Encountering new levels of diversity… and lack of diversity

I just started a new job in a big city. This has been a huge change for me in many ways, and one refreshing change has been the new level of diversity I’ve experienced. I am a white woman who grew up in a somewhat rural area, and I could count the number of non-white students in my large high school class on one hand. After that I always lived and worked in smaller cities and towns that were largely white (though typically very socially liberal and at least theoretically accepting of many forms of diversity).

Now, what a difference I see! Walking around my neighborhood I see and hear people from all over the world, from many walks of life; on public transportation I’m sometimes the only white person. At work I see people of every color, with accents from around the world, and it’s so different from my past experiences. If I’m being totally honest, I’ve had to confront some of my own stereotypes I didn’t think I had, such as assuming what job/rank a person has based on how they look or speak. It’s been an enlightening experience that I wish on everyone.

And yet… when I get to the lab, the view changes dramatically. At our lab meetings that include multiple lab groups, I see a group of middle-aged white men sitting around a table, while a large group of trainees, the vast majority of whom are women, sit around the periphery of the room, like a scene out of Lean In. I see the PIs engaging the presenters and each other in thoughtful questions and conversation about the work, while most of the trainees are afraid to ask questions (I have actually heard this stated outside of the meetings) and rarely enter into the conversations.

At one meeting, none of the PIs were present. While I was annoyed at their apparent lack of respect for the presenter, I was excited about the prospect of people talking and asking questions with less inhibition, and hoping that it might break the spell and happen more in the future meetings with PIs present. We started to see a little more audience participation than normal, but then one of the PIs showed up (about 20 minutes late), and the weirdest thing happened – no less than 3 people (male and female) GOT UP FROM THEIR SEATS TO MAKE ROOM FOR HIM. What the…? There were already empty chairs! That’s not respect, that’s some kind of submissive behavior that I would never expect to see in a casual academic setting. Needless to say, the questions and meeting were dominated by him the rest of the time.

So there are a couple of issues here that I’ve been mulling over. The first is just the plain fact that the white men are in the positions of power here, and all the rest of us are in the lower tiers of the hierarchy, reflecting what is generally the case in academia and many other realms, but something I’ve never seen so plainly in real life. Of course there are many discussions of why this is the case, and many people working hard to change this – to increase diversity at the highest levels, not just to be ‘fair’ but because it actually improves the business! We could go on about this forever, but what I’ve really been thinking about is why did this happen here, now, in this particular lab group? It’s partly due to nepotism – a senior PI recruiting his previous postdoc to become a faculty member. Did he pick his female postdoc who had been there for a similar amount of time? No, he picked someone like himself. If/when I figure out how the rest of the individuals were recruited to the group, I will consider whether there is anything I can do to bring this recurring issue to the attention of any superiors who might have a say in who the next hire is.

The second issue that I feel is more tractable is the dynamic of the group. Why are all of the trainees afraid to speak up in front of their PIs? The first thing I can think to do is to break the silence and break the mold. I can ask questions, make comments, take a seat at the table. Unfortunately, as a new person just learning about the specific fields here I haven’t been able to muster much beyond clarification questions, and it’s not so rare for trainees to speak that this is notable. I’m trying to get over my feeling that I have to have enough to say to earn a spot at the table, and just move in from the sidelines. Other trainees do sit at the table (usually when they are the last seats left), and they are often the more senior postdocs and people who do participate more in the discussions.

My other idea is to actually address the issue head-on, bringing it up with my mentor. I can tell him that I think this dynamic is really weird and ask if he feels the same way, and if he has any ideas for how to change this. Maybe he’d even talk to the rest of the PIs about it – maybe they have no idea what kind of difficult power dynamic they’ve been cultivating all along! I think that everyone would agree that we’d all benefit from everyone feeling comfortable speaking up – lab meetings are supposed to be places where people get input on their experiments, not where they give formal presentations – and this change in the environment could actually improve our science!

I’ve talked about the issues a little bit with some of the other trainees, though being new, I’m trying to feel out the situation before pushing my ideas for change on anyone. I’ve definitely heard some dissatisfaction with the lab meeting environment, and that people have even considered having informal meetings like journal clubs without the PIs. (I think this is a great idea and something I will pursue in the future.) The worst part about this from my perspective is that people don’t feel comfortable bringing up these issues with the people who are supposed to be their mentors, facilitating a learning space. Interestingly, I haven’t heard anyone mention anything relating to issues around the lack of diversity in the lab group.

I’d love to hear feedback, ideas, similar experiences anyone else has had addressing a lack of diversity or absurd power dynamic in their own situations.

This entry was posted in academia, conflict, diversity, Laboratory, postdoc, strengths and weaknesses. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Encountering new levels of diversity… and lack of diversity

  1. Mary Harrington says:

    For one, they could meet in a room with a bigger table! The physical space is supporting the two-tiered system.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I used to be a grad student says:

    Mary (above) has a good point – get a bigger table *and* remove the peripheral chairs before talks. Make the only option to be at the table!

    Another option could be to form a buddy system. Talk to other trainees about showing up a few minutes early together to take seats at the table.

    If trainees are self-conscious about asking questions, they can google the speaker ahead of time to help jump start their thoughts on potential questions. Maybe they can ask about how the work in the presentation relates to something they saw on the lab website or a recent paper/abstract? It’s more work, but if preparation helps overcome the initial fear, then it might be worth it.

    Alternatively, you can come up with a set of generic, high-level questions to pull from that could be tweaked and applied to any speaker (e.g. “given what you’ve just shown us, what do you want to do next?” or “if funding weren’t an issue, what would be your ideal experiment to continue this project?” or “you mentioned that you’d like to do ‘x’ next. that sounds like a great next step. what are your thoughts on how to do that?”.

    Lastly, particularly shy or nervous trainees can start by speaking to the presenter after the talk. It’s not the same as participating in the group discussion, but it’s a way to start boosting confidence and practice asking questions without the pressure of an audience. If you’re mind totally blanks in this setting, you can resort to thanking the speaker for presenting and asking about their travel or a personal question – anything that moves towards becoming comfortable and confident enough to address the power dynamic issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. SweetScience says:

    Great ideas! I will definitely try to implement/encourage these. Thanks!


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