identity. No surprise, perhaps, because it serves deeply uncritical ideas of what counts as innovation. These are all ideas about optimized social relations within a very particular setting: The corporate society in which ideas about science and technology seem worthwhile when they reproduce the labor, environmental, geopolitical and other societal arrangements in which corporate interests thrive. (Note the many statistics Phillips offers about companies which have done well fiscally through the hiring of women and minorities.) Avery Gordon laid out this power-conserving feature of corporate diversity efforts some time ago, and Sara Ahmed adds much to our understanding as well, as I hope does my own work linking STEM rigor and selectivity. But this criticality, unsurprisingly, does not find its way into the institutions whose larger distributions of privilege it might threaten.

Think about Phillips’ findings in that context of institutional self-preservation and the reassuring image of perceived differences serving either authentic intellectual risk or radical expansions of social opportunity dissolves. More women and minorities may be hired if more employers take up the notion that “diversity makes us smarter,” but that tells us little about the experiences of thus-labeled persons within workplaces, and I actually think ideas of biological and cultural difference are not challenged here in a way that will bring wide or sustainable change even within STEM sectors. On a more global level, too, we should ask how those marginalized persons without access to education or work will be further marked and disadvantaged by this version of democracy.

I wish I was confident that diversity programming was indeed a kind of alchemy: that the conversion of interpersonal hostility and suspicion to productive intellectual labor described by Phillips held implications for a more equitable society. But I’m not, because the problem of discrimination here is bounded in a way which makes a solution possible. It is a solution which preserves larger discriminatory functions for identity in our culture. Phillips’ vision serves the decades-old claim of American corporate diversity that innovation arises from having someone of minority background in the room.  I think, though, that not much will really change until everybody decides there is a world beyond that room.

Apology…Excepted: Anti-LGBTQ Bias in STEM, continued

Some good news: There is now an apology posted on-line from the publisher of ASEE’s Prism magazine.  Norman Fortenberry has taken responsibility all along for the appearance of the anti-LGBT letter in Prism that I discussed in the post just below, and he summarized his reasons for going ahead with that publication for a few days ago. But now he sees things differently, which is a very welcome turn. Dr. Fortenberry expresses his “deep regret” for his decision to publish the letter and for the “resulting anger, pain, disappointment, and embarrassment to ASEE members, officers, and staff and the LGBTQ community.” And yet, I feel I need to take just a minute to consider this apology.

It’s not that Dr. Fortenberry in any way here endorses anti-LGBTQ bias in engineering; it’s just that he doesn’t strive to dismantle it in any direct way, either.  Somehow that bias does not become in Dr. Fortenberry’s apology an object for our direct attention.  Some subtle qualifiers follow that statement about his deep regret, and I think these suggest a sort of hesitancy that has configured many STEM diversity efforts, certainly some of my own included.  Some of my colleagues have pointed out a few more qualifications and elisions in Dr. Fortenberry’s apology, and I wonder if in articulating these we might open the door to more criticality about our diversity work in engineering.

For one thing, Dr. Fortenberry steps back at several points from explicitly criticizing Dr. Helmer’s original claims about LGBT persons.  In the following passage, he labels these claims not as harmful, but rather as unexpected in conventional discourse. Referring to his placement of Dr. Helmer’s letter in Prism, Dr. Fortenberry says:

 I failed to recognize that there is a balance to be struck between representing a variety of viewpoints and not providing a platform for views that are generally considered outside the mainstream of public debate.

But in characterizing Dr. Helmer’s ideas as merely unusual, the apology discourages us from seeing those ideas as harmful.  They are not simply different ideas from those we may hold or commonly encounter; they are “specious,” and “intolerant and prejudicial,” as ASEE’s own leaders have indicated in their published response to the letter.  Saying that Dr. Helmer’s claims about LGBT persons are “outside the mainstream” lends a neutrality to the patent falsehoods and prejudice on which those claims rest.  Could this possibly have been Dr. Fortenberry’s intention?

In his apology Dr. Fortenberry also notes that:

As a privately published, society-focused magazine, Prism is under no obligation to address issues not directly relevant to engineering education, research, service, or practice

But the existence of ongoing bias and bigotry, and specifically their bold address and forceful elimination,  are entirely relevant to the work of engineering. I find it surprising that a proven leader in the field of engineering education would consider for a moment that identity politics, in all of their manifestations, are unrelated to STEM practice. What is more, with this phrasing, Dr. Fortenberry may marginalize our concerns about Dr. Helmer’s discriminatory words. That is, with this demarcation of “irrelevance,” any upset at anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is also easily deemed to be outside of Prism’s mission.  This feels at some distance from a solid, clear rejection of the bigotry many of us sensed in Dr. Helmer’s judgments.

