STEM fields “wasting an awful lot of top talent”

Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, says “we are wasting an awful lot of top talent” in STEM fields by overlooking many candidates who aren’t white men.

“We know that only about a third — 32 percent — of college grads are white men, and we disproportionately draw our STEM workforce from that very small community of people,” she said yesterday at a luncheon organized by the Wisconsin Technology Council.

Handelsman previously worked as science advisor for President Obama in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2011, and the Tech Council says her curriculum is used by 280 colleges and universities, reaching thousands of students.

“Handelsman is a leading researcher in understanding diversity in microbial communities and their role in infectious disease, and she’s also a national leader training the next generation of scientists,” said Tom Still, president of the Tech Council.

Handelsman describes the WID as “an experiment in interdisciplinary research,” and one part of that experiment is bringing diversity into STEM more effectively.

“One aspect that is still, I think, in the experimental stage is diversifying our groups, our lab groups, our research groups, and workforce that we train, to increase the quality of the science that we do,” she said.

Pointing to many independent studies, she says that diversity of thought and opinion have been linked to more favorable outcomes in a variety of challenges.

“The more minds that you bring to bear on a scientific problem, a problem of any type, the better the solutions will be,” she said.

One important aspect of past research has been to identify the difference between conscious and unconscious bias. One study from Yale found that conscious, intended bias has “decreased radically” over the past 30 years.

One of Handelsman’s colleagues from her time there performed a study using the same survey instrument over three decades. Every 10 years, he would put out a survey looking at this issue.

He found conscious, thoughtful bias went steadily down, “just as you might expect, because we have changed the way we think about diversity in society… but this is not about conscious thought,” she said.

That same Yale study found implicit, or unconscious biases had not changed over the same period.

These results are reinforced by an experiment first conducted more than 50 years ago. It has been reproduced many times since then, always with the same results, she said. In this experiment, a panel of evaluators was given a set of similar resumes, with the names or other details altered to indicate the applicant is male, female, black, white, etc.

They found that resumes with women’s names were consistently rated lower than those with men’s names. Results were the same with resumes indicating the applicant is African American or Hispanic.

“That hasn’t changed, interestingly,” Handelsman said. “That’s really subject, mostly, to the unconscious bias that’s been unchanged.”

Handelsman’s own research provides further support for this idea. She and colleagues sent out applications with descriptions of students graduating with an undergrad degree in science. They asked: “Would you hire this person as your lab manager? If you did, how much would you pay him or her? Do you think the person is competent? And would you provide the person mentoring?”

Student descriptions were identical; the only difference was the student’s name, Jennifer or John.

For all the questions posed, male candidates were favored by a statistically significant margin.

Importantly, it’s not just white men keeping outsiders away. Decades of research has found men, women and even other minorities hold true to this trend, according to Handelsman.

“This is exactly how 50 years of studies in this field have come out. Men and women, blacks and whites, Hispanics and non-Hispanics… everyone in our society seems to apply the same biases, even to the group that they are a part of.”

Handelsman provided examples of techniques for altering the behaviors associated with the unconscious biases, including establishing objective criteria before reviews, and performing blind reviews where the names of researchers were obscured.

After doing these blind reviews for six months, researchers found the percentage of papers from women that were accepted rose by about one-third.

Even with studies like this getting published and conscious bias on the decline, Handelsman expects it will take quite a while for things to get noticeably better.

“It will take decades, and in some fields, that may be asymptotic — we may never get there, at least in the lifetimes of people here,” she said.

However, she still sees “wonderful examples of change, and how fast that change has come.”

“When I went to school, I read Rosalind Franklin’s biography and my advisor had never heard of her,” she said, referring to the female researcher who contributed to the understanding of DNA. “Today, you cannot open a general biology textbook without seeing the very famous X-ray that Rosalind Franklin took that led to the structure of DNA.”

–By Alex Moe