Confronting Racial Inequalities in STEM

July 21, 2020

Students, faculty, staff and leadership from academic institutions across the U.S., including The University of Texas at Austin, came together this month in a virtual event to share experiences and barriers facing Black scholars in STEM fields. Hosted by the University of Washington, “Experiences of Black STEM in the Ivory: A Call to Disruptive Action” inspired and challenged participants to take action to address racial inequalities in STEM.

Tyrone Porter, professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Sharon L. Wood, dean of the Cockrell School, as well as Monica Hall-Porter from the College of Natural Sciences, participated in the two-day event. Discussions centered around personal experiences and perspectives from Black staff, students and faculty. Staff members in student affairs and diversity offices addressed a range of challenges facing people in positions like theirs, discussing the need for university-wide champions, allies and collaborators.

In a panel featuring graduate students and postdocs, the students echoed commentary from the staff panel, calling for allyship from non-Black faculty and staff and noting that their support and acknowledgement of disparities in STEM can make a positive difference in feeling included and welcomed in their departments and universities. The panelists said organized conversations about race and opportunities to teach cultural competency would aid in developing better allyship and a general understanding of the Black student experience. The students are looking for tangible change from the leadership of their institutions and hope to see an increase in the diversity of faculty, staff and students, as well as the support resources and organizations available to them.

In the “Faculty Raw & Live” panel, Porter and faculty from Georgia Tech, Emory University and the University of Washington, shared stories of racism and prejudices they have faced as one of only a handful of Black faculty members sat their institutions. The needs and concerns of Black faculty in STEM are unique from those of staff and students because they must balance the support and mentorship of their students with concerns of inequity within tenure review, research proposals and funding. According to a recent National Institutes of Health study mentioned in the panel, Black researchers are 50% less likely to be funded for a research project grant. Porter commented on the need for more Black faculty to be in the STEM space to mentor and guide Black students. Many Black faculty members feel obligated to give back, but their efforts need to be acknowledged by departments and school leadership, Porter said.

On the second day, Dean Wood and leadership from the nation’s top universities discussed ways colleges can take action to make change happen. The panel addressed the need to fund diversity, equity and inclusion efforts so they are sustainable, combat imposter syndrome within our student communities and educate faculty on the experiences Black students face both in and out of the university setting to serve as better allies. But while it is important for all faculty to practice allyship, the onus has historically been placed on Black faculty and their efforts often go unnoticed.

“Faculty of color feel tremendous responsibility for diversity, equity and inclusion,” Dean Wood said. “We should allow them to express that previously hidden service to be included in evaluations so it is explicit that we all know about it and know it is important.”

The panelists concluded that success in making change happen hinges on time, effort and commitment from all levels within universities and STEM programs, but conversations like these are important to keep up the momentum and energy for bringing diversity, equity and inclusion to STEM.

Day 1 Panels

Day 2 Panels

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