So where do the lessons in this episode lie? Let’s think again about the checklist Dr. Fortenberry provides of the letter’s damaging impacts: “anger, pain, disappointment, and embarrassment”…Dr. Fortenberry not only regrets his own actions in publicizing Dr. Helmer’s views, but also apologizes for causing our subsequent reactions. But let’s consider whether we really want to wish those reactions away quite so quickly; given Dr. Helmer’s bigoted statements about the health and character of LGBT persons, and his letter’s suggestion that these presumptions should shape engineering education, maybe some anger is needed right now. That Dr. Helmer’s words were framed in terms of his religious beliefs must not deter us from clearly naming them as injurious, as intended to induce shame.  The anger and pain many people felt upon reading them is proportionate to their menace, and that anger and pain when shared can describe and communicate that menace.  To fail to parse in this way the outcomes of discrimination, even unintentionally, may leave some lessons unlearned.

My thanks here to Deanna Day, Erin Cech, Juan Lucena and others for helping me think some of this through. Again, it is gratifying to see the ASEE engage in this conversation, and Dr. Fortenberry’s decision to apologize is not in any way to be dismissed.  But that apology as written just might be foreclosing important debate.  In other words: We still need to talk about this episode.  And with some more conversation, maybe we can come to see why our concern about diversity, however sincerely felt, time and again has failed dramatically to erode the discriminatory profile of engineering.



Beware the Algorithm: STEM Recruitment Meets Big Data

Big Data, it seems, is suddenly very big. Among the social scientists with whom I spend time, newly massive, deep-tissue-massaged bodies of data have found currency.  As a research tool, the emergent technique seems to promise a rehabilitation of conventional, sometimes dismayingly narrow, quantitative analysis because it involves the use not just of MORE raw material but also of unprecedentedly nuanced software. So, unlike old “Small Data” projects, the empiricism of Big Data research feels like it is rooted in an especially flexible and expansive kind of inquiry.  As more and more media, public and private institutions, and cultural enterprises of all kinds operate on-line, the idea that our research subject (manipulated data) and method (manipulating data) shall coincide seduces. But perhaps caution is advised.

I recently attended a social science workshop in which the taxonomic, counting, and graphing choices being made with Big Data seemed to be tripping along with a minimum of criticality and reflexivity.  Not one among the sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural historians attending suggested that the new scale of data-collection and warp speed of data-crunching might hold totalizing risks for the analyst.  In the bigger-data-sets-are-better atmosphere, Foucault’s point that in rendering a subject knowable we reproduce power seemed lost amidst the intoxicating possibility of…the comprehensive.  That this feature of Big Data holds profoundly political implications became clear to me when I read a piece in yesterday’s New York Times by Matt Richtel on the role of Big Data in enhancing inclusion in STEM.

“I Was Discovered by An Algorithm” is not about the social sciences per se, but it is about the use of extraordinarily large data sets for ostensibly value-laden purposes. The article introduces readers to “work-force science,” a new-ish field in which human resources personnel mine massive amounts of data to determine both which sorts of qualification and which individuals may best suit a particular job category or position. In the case of computing professions, the growth of on-line code sharing and programming provides a ready-made body of data that can reveal, proponents say, unrecognized talent. This system supposedly corrects for social biases triggered by our faces or resumes to expand hiring pools and individuals’ opportunities, alike.

But the notion of hidden STEM talent is one I’ve long been concerned about and its mention here alerted me to a conservative deployment of Big Data. Defining the problem as one of unrecognized talent is a way of seeing under-representation in STEM without asking questions about opportunities…about discrimination in education that might preclude an individual’s development of technical interests. Nor does it let us ask about the inherent oppressions of segmented industrial labor , a system that minimizes workers’  chances to learn and grow through work. To me, such searches for promising but as-yet-unrecognized STEM workers have presented a seemingly inclusive agenda that manages systematically to ignore such structural inequities.

