Academic science was not built for marginalized people. people of color (especially Black and Indigenous scientists), people of marginalized genders (including womennonbinary and transgender folks), queer scientists, disabled peopleand those coming from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background have historically been excluded from research by those with power and privilege. This particularly applies to scientists who occupy the intersection of two or more of these identities—like me. I am a queer and nonbinary astrophysicist, a victim of workplace bullying and abuse, and, like so many before me, am making the heart-breaking decision to leave academia.
Underrepresented people who pursue scientific careers largely occupy the early career runs of academia, and often face a hostile obstacle race of microaggressions, bias, harassment and more. It usually falls to us, the marginalized scientists, to advocate for ourselves against these barriers. But it shouldn’t.
The responsibility for creating an environment where all scientists, regardless of able-bodiedness, LGBTQ status or skin color, can thrive must come from the top, from the people who have the real power: tenured and senior faculty. These senior scientists, who have benefited most from the current power structure in science, are the ones responsible for creating equitable research environments and promoting a culture of acceptance.
Department heads, in particular, must create the policies that will remove extra barriers and allow their most junior and vulnerable members to succeed. They must be willing to listen, and to learn from our lived experiences. By taking responsibility for fixing the system, scientific leaders will not only make science a more welcoming and inclusive place for everyone; they will allow marginalized researchers to focus on their work.
For Black scientists—who make up 3.9 percent of all physical scientists—working in STEM often means handling a constant barrage of microaggressions. Besides taking up mental energy, the decision to confront or report racist behavior in the workplace places an extra burden on the person who is affected by it.
For disabled scientists, who make up about 8 percent of doctoral recipients in science and engineering, a large barrier to a career in science is not the disability itself but the lack of appropriate accommodation and the stigma surrounding them. While universities are obligated to provide bare-bones disability accommodations such as test time extensions, professors and peers often treat these as burdens on themselves, or as an undeserved advantage for the disabled person. Learning to handle and navigate this hostility amounts to extra work on top of their daily schedule.
For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) scientists, whose percentages among the scientist population are poorly studied even today, the responsibility of combating homophobia and transphobia typically falls on their shoulders, rather than the institution’s. Transgender scientists are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment such as misgenderingharassment surrounding bathroom usageand social exclusion. It often falls to the transgender individual to attempt to correct these ills for themselves and for others in the future by self-advocating.
The costs of self-advocacy can be extreme. People forced to use their time and energy—typically undergraduate and graduate students—to correct bad policies or report harmful behavior have less of it to spend on things like studying, working and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. On a personal level, this extra work has meant losing sleep, getting sick more often and becoming alienated from peers who do not have to self-advocate.
On a professional level, it can appear to outsiders that a marginalized scientist is simply not trying as hard as their privileged peers, or that they are “not cut out for science.” When whispers like these circulate, as they often do whenever a woman wins a fellowship or a Black person is given an award, they are not only harmful to the person in question, but to all marginalized people who are forced to hear the gripes of their privileged peers. Being simultaneously perceived as both unworthy and a threat is a losing game that ultimately leads to marginalized students and researchers feeling pressured to do ever more and be ever more. Self-advocacy then becomes a vicious cycle: fight for better outcomes, lose credibility, fight against new stigmas.
Here is an all-too-common scenario: a marginalized graduate student is being harassed by their supervisor. They report this individual to the department chair. It’s their word against the professor’s. Their peers side with the harasser (“you probably aren’t working hard enough,” “you should be grateful they took you on as a student”). A supervisor could retaliate, a recommendation letter-writer could diminish their work for speaking up, the department could even find a convenient reason to push them out. The consequences of self-advocacy can derail or even destroy a future in science.
These decisions represent a risk for every marginalized scientist: science was not built for us, and to push for equity is to risk our careers.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. We scientists can build a better future for all of our members, but we all must be on board with progress. Ask any marginalized person who has been pushed out: it is not enough to have one or a few supporters when the environment is hostile. We must change the environment itself.
This means, above all, listening to your department’s marginalized voices. Hear what they have to say. Compensate them for it. Then act. Make your classrooms more accessible. Revisit old policies. Hire folks who care and fire harass. Self-advocacy is a burden. But it doesn’t have to be.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.