Dr. Geraldine Cochran

Editor’s Note: Today’s Guest Post is written by Geraldine Cochran, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Office of STEM Education at Rutgers University. As a physics education researcher, Cochran investigates strategies for modifying physics curricula to support students underprepared in math and ways to broaden participation in physics. Cochran also provides organization-wide inclusion/climate assessments.

It goes without saying that Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity make for an awful acronym: DIE. More importantly, these three words are strung together so often that some think that these words are synonymous and use them interchangeably, leading to a number of people writing about the differences between these three words. Try a quick Google search of “diversity vs inclusion vs equity” and you’ll find several days worth of reading material.  I particularly like Dafina-Lazarus Stewart’s” Language of Appeasement” in Insider Higher ED. If we are not attentive to the differences between these words as ideas, approaches, or initiatives, we are in danger of placing emphasis on the wrong efforts and suffering the consequences.

Diversity without inclusive environments

Although diversity efforts are concerned with representation and who is included, diversity efforts should not be confused with creating an inclusive environment. An inclusive environment does not simply mean that people from various groups are included, it is concerned with what their inclusion in that organization or environment means.

What does being included mean for individuals from marginalized and minoritized groups and what does it mean for their peers from dominant, advantaged, or privileged groups?  How do minoritized people view their participation in the organization and how is their participation viewed by others?

I can remember starting a position in academia and within my first week being told by multiple people that I was the new “token hire.” Despite my significant credentials and extensive experience, according to my new colleagues, my justification for being in that position was solely based on my race. I remember thinking that even with a Ph.D. in hand, no amount of education will shield us from the impacts of the racist and sexist society in which we all live. That is why it is necessary to work toward building and sustaining inclusive environments. In such spaces, all people, regardless of their social identities, have equal access to opportunity and advancement, receive credit for their work, and are valued for more than just their membership in a social identity group.

Tending to the climate and culture of an organization is just as important as any recruitment efforts. The problems created by a discourse that promotes diversity without an inclusive environment were illustrated in “The ‘Problem’ Woman of Colour in the Workplace” image from The Centre for Community Organizations, which was adapted from “The Chronicle of the Problem Woman of Color in a Non-Profit” by the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence. A number of my colleagues, mostly Black women, acknowledged relating to this image as they shared their experiences. The story of organizations having a seemingly revolving door for Women of Color – and Black women in particular — due to hostile environments is all too common. In some organizations, it is not very subtle. I have heard a department chair say, “Well, we’ve hired two women. Now we’ll see if they’ll sink or swim.” This is as if to say diversity was our job and now whether or not they can survive in this environment is entirely up to them. I have heard a representative from a national lab say, “We don’t have time to worry about creating inclusive environments or whatever. We have to work on diversity because we are being judged on that.” It is great that organizations are being held accountable in regard to diversity, but the same needs to happen regarding inclusive environments. Diversity-focused recruitment efforts and selection/admissions standards may bring diverse individuals into the door, but if the environment is not inclusive will those individuals stay?

Recently, I have supported mixed methods research studies aimed at assessing the inclusiveness and the climate of organizations, which includes offering strategies for improvement. My hope for this work is that these organizations will be strengthened by meeting their diversity goals and ensuring that all individuals in the organization not only survive, but have the opportunity to thrive. To me, that is working toward increasing diversity and creating an inclusive environment. I am hopeful: senior leaders within a number of organizations are starting to recognize the need to measure and improve the culture and climate of their organizations.

Vector illustration of an abstract scheme, which contains people icons

Diversity without equity considerations

Issues of equity are often the underlying causes for why we need diversity initiatives. Equity considerations can be difficult to address because they often relate to historical and longstanding structural systems of inequality, which are difficult to dismantle. However, ignoring equity considerations dooms us to making little progress toward diversity and no progress toward equity. Diversity efforts are often concentrated on how we “fix” individuals from marginalized or minoritized groups or what we can do to support them to pursue and persist despite inequity. Equity concerns focus more on changing the structures and systems that create the inequities in the first place.

For example, as a part of a large, collaborative project, the Inclusive Graduate Education Network, my colleagues and I aim to broaden participation in physics graduate education through research, program implementation, and dissemination of best practices in recruitment, admissions, and retention. The work around recruitment and admissions has been largely focused on diversity and representation. Retention has been an effort in inclusion.