Consider the framing of data-driven STEM hiring described in Richtel’s piece. Vivienne Ming, chief scientist at the start-up firm, Gild, approaches the mining of Big Data as a way to evade the biases traditionally found in hiring, including gender, race, and the presumptions we make about one another based on university attended or jobs previously held.  The main case covered in the article is that of a young programmer who never attended college but who, once in range of Gild’s “automated vacuum and filter for talent” (as Ming calls it),  was revealed to possess exceptional capacities.  He got the job. To Ming, this approach to recruitment lets the firm “put everything in,” and then lets the “data speak for itself.”

But of course, data can’t speak for itself; only for those who have given it meaning. Despite Ming’s articulated concern with inclusion,  per Gild’s algorithm (and their Nike-esque catchphrase, “Know Who’s Good”), it is only success along existing standards of technical efficacy and productivity that identifies the outstanding programmer. Automating this determination may be great for the firm, but it hardly constitutes a significant push-back at discriminatory conditions. There are doubts expressed in the article about this HR approach, but these are themselves telling about the obfuscatory power of meritocratic logic in industry. Some observers worry that subjective features such as a candidate’s “people skills” are occluded with this kind of data-based hiring. Others want more finely grained objective tools, such as those at Gild who are eager to hone in on prospective employees’ most specialized technical skills. But the superficial differences between these complaints are deceiving. Both thoroughly detach hiring criteria from the social and political conditions in which those criteria arise and which those criteria faithfully reproduce.

I have lately been reading a remarkable book on industrial personnel practices by professor of management Barbara Townley , which considers “power, ethics and the subject at work” from a Foucauldian vantage point.  She reminds us that the field of human resources has always been about constructing the individual as an object of knowledge, not about “uncovering” some essential self in the prospective employee.  Work-force science, predicated on letting data “speak for itself,”  seems exquisitely suited to (in Townley’s phrase) “render organizations and their participants calculable arenas,” and to do so  unceasingly “in service to the profitability and productivity of the organization.”  To claim, as Ming does, that the largest bodies of data ever deployed for HR purposes will somehow transcend the foundational values of corporate HR seems like selective logic. Personally, I will now be mining Townley’s work for ways to understand the social instrumentalities of Big Data.

STEM Equity: In Search of Trend Setters

Close your eyes and imagine a biology department or engineering school where every single one of the following policy changes has been implemented:

….universities might educate women graduate students about the downsides of alternative career paths, following partners’ career moves and taking time off. They could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae.

Amazing, right? This list, offered in Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s piece in American Scientist on “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,”  is striking for the variety of interventions it proposes: changes to hiring, tenure and leave policies; the introduction of new grant administration, childcare, and tele-commuting options…picture it: what a transformation!

But really, if we think about it, a good many of these institutional changes are in fact simply matters for HR.  There is not a lot here that threatens the essential features of teaching or research as those have been practiced in the academy for the last 120 years. Wait a minute: There is NOTHING here that undermines those practices in ANY way! It is the quality of life and levels of equity associated with academic work that would start to change if such policies were to be established.

So, why then does this list seem like fantasy?

Because, I suspect, any one of these changes, let alone the whole collection, would likely seem to many in the university today primarily like a gender-based accommodation,  a change to established institutional practice that derives from issues of practitioner identity. And American science is very, very reluctant to lend those issues any significant influence. We might feel bad about demographic imbalances in these professions, but we’re not going to let those “social” issues infiltrate our labs, classrooms, and other places where reputable, rigorous science is meant to be the order of the day.

That combination of impulses explains why the studies of race or gender inequity in STEM pile up, year after year, but the project of real inclusion in the academy just inches along.  (And of course, STEM is not alone in its cultural aversion to thinking about identity; thanks to Perri Strawn for making the connection to a similar critical discussion regarding business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.)

So here’s an idea: What if we get prominent universities to leverage their existing reputations for rigor in STEM and model these very doable gender-equity reforms?  Our STEM disciplines are inherently aspirational, so it might only take one or two national or even regional leaders to make an impact in this way.  MIT under its now-retiring president Susan Hockfield took a few such steps; why not more steps, taken more conspicuously, to set in motion a large-scale transformation?

A second piece just out in Science (and summarized by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education) reminds us just how badly such shifts are needed.  Tracking careers of women in STEM fields, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler  find that the high attrition rate among women STEM faculty in US universities largely offsets recent documented improvements in retention and promotion. Under existing conditions and hiring patterns, they report, university science departments would require nearly a century to attain gender parity.

