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In the last several months/years, I’ve seen an increasing number of “diversity initiatives”, and attention paid to issues of diversity in STEM fields. Which is, on the whole, good. But as a member of a minority community, these can often come across as botched jobs. Scientists are good at science, but not necessarily (or one might say not at all good) at sociology and psychology.

And it’s become tiring.

Here, dear reader, is a handy, easily digested checklist (because who in science doesn’t like checklists) for how not to completely miss the mark with whatever “diversity initiative” you might want to do. As you’ll see, these are all inter-related, and some/many of them aren’t easy or to be taken lightly.

  1. What? What do you want to get out of this exercise, tangibly? Cut the vagueness. Make your objectives SMART. If you can’t articulate your goals in these terms, you’ll never achieve them (or be able to demonstrate beyond vague hand-waving that “things are better”). Are you trying to have better representation at conferences or on editorial boards? Or perhaps increased membership in your society by under-represented groups? The processes for achieving these will differ. See also: where?
  2. Who? “Diversity” as usually applied in STEM fields typically covers sex and ethnicity. There are many facets of diversity, some of which can’t be perceived without interaction. Gender, orientation, and ableness are just three others that quickly come to mind. Each brings a different viewpoint. Or rather, the same multitude of viewpoints found in any grouping of people. And each of these is just a conglomeration of different groups. Gay men aren’t representative of transfolk, who aren’t representative of bisexuals. Which of these groups do you want to reach? See also: why? Also see also: what?
  3. Where? The US isn’t the only place with issues around the over-representation of straight white cismen in STEM, and there are local (and regional) areas for improvement, laws, traditions, and solutions to the problems. Even though the pattern may be widespread, what works in one place may (or may not) work in another. Don’t parachute in. Work with someone on the ground (see also: who (part 2)).
  4. Who? (part 2). Nothing dooms these kinds of initiatives like the lack of involvement of the groups you’re trying to reach. They will know the language and issues better, and excluding them is patronizing, like saying “we know diversity is an issue, so we’ll fix it for you!” Without this involvement your initiative is almost certainly doomed to failure.
  5. Who? (part 3). If I had a dollar for every time I was asked to talk about “Diversity 101” I would have >$1. In this scenario, I should be broke. Do your research. Google is your friend. We’re (often) too busy trying to keep up with a systematically damaging professional culture to “point you in the right direction”. If you actually care about it, read about it or contact organizations who are explicitly designed to help, and then engage on specifics. See also: who (part 2). You might be getting the idea that people are rather important here. Good.
  6. What (next)? Don’t just gather information, or email blitz a vague surveymonkey link to your members. What will you do once you’ve identified the problem/need? If you don’t do anything, or don’t follow through (see also: what), think of the potentially hours of collectively wasted time. I’ve filled in enough “it will only take 20-30 minutes of your time” surveys to know this is often true. And it makes me less likely to help you out in the future. Failure to do anything is paying mere lip-service to the careers and lives of honest to goodness people.
  7. Danger, Will Robinson! Whatever you decide to do, think (and have others think) about how it will be perceived, especially by those in the group you’re trying to reach. Academic conferences get this one wrong rather often (I’m looking at you, ESA “Ally” ribbons!). Don’t roll something this important out without a thorough look-over. See also: who (part 2). Also see also: when?
  8. When? Don’t rush this. It’s important. If you can’t get something together for this year’s meeting, wait for next year. Something good, but delivered later is better than a hatchet-job thrown together to meet an arbitrary deadline. I mean, you should’ve been thinking about and actually DOING something about this ages ago anyway.
  9. Expect pushback. In all likelihood, if you get things (mostly) right, you will get pushback from the straight white cismen already entrenched in whatever group you’re trying to diversify. If you don’t, you might get pushback from the groups you’re trying to include. Listen to the second. See also: what (next).