So, where does equity fit into this work? Well, it should be throughout the process. While it is important to consider strategies to recruit more ethnic/racial minority students, it is more important to understand and address the barriers to ethnic/racial minority students applying to graduate physics programs. While it is important to consider the instrumental role that bridge programs have played in preparing students who would not otherwise be accepted into graduate physics programs, it is more important to think about why these students would not be accepted into graduate physics programs. This requires understanding the student perspective and the faculty perspective of the graduate admissions process; and then rethinking the graduate admissions process.

I also think about equity at a somewhat deeper level. Gloria Ladson-Billings has written extensively on what I consider equity considerations in education. I will say, though, that one of my favorite things to revisit is her presidential address, which discusses the education debt in terms of the historical debt, the economic debt, the sociopolitical debt, and the moral debt. This too has informed my work on graduate admissions in physics.

Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun assert that the way the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is currently used in graduate admissions is a barrier to the participation of women and ethnic/racial minorities in graduate programs in the sciences. They mention that the GRE “reflects certain demographic characteristics of test-takers – such as family socioeconomic status — that are unrelated to their intellectual capacity or academic preparation.”

Thinking about equity at an even deeper level means addressing deeper questions, such as 1) how do we address the factors that contribute to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds underperforming on standardized exams (the economic debt) and 2) how do we address the wealth gap that was created by structural racism given that it remains even when controlling for education? Addressing the questions outlined by Julie Posselt and Casey Miller in rethinking the graduate admissions process might seem more accessible for faculty involved in admissions and may even seem more directly related to their chosen professions than the two questions I have asked. However, it is my belief that we all must work toward answering and addressing these more difficult questions. As Ladson-Billing’s illustrated in her Presidential Address there is a “moral debt” to minoritized and marginalized groups of people, that we must all seek to address.

To conclude, my suggestion is that we first differentiate between diversity, inclusion, and equity. Then, we must begin assessing the climate of our professional organizations, our institutions, and other professional spaces and then seek to make these spaces more inclusive. Then, we must make equity considerations in all of our efforts, whether that is through program implementation or through research. And if that sounds too challenging, let us start with a conversation.

Today’s “call-out culture” can make writing about and discussing these things quite scary. I find it scary too, but that does not mean that I should stop. That means that I need to continue learning and reading the work of diverse scholars inside and outside of my field. I first heard about decolonizing science from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist and activist for equality in science, who also created an amazing reading list on the topic. I then met Nelson Maldonado-Torres, who told me that the opposite of exclusion is not inclusion, but decolonization.  Then I pored over his brilliant work an, “Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality.” This has resulted in much introspection:  how should this inform the research that I do and the ways in which I engage in this research? I will never feel that I have definitively informed myself on this topic. This is not to say that I am not an expert; I am. But my understanding of inclusion must continually be informed by the community of humanity. My research and the methods that I use should be guided by “love and understanding” and not the desire for recognition or to hold to “method” in knowledge production.

Geraldine Cochran

Geraldine Cochran is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Office of STEM Education at Rutgers University. As a physics education researcher, Cochran investigates strategies for modifying physics curricula to support students underprepared in math and ways to broaden participation in physics. Cochran also provides organization-wide inclusion/climate assessments.


14 Thoughts on "Guest Post: The Problem with Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity"

Thanks, Geraldine, wise words we all should consider in our thoughts about the future, will distribute it on my Facebook and Linkedin, Klaus

Thanks for the feedback! Some of the people whose work I referenced have so much amazing stuff available, it was hard to choose what I should link. I’m glad you like the resources.

Thank you for this thought-provoking post and the reminder to focus on creating inclusive environments. Like the person in the comment above, I will share this widely!

‘Today’s “call-out culture” can make writing about and discussing these things quite scary.’ You are right and I thank you for being brave and writing such a terrific post.

Thanks for the kind words and the encouragement to write this Damita!

This is a great piece; I came back to read it a second time, and will no doubt return to it again.

Though you’ve tackled some of the biggest issues and challenges, from structural racism to its continuing effects and implications, I especially appreciate the careful explication of diversity and inclusion inclusion and diversity and equity, and your description of encountering the de-colonizing projects in the sciences.

I’d love to read a follow-up piece on how, as you suggest in the last paragraph, you find introspection leading to fresh practices in your own research and methods.

Thanks for your feedback and your suggestion regarding a follow up post.

Thank you for the informative article.
The problem, as I see it, is really that companies are just using the “diversity” flag for fulfilling some regulation or reporting to shareholders. If there is an earnest goal to bring diversity in *all* levels of the company, then they should show it by action and not advertisement.

Such a great piece. This really highlights to me why so many diversity initiatives in workplaces are failing as they are not focusing on the right issues.

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