Racial inequality in academia: The journey to equity and inclusion starts within.

Disclosure: I am not an expert on racial inequality in STEM. As a white, cisgender woman, my privilege has precluded me from enduring what my colleagues of color have experienced and from birth, this privilege has reinforced clouded perceptions of the world around me. I am still learning what it means to confront systemic racism, unlearn implicit biases, and create justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in my field. This piece was inspired by heart-felt, difficult conversations with many individuals in my professional sphere, coupled with a commitment to read, listen, and learn from others who experience inequity. The following perspective is not meant to call out any one person, institution, or organization, nor is it meant to imply that there is a silver bullet solution. It is meant to be a starting point of self-reflection. It is meant to provoke the acknowledgement and recognition of how our own assumptions, privilege, and biases have shaped our worldview, regardless of scientific career-level. It addresses that racism is infused into science and more than good intentions will be required to filter it back out. Through research, reflection, and a lot of trial and error this summer, I have summarized 6 steps that have helped me evolve my thinking, my language, and my behaviors on this journey to inclusivity. While this is written from a single person’s point of view, we at The Ethogram encourage other folks to submit their own pieces to contribute to this conversation.

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

Step 1: ACKNOWLEDGE. White privilege in the natural and scientific world.

Recent events have brought centuries of racial inequity in the US back into focus for many privileged, white communities and have left many of us flabbergasted and ashamed by our own contributions to this inequity. I am no exception. My educational, professional, and personal experiences have certainly shaped my career to what it is today; I am currently a conservation behaviorist, studying ways to improve conservation outcomes in pinnipeds (i.e. seals, sea lions, and walruses) and a science communicator, committed to instilling knowledge about and passion for the ocean to the public. However, I acknowledge I have built this career on privilege.

Metaphorically speaking, I imagine this privilege like building a house. From birth, I was provided with the foundation, four walls, and perhaps electric hook-ups. Throughout my education and work experience, I continued building my house by seeking out professional opportunities, learning specialized skills, and creating a network of supportive people. There were stalls and struggles, yet I was able to continue advancing my “home” due to my privilege (e.g. a flexible schedule allowing me to do unpaid work or feeling that I have a safety net). Not everyone is born with a pre-built foundation; many must start their career “house” from scratch, clearing out an area to build, seeking their own building supplies, dealing with unreliable construction crews, etc. The point is, from the very start of our lives, societal structures create inequality based on something as superficial as our skin color. As a scientist, I must acknowledge the status quo I have benefitted from has been at the expense of overlooking (or worse, excluding) others.

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

As a scientist who relies heavily on data, acknowledging this privilege should not be difficult. The statistics are damning across STEM fields, but reflecting on my own field, the lack of diverse graduate students in ocean science is particularly atrocious:

Underrepresented Minorities (URM)% Graduate Students in Earth, Atmospheric, & Ocean Sciences
Black American1.95%
Hispanic / Latinx4.59%
Native American & Alaska First Nations0.55%
Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander0.08%
Figure 1. The National Science Foundation’s Women, Minorities, & Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering 2015 report [1].

At first, what strikes me the most about these numbers is the abysmal representation of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students in ocean sciences. However, when I reflect on that percentage, I think back to my marine science educator days in Hawaii. For years I interacted with local island kids that had never been snorkeling or touched the smooth spines of a pencil urchin. As I cupped their hands while they timidly held hermit crabs, I discovered that a field trip to learn about their local marine environment was a special treat. The standard school outing was to hotels in downtown Waikiki where students toured hotel kitchens, industrial laundry rooms, and opulent penthouse suites. These elementary schoolers were exposed far more often to careers in the travel and hospitality industry that serve white, foreign, privileged people on tropical vacations. No wonder only 0.08% of ocean scientists are Native Hawaiians. Despite living their lives surrounded by the ocean, if society is not emphasizing these students’ exposure to the unique local environment, how can we expect them to be intrigued by the natural sciences, let alone find encouragement to explore that career path? Yet, the Black Lives Matter movement has left me to acknowledge this isn’t just an isolated practice in an interracial island community; I recognize that it expands across states, ethnicities, demographics, and academia.

Step 2: RECOGNIZE. The not-so-secret relationship of racism, science, & academia.

Diversity has demonstrated many benefits across fields. It improves problem-solving, strengthens scientific collaborations, maximizes innovation critical for scientific discovery, and integrates multiple viewpoints and experiences to tackle complex issues [2,3]. Why, despite diversity initiatives and public resources, does the science community continue to fall short in recruiting and maintaining underrepresented minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM) education [4]?

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

As I have discovered, there are entire fields of research dedicated to answering this question, so I encourage everyone to set aside time to seek out, digest, and apply that information. From my own literature dive, redlining is one of many things/phenomena/actions that prevents Black Americans and other underrepresented minorities (URMs) from access to educational resources and natural spaces. This access often creates exposure to STEM at an early age and thus recruitment into natural and ocean sciences. Those that do select a natural or ocean science program often struggle with an abrasive academic environment of microaggressions from fellow colleagues and superiors, negative interactions with (predominantly White) faculty, and limited numbers of/exposure to relatable role models within these STEM fields [3,5]. This is not surprising when the National Science Foundation and National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (2015) reports that a dismal 8% of underrepresented STEM faculty hold senior positions within academia and a whopping 73% of full-time faculty are White [1,5].

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

These statistics are especially heart-wrenching when combined with the report that URM student interactions with same-race faculty members is a major factor contributing to their academic satisfaction [6]. These students also report URM faculty promote their sense of belonging [5], which is a major predictor of success in STEM courses [7]. Based on this evidence, the academic paradigm clearly needs to shift to more inclusive hiring practices so that the student body can make these important connections with diverse faculty. However, current faculty, administrative teams, graduate students, mentors, and beyond can still work within the flawed academic system to promote URM students’ sense of belonging. For example, for those who work in a mentorship capacity, I recommend Dr. Chayla Haynes’ White Racial Consciousness and Faculty Behavior (WRC/FB) model, which encourages mentors to reflect on our own racial consciousness so we can all begin breaking down White-centric, science-neutral curriculums in order to embrace more racially and culturally conscious ones [5,8].

The WRC/FB