A century?? We’re talking epochal time scales here! Yet go back to Williams and Ceci: there is clearly no shortage of good, creative thinking on what to do to change academic working conditions…on doable steps that would cost STEM programs money, but not rigor.

And we can’t let money stop the conversation, as it so often does: universities spend plenty of it on labs and salaries when they think those costs are merited to keep up their reputations. And that’s the key here: Again, STEM disciplines are by nature aspirational, judging all departments and programs in comparison to Big Guns like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, or Michigan.  If those leaders act, the much wider culture change may very well begin. Trend setters, step up: your to-do list is ready!

With Friends Like This…

An opinion column by Caitlin Flanagan in the NYTimes today, entitled “Hysteria and the Teenage Girl,” maps out for us why it is that girls experience “hysterical reactions” to stress more often than do boys, especially in the pressure-filled teenage years.  She lists separate episodes in which groups of girls or young women from various cultures—two batches of female American cheerleaders, 900 Arab girls in the West Bank and some female Israeli soldiers, communities of Tanzanian schoolgirls—apparently fell prey to shared (contagious?) psychological reactions to stress, exhibiting “Tourette’s like” behaviors, compulsive laughter, or fainting with no apparent physical bases. Flanagan sees here a version of the recurring psychological distress and domestic conflict that many parents of teenage girls she encounters routinely report. Thinking about these seemingly related phenomena compels Flanagan to assert to her readers that boys and girls are different and ultimately, to quote a neurologist’s finding that, “These girls will get better, they just need time and space.”

My own teenage daughter read the column and, with evident disgust (which I suppose, could have been induced by hysteria) said of Flanagan: “It’s like she is just saying ‘Who cares what happens to teenage boys!’ She doesn’t bother to find out why these girls reacted this way, or what other factors might have been involved…the only common feature was their craziness!”

“Girls look weak and susceptible,” she added, “Flanagan makes them look like delicate creatures!” Even at 16, provoked by such insults perhaps, she got it. To treat these females’  behaviors as “extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms” you’d have to be (in my daughter’s words), “looking for extreme behaviors only in girls, just refusing to see anything boys did as hysterical or extreme!”

She said it better than I could have and made me realize why a critique of Flanagan’s points belongs in a blog about STEM equity: Because Flanagan so blithely denies that social structures may set girls up to see themselves as less sturdy than boys, promoting such stress reactions.

Moreover, essentialist expectations of female weakness and incapacity like those Flanagan broadcasts might precondition girls to see themselves as innately physically or psychologically vulnerable. Her perhaps sincere sympathy for the suffering girls in fact  perpetuates such disempowering myths, not least by utterly ignoring the social, educational and economic inequities with which so many young women live.

Are some, or even most, teens emotionally vulnerable? Of course. Do conditions of impending adulthood, or poverty, or war, put people (of any age) in a position of psychological unsteadiness? Without question. But the presumption that we should not be surprised when girls or women reveal such vulnerability because it is inherent in their femaleness is to set the cause of women’s rights, and equal participation in social and cultural institutions of all kinds, back by decades.  Read this quote from the column and see if you agree with me that this might have been exactly Flanagan’s intention:

“Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away.”

“Won’t seem to go away”?? With folks like Flanagan treating psychological upset as gender-derived, primarily biological, and devoid of social or political cause,  it’s no wonder.

Field STEM…Observations on Diversity in Birding

Birdwatching. Rock collecting. Stargazing. These science-centered field activities have lately taken on the label of “out of school experiences” for some STEM educators, and “outreach” for the clubs and organizations that sponsor them.  Here, Jesse Smith, Philadelphia-based writer and curator,  guest blogs, on the complex issue of inclusion in one “recreational” science:

Last weekend, birders, field guide writers, state and federal government employees, and representatives of various Audubon chapters and local ornithological societies gathered at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia in search of a way to increase minority participation in birdwatching. Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding was a day full of good intentions…and missed opportunities.

Biologist and author John Robinson (Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers) laid the statistical foundation for the group’s claims. Data from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forest Service surveys demonstrates the unsurprising fact that Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asian populations are not self-identifying as “birdwatchers” in numbers that reflect the racial makeup of the general population. Birdwatching, in other words, is a disproportionately white community. Indeed, the “average” birder (Robinson’s quotation marks) is a 50-year-old Caucasian female who earns more than $50,000 a year and lives in the South. Such data is not surprising: Multiple surveys reveal similarly low minority participation rates in outdoor and nature-related activities.

