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Erin Cech explores how the professional culture of STEM reproduces inequality

photo of Cech at podium

Dec 14 2018

What skills or characteristics make someone an excellent scientist or engineer? For former Clayman Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Erin Cech, answering this question is integral to understanding issues of diversity and inclusion in STEM. Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, returned to Stanford in early November to speak at an event co-sponsored by the Clayman Institute and WISE Ventures. Cech identified how professional culture – or a discipline’s taken-for-granted norms, values, and beliefs – can reproduce inequality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Addressing a capacity crowd in the Shriram Center for Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering, Cech asked the audience to brainstorm characteristics that make STEM professionals exceptional at their jobs.

The audience quickly identified numerous characteristics that seem to mark excellence in STEM. The ideal STEM professional works long hours. The ideal STEM professional completes projects on time and under budget. The ideal STEM professional publishes groundbreaking and innovative work in high-profile journals.

But what about having strong communication skills? Or the ability to manage a lab?

When Cech tried to discuss issues of diversity and access in undergraduate engineering courses, she routinely encountered resistance from others.

As Cech explained, “There’s this slippage between the things that are actually required to be successful and the things that are valued [in STEM]. But if you don’t know how to manage your lab and you don’t know how to write grants, are you going to be successful?”

At first glance, it might seem harmless to place greater value on technical skills like research than social skills like communication. Cech, however, drew the audience’s attention to how focusing solely on technical skills as markers of excellence can allow bias to creep into STEM.

Drawing on a breadth of survey and interview data conducted with STEM professionals in academia and industry, Cech demonstrated that STEM professionals often perceive men – especially heterosexual, white men – as being “naturally” more competent at technical work than women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals. Heterosexual white men dominate the discipline’s most prestigious subfields, where they are paid more than people who belong to groups that have historically been underrepresented within the field.

In other words, the discipline’s professional culture – especially the beliefs people hold about who “fits” best within the field – plays an important role in perpetuating inequality.

Cech brings firsthand knowledge to her understanding of how subtle biases are built into professional culture. Her interest in studying issues of diversity and inclusion developed at Montana State University, where Cech double majored in electrical engineering and sociology.

When Cech tried to discuss issues of diversity and access in undergraduate engineering courses, she routinely encountered resistance from others. 

"My grandmother was blind, so I was interested in the ways that technologies could be assistive. And as I was taking classes, I would ask questions about access and diversity. It wasn’t just that my professors didn’t know the answers to [my questions], but [my questions were] totally irrelevant. They were not the things that we were supposed to be talking about.”

Over time, Cech began to understand how the resistance she encountered was related to an aspect of STEM’s culture, which she described as “depoliticization.” STEM professionals often believe innovation can – and should – be stripped of political and social concerns like inequality. Cech said, “It is common for STEM professionals to think you can abstract the messiness of humans and culture out of the work you do. I would make the argument that such a belief is itself a cultural ideology.”

“It is common for STEM professionals to think you can abstract the messiness of humans and culture out of the work you do. I would make the argument that such a belief is itself a cultural ideology.”

During her presentation, Cech elaborated about how STEM’s depoliticized environment shapes professionals’ values and beliefs. It can influence scientists’ and engineers’ decisions about which problems are worthy of being funded, studied, or published in the discipline’s top journals.

STEM’s depoliticized culture also can shut down conversations about diversity, something Cech experienced when attempting to discuss issues of access in her undergraduate engineering courses. In an environment where problems are stripped of social concerns, people who ask questions about diversity or inclusion are at risk of jeopardizing their credibility as scientists. Cech said, “I was shut down a number of times in my technical classes asking those kinds of questions. I was shunted off to places like psychology and sociology to find tools to think through these things.”

Although the climate in STEM can be intolerant to discussions of inequality, Cech found the social sciences provided conceptual frameworks to grapple with the types of questions she was interested in exploring. After completing a PhD in Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, in 2011, Cech’s research on STEM-based inequalities brought her to the Clayman Institute.

It was within the interdisciplinary space of the Clayman Institute that Cech – one of the Institute’s first postdoctoral fellows – learned to value the importance of translating her results for a broader audience.

“What Clayman taught me was that it was important to believe in the potential of research to make people think differently about their work experience or their organization.”

Now, as one of the leading experts on issues of inequality in STEM professions, Cech continues to believe in the importance of bringing research-based critiques forward.

“My admiration [for the Clayman Institute] has only deepened since I was a postdoc. I don’t know of any other institute that is doing work quite like Clayman, in the way that it’s harnessing academic research for an outward-facing purposes.”

In recent years, Cech has published more than 20 articles in prestigious journals including American Sociological Review, Social Forces and Gender & Society. Her work also has been cited in New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education and Huffington Post. 

“It’s important to be willing to cause a little bit of trouble. And I say that lightheartedly…but if we are given the opportunity to speak to [STEM] audiences, I think in some ways it’s our duty [as social scientists] to utilize it – to be strong and brave in bringing our research-based critiques forward.”

By bringing forward research-based understandings of inequality in STEM, Cech hopes STEM professionals may eventually come to think of issues of inequality as integral aspects of their discipline’s professional responsibility rather than just an afterthought. Indeed, as Cech explained, one of the reasons it’s so important to diversify the STEM workforce – in both the types of people and the types of projects professionals pursue – is because a diverse workforce will help scientists produce better work.

What Cech is proposing might seem like a radical shift in STEM’s culture, but it’s not. Producing better work is something most STEM professionals already value.

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