Posted by Vi Hughes on May 02, 2019
This past Tuesday we heard from Michelle Fuko, a U of A researcher, on the intersections of race and gender in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine). This topic was the subject of her master’s thesis where she examined data collected in another study that surveyed the members of the science, technology, engineering and medical faculties of a large eastern Canadian University. She used a quote from Dorothy Vaughn, an African American mathematician and early computing specialist who worked for NASA, in regards to the discrimination she faced in the workplace, ”I changed what I could, and endured what I couldn’t” to illustrate the many faceted character of discrimination in our society. Michelle said that over the last several decades, the field of science in general has expanded and become much more accessible to the general public in many ways and along with this has come higher visibility for scientists and the discussion around diversity ( or lack thereof) of gender, race, indigeneity, disabilities, nationality and many other factors in our academic ranks.  There is now a discussion of- are we giving everyone what they uniquely need in order to succeed, or are we simply saying everyone is treated equally?  
Academia tends to be a very slowly changing field in that the higher ranks have been filled with white men for many years, and the policy of tenure ( a job for life, essentially) combined with education budget cuts, means that established people do not change jobs, and there are very few job openings for younger people of any type.  This is then combined with the fact that each person has their own unique niche of gender, race, sexuality, language, disabilities etc. that could, and does, affect their chances of being hired for any rare opening.  In addition, in academia, there is the bias with regard of the quality of someone’s academic qualifications, which country, which institution, etc.  Currently our legislation strives for more equality in some of these areas, but it falls short when multiple factors are involved.  Black women have different issues than white women, people whose first language is not English, or whose name has not been anglicized have issues that are unique to them. The ranks of academia are also affected by the innate, unconscious biases that we all have when we see someone who is ‘not like us’, which also has a subtle but real effect on the careers of people in academia.
Michelle’s study showed that males dominated the higher ranks, with women falling into the lower ones. Visible minorities were lower in rank as well, with visible minority women the lowest of all. Trends varied largely from one discipline to another and could be skewed by the specific hiring practices of individual departments, such as actively recruiting more women, or recruiting more candidates from a particular country, such as China or India. The experiences of minority academic members in general are also different in that they are often asked to do much more committee work, or to supervise more students than others so that the institution can present a more balance ‘face’ to the public at large. This then puts them at a disadvantage by giving them less time for research and their teaching duties.
Overall, we as a society have a long way to go the give everyone what they uniquely need in order to succeed. We need to open our eyes more to the many ways in which discrimination creeps into our everyday lives and try to look at the experiences of others from their point of view.