Science can be more inclusive than you think

I recently came across an article in adventure journal entitled “The Outdoor Industry is more Inclusive than you think” by Paddy O’Connell, and it made me think. Both in the realm of science and that of adventure sports there is a lot to say about how they are still dominated by white men from privileged backgrounds. It’s good that we talk about this, understand it is a problem and do what we can to ameliorate it. But I think it is also good to recognize where we have made progress and celebrate it. If we do not show young people underrepresented groups that things are getting better, we stand less of chance of them choosing to enter these fields. Yes, we can all see the irony of O’Connell writing an article about the inclusiveness of the outdoor industry as a white male, but it is also pleasant to note that the need to be more inclusive is becoming less of a fringe issue noticed only by those who suffer directly because of it.

O’Connell’s article has inspired me to write briefly of my own experiences of ways in which science is becoming more inclusive, not to pretend everything is perfect, but as encouragement – look at the progress we have made, let us build on what we have achieved! I’ll restrict my comments here to the perspective of women in science, since I don’t have experience as other under-represented groups in this field. I also preface my comments by saying I come from a white, middle-class background, from a family where higher education is the norm, and that these have undoubtedly made my experiences much easier than they may otherwise have been.

CERN summer students in 2010 (credit: Daniel Heinrich)
CERN summer students in 2010 (credit: Daniel Heinrich)

During my time as a physics undergrad I took an internship at CERN, where the large hadron collider is. This internship brings young physicists (and some computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers) from all over the world together for about 12 weeks. The majority live on site, attend lectures together in the mornings and then work within different groups at CERN for the afternoons. Whilst it was of course very obvious that the majority of the established scientists were white men from developed countries, it was just as obvious that the students thriving together in this environment were at least a little bit more diverse. And while we know it gets harder for people from less represented groups to stay in the field the higher up in their careers they move, it was nonetheless encouraging, for me personally, to meet other women who were studying physics and enjoying it, many of whom planned to stay on in the field. It helped me feel like I belonged in a field where I’d always felt like an outsider and it helped me start to imagine a future in it, where I’d never seriously considered one before.

Some of the CLOUD collaboration with whom I did my PhD at a workshop in Manchester, UK. Credit: Katja Ivanova
Some of the CLOUD collaboration, with whom I did my PhD, at a workshop in Manchester, UK (credit: Katja Ivanova)

As a doctoral student, I was lucky to work in a collaboration of scientists from all over the world. Many of them came from Scandinavia, and I made a few work trips to Finland and Sweden. I remember chatting with some Finnish colleagues during one of these trips and them telling me how common it is there for people to have children during their doctoral studies. There is well paid parental leave, and it’s very accepted within the work culture. Moreover, as parental leave is split more evenly there between mothers and fathers some of the worry that women face in other cultures that having a family might put them at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue.

Lunch last summer with colleagues from NOAA (credit: Bernie Mason).
Lunch last summer with colleagues from NOAA (credit: Bernie Mason).

Moving on from my PhD, I came to NOAA in Boulder, Colorado. While diversity remains a big issue here, by luck I found myself within a research group that is almost half women and also very international. This gives me a sense of belonging, as well as the optimism to think that science can become a more diverse, balanced culture. It’s not there yet, my own experiences have been more positive than others and I realize I’ve only got my own narrow field of view to look through here, but it has shown me that change is possible. And that it something I’ll celebrate.



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