The most interesting discussion explored possible barriers to birding. Susan Bonfield, who oversees International Migratory Bird Day (an initiative that provides materials and assistance to more than 520 locations that host migratory bird programming), identified awareness as the largest barrier for Latino populations. In 2000, IMBD began producing Spanish-language materials at the request of participating sites, who noticed a rise in their local Spanish-speaking populations. The materials went used, however; when IMDB subsequently conducted a survey of 1,000 Latinos, they found that more than 90% were unaware of the opportunities present at their local natural sites. Other panelists cited as barriers the lack of birding mentors in minority communities, African-Americans’ associating forests with lynching, and local natural areas’ histories as sites of Ku Klux Klan activity.

As interesting as the barriers discussed were those things not identified as barriers. Panelists discussed socio-economic factors such as leisure time, mobility, access to natural areas, and financial resources; but rather than being impediments to birding, these were presented as obstacles true birders could overcome: One panelist shared the story of a group of young people in Philadelphia who would walk miles to birding sites. Others explained that expensive binoculars are unnecessary. And of course birds are prolific — from inner city Philadelphia to Tierra del Fuego. Birdwatching, then, is as an activity open to everyone, everywhere.
Missing from all of this was any reflexivity on the part of the birdwatching community. Indeed, any discussion of “barriers to birding” diverts attention away from the activity itself; such an approach assumes that problems lies not within birding, but outside it, either among the targeted audiences or in some intermediate zone between audience and activity. Doing so allowed birdwatchers to avoid questioning the competitive nature of their activity, of an achievement system based on the size of one’s “life list” (which can only grow with time and travel). Nobody becomes a towering figure in American birding as an expert in the birds of Philadelphia.

Participants also failed to examine the contexts through which they were exposing young people to birding and the natural world. A representative from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional office effused over Heinz Refuge’s success in connecting young people who had “run afoul of the law” with nature. These young people — many of them young, African-American men, according to the speaker — came to the refuge to fulfill community service requirements. Here, they worked with the maintenance crew (and not the education or scientific arms of the refuge). The head of maintenance successfully connected these young people to the refuge, instilling in them a sense of ownership. When they returned post-service, they didn’t come to see the refuge manager, she pointed out, but to see the head of maintenance. Throwing the refuge another bone, she remarked that these youngsters “appreciate the fact there’s a paved trail where they can feel somewhat safe because it is scary going out in the woods.” In other words, the refuge offers moral improvement not just via nature-at-large, but also by way of maintenance work and a short paved trail that is less threatening than the refuge’s miles of “natural” trails.

But so what, right? Not everyone will be (or wants to be) a birding authority. And connecting populations (all populations, representing many forms of diversity) with their environment is a worthy pursuit. But when this connection comes via birding — via an activity in which participants’ success may be limited by factors such as leisure time, mobility, access to natural areas, and financial resources — or by way of the community service as described above, the effort risks reinforcing the marginality of those targeted audiences. The birdwatching community can work to raise the percentages of minority birding enthusiasts, but it would do well to simultaneously address the status of those enthusiasts within the field to avoid repeating the same kinds of disparities it seeks to redress.

Of course, this would require a reflexivity that is unsurprisingly absent from most realms. Birders at the conference, I’m sure, would find any critique of this event a surprise, laden as it with the good intention of making more inclusive a pursuit that they unquestioningly value for both themselves and the greater world. They’re not actively avoiding reflection. They may even be open to such criticality, should it be presented to them. Pursuits that deal with issues of diversity (and, though unexplored in this post, the environment and conservation), obviously have a place for this kind of thinking; the trick is in getting it in there.  –Jesse Smith

On Being Retro

From "H.R. Pufnstuf," Gold Key Comics, April 1971

A page from a kids’ comic book,  1971…a single, marvelous page illustrated in a way that brings home the gendered nature of American work in that era. For boys, a future in drafting. For girls, jobs as librarians. Interesting, too, that we can tell at a glance that this is an artifact of an earlier era. From the typeface to the clothes, details date these images. 

What’s more, there are assuredly more female draftspersons and male librarians now than there were when this comic was published. If this same page appeared today with the genders reversed we might notice something a bit unusual, but the images would not ring false.

And yet, in the past  few weeks, attending a range of educator events focused on expanding STEM opportunities in the U.S.,  I’ve heard remarks  about gender differences that would not have been out of place when this comic book hit the newsstand.  Old presumptions about identity in America endure even in settings dedicated to ending discrimination in education and hiring.  Different competencies and opportunities are still easily connected to different genders, races and ethnicities in our culture.  For example, in workshops focused on diversity and inclusion in higher education, I’ve lately heard such characterizations of housework (mentioned as a kind of labor appropriately left up to wives);  engineering (described, as a career option, with exclusively male pronouns),  and the history of engineering (noted as a surprising choice of subject matter for a female social scientist, or, and I quote, “…for a girl.”).

Any of those comments could also have been made in 1971, and they probably immediately strike a lot of us as being on the more retro end of things.  Perhaps more subtle are the comments that could only have been made in our post-civil rights era.  For instance, I recently heard an engineering  instructor, eager to draw in under-represented groups, nonetheless claim that explicit mentions of race or gender relations in an engineering classroom of 2010 will “stigmatize women and minority students all over again.”  He was concerned that conversations about student identities might also lead minority STEM students to feel that their only role within the university is to fulfill unwritten quotas.  From this vantage point, attention to minority experiences may be  just fine when it arises outside of the lab or classroom or office (as perhaps was not widely the case before 1970 or so),  but still creates problems when it arises within those spaces.

The idea that a dominant majority culture plays a role in legitimating those very spaces of STEM practice? Defining eligibility for and occupational equity in STEM fields? Perhaps protecting its own privileges in the process?  Not things that can easily be discussed in settings that customarily claim to exclude matters of identity.  And if whiteness generally goes unmarked in places of science and engineering, non-whiteness is at the same time selectively deployed.  I have heard several university administrators  invoke the documented entrance of more Asian and South Asian students into STEM fields in recent years as evidence that science and engineering are essentially merit based. But such ascriptions of ability, group-based with little thought as to how we define groups, or ability for that matter,  are perhaps part of the problem.

 Again, every one of the speakers I’ve cited here wants to support fairness and inclusivity in STEM.  How do we increase our reflexivity, so remarks like these can be seen as holding back that kind of progress?

We need to shed a bright light on race and gender discrimination, not cast that subject as a distant, historical concern.  A step in this direction would be for me to respond to well-meaning but discriminatory remarks right when I hear them in STEM workshops, rather than be flummoxed into complicit silence until I reach the safety of a blog screen.  Probably, the difficulty of confronting such ideologies within their institutional homes itself bears historical analysis.  Not least important: My role as a participant-observer in these events is murky, my own race and gender hugely meaningful.  But in any case, social awkwardness,  other- or self-imposed, showed itself to be a powerfully conservative social force when I looked back on my silence…a silence both retro and regrettable.


Natalie Angier’s angry words about the term “STEM” in her New York Times column last week  (“STEM education has nothing to do with flowers”) are still puzzling to me. 

She made a few good points: The use of acronyms can indeed lead to confusing and exclusive language. STEM education agendas,  simply by grouping certain academic or research activities together and not others, can encourage science and technology to remain remote from social engagement and the concerns of the humanities.  But her ire seemed overblown, sweeping every invocation of STEM away before her  in a blast of almost aesthetic distate for the term. What’s going on here?

The Times published a short letter that I wrote today in response to that column, which I’m glad they titled, “STEM: Fighting Word.”  I hope it captured some other readers’ feelings about her anti-STEM eruption.  But I am left wondering: Is it possible that Angier, a science media writer I have considered among the best,  may not have known that the “STEM” label has adorned countless diversity and equity projects in the science and technical disciplines? If so, those projects are even more marginalized in the science world than I’d  feared. 

We all need to rant now and then.  There are cringe-inducing words that set me off, too:  “Staycation,”  “Spalon”…don’t get me started.  But STEM is a politically and historically complex label.  Angier miscasts it as “didactic and jargony” and thus, for readers who don’t know about STEM’s long-standing role in educational equity,  encourages quick dismissal at every encounter with the word. What a shame. Think of how much good Angier could have done with this column had she distinguished among the multiple invocations of STEM,  rather than just venting.

As Chickens Are to Eggs…:Rethinking STEM Labor Supplies

Run, do not walk (or at least link your way quickly),  to David Sirota’s recent Salon column on “The Neo-Liberal Bait-and-Switch: Why Corporate-Friendly Democrats Like to Blame our Schools for Not Producing Enough White-Color Specialists.” (Sirota was also a guest on NPR’s “Tell Me More” today).   His is one of the first discussions of STEM workforce issues I’ve heard that explicitly acknowledges outsourcing as a cause of the nation’s ostensible “under-supply” of high-tech workers. 

I know: the logic sounds backwards. Surely outsourcing comes after employers have tried and failed to find domestic labor pools.  And indeed, the story even among education and employment experts outside of industry usually goes that American firms really, really want to hire more Americans for their emerging manufacturing and research tasks, but just can’t find appropriately prepared workers.  That’s supposedly why we need to upgrade our technical education, or STEM, system.

Yes, those upgrades are needed (see below), but Sirota clarifies that corporate-sector invocations of national educational deficits are a red herring. He says that employers may claim they can’t find enough sufficiently or appropriately trained workers within American borders, yet what  those employers really mean is they can’t find enough trained workers willing to work  as cheaply as non-Americans.  That profit motive is what really drives the corporate turn to non-US workers and, he explains, will continue to do so until we ratchet down our neo-liberal legal and regulatory zeal for free-trade.  

Sirota helps us see that in the meantime, corporate self-interest (like politicians’ capitulations to those private interests) is disguised by more socially acceptable rhetoric  about the urgency surrounding national technical readiness and competitiveness, increasingly (and dramatically) linked to national security as well.

I’d only add this to Sirota’s incisive analysis of the “Great Education Myth,” as he calls it:  The pro-business agenda of minimizing labor costs by  encouraging employment of non-US workers also helps justify a lack of authentic diversity and inclusion activity among American businesses.  Frustrated advocates of improved gender and minority equity in STEM hiring are awfully familiar with the corporate excuse: “We just can’t find  qualified women and people of color.”  For policy makers, corporations’ good intentions are apparently enough. Enhanced training and recruitment efforts (which might reduce a company’s profit margins) are off the table as a reasonable next step; business-friendly lawmakers like those Sirota describes don’t do much to counter that shallow and shortsighted assessment of American technical pools. 

All such assessments in turn weaken public support for expanded educational opportunities. A conservative and inequitable social system tidily perpetuates itself. Thanks to David Sirota for enriching our understanding of these distressing, and often hidden,  ideologies permeating  STEM workforce thinking today.

Peel Me a Grape: I’m a Professor

At an academic workshop a few years ago, I saw a bumper sticker on a Volvo that said “Life is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine.”  I fretted. This is just the kind of thing that makes people assume that all professors spend their summers swilling sauvignon on Martha’s Vineyard (the bumper sticker on the Tercel next to it, “I Brake for Hallucinations,” didn’t help much…I just figured folks would know that was a grad student’s car).  It isn’t true. At least, not every summer: A  heavy teaching load has kept me from this blog for the last couple of months, finding little time for anything besides prep, teaching, and grading.

Stepping out of the classroom this week as the summer quarter ended, into a much cooler Philadelphia, I happily encountered a day-long conference on Drexel’s campus hosted by the Pennsylvania unit of the National Diversity Council.  We heard consultants, corporate diversity officers, and CEOs describe best practices in a wide range of settings such as hospitals, financial firms and manufacturing concerns.  All were working hard to increase numbers of women and under-represented minority employees (“diversity”), and to bring a wider range of opportunities to those employees through changes to hiring and promotion practices (“inclusion”–together referred to as “D & I”).  The many practicalities involved in this work added up in my mind as the meeting went on:  All of these people were striving daily to overcome embedded prejudice, but also to establish strategic plans, set up new policies, create channels of communication, and garner resources.

It was moving and gratifying when the day’s keynote speaker, Cornel West, rousingly praised these diversity professionals.  He labeled their work as essential to the reform of race relations in America and in a globalizing corporate world…and as work that is nearly always hard and sometimes thankless.

As the event unfolded, I saw my own day-to-day work, the historical analysis of workplace racism,  as not only far less pressured than corporate diversity work, but as farther from my activist aims than I’d realized, if only for its lack of practical emphasis. As a social scientist studying workplace diversity in America, I need not produce “results”–measurable increases in minority participation–in any direct way. Presumably, I can criticize prevailing  employment or educational practices  while offering few constructive alternatives  because I  will have contributed to equitable reforms just by sharing my analytic findings.  That’s how social science and humanities expertise works. But then again, I thought as I listened to these  corporate diversity specialists, geared towards much more concrete results, where does my kind of expertise leave its traces? How do we know it IS working?

As I mulled this problem,  I started paying closer attention to the nature of corporate diversity work and its outcomes, its metrics for success.  As speaker after speaker laid out means of achieving greater diversity in corporate America, a single idea held center stage for them: We must make corporate employers see how a diversified workforce is crucial for business as we know it.  We must connect the idea of a diverse workforce to legitimate corporate functions. For example, speakers suggested, a diversity of product ideas  can serve expanded cultural and ethnic markets.  Further, wide-ranging cultural competencies will enable  a company to deal more effectively with non-US or non-European clients and markets. These and other such points, we heard,  will lead corporate executives and board members to see not just the value but the necessity of pursuing D&I goals.

It all made sense. I could see how these arguments would bring hardheaded business owners and financial analysts into the fold, leading to more opportunities for under-represented groups in industy. But thinking with a historical perspective, I had a gnawing sense that this approach may hold only limited potential for enacting diversity and inclusion.  Perhaps the very concreteness of its metrics, centered on business productivity and profit, was actually making it harder, not easier, to see some features of corporate D&I initiatives.

Hadn’t we learned long ago that these very corporate functions—the  expansion of consumer markets and the cultivation of loyalty among already influential types of clientele– have historically undergirded class and racial inequity in America and globally?  Virtually every speaker yesterday acknowledged that corporations are profit-based, presumably to clarify that industries cannot be expected to put matters of social welfare first; economic pragmatism must be paramount. Yet, no one voiced the concern that familiar profit mechanisms depend upon and propel some deeply undemocratic features of our society.  

I wasn’t waiting for someone to propose that we dismantle capitalism, but only to acknowledge that racism feeds on certain parts of the corporate system.  Fifteen years ago, Avery F. Gordon warned that the corporation’s embrace of “multiculturalism” would serve its own ruling interests, and that “diversity management,”  while surely bringing some unprecedented economic opportunities to some minority workers,  actually helps hide deeper strains of racism operating in society.  Managed diversity subordinates cultural identity to corporate governance,  denying among other things any possibility of group-based cultural autonomy, as Gordon explained.   Some of the best-practices outlined at the event might reinforce her worry: As evidence that manufacturers will thrive by hiring more members of under-represented minorities, one speaker enthusiastically noted  that it was attention to one plant’s Hispanic “affinity group” that led Frito-Lay to develop its highly profitable “Guacamole Doritos.”  But the purposeful translation of cultural difference into market advantage, and its labeling as a successful diversity effort in this way, seems more likely to reassert corporate privilege than restructure economic opportunities in this country. Surely it does not promote the reformed education and training systems necessary for real and lasting correction of  race-based occupational discrimination.  (This kind of managed diversity also, not incidentally,  suppresses discussion of those needs by purporting to eliminate racism in employment, as Gordon points out).

Even Cornel West,  variously  riotously funny and deeply effecting yesterday in his endorsement of “diversity management workers,”  seemed to stop short of explicitly pointing out that corporate profit and social justice are often at odds.  He condemned  the U.S.’s  profoundly racist “prison-industrial complex,” but not Americans’  habitually uncritical embrace of free enterprise that has allowed that morally bankrupt sector to thrive. He did not draw our attention to the American corporate disregard for social- structural inequities that is manifest today in the outsourcing of industrial labor, in geographically selective environmental degradation, and in many for-profit education initiatives.

Could he have done so, without diminishing the struggles and contributions of the assembled corporate diversity personnel?  How do we think, historically, about the successes of corporate D&I efforts in reversing long-standing patterns of occupational exclusion? I’m not sure; it is a very difficult question and one at the heart of academic analysis of American race relations, as the social scientist tries to decide what race reform has historically proven to be “worth” doing and even who should make those judgments.

I am sure that downplaying those successes or trying to end racism by condemning capitalism outright has as little efficacy, and potentially involves  as little perspective and practicality, as slapping  on a bumper sticker. There is surely some more effective contribution that historians and social scientists can make.  I look forward to coming back to this space to work, with many others more experienced than myself, on this vexing set of questions about enacting social justice from the not-always-practical perch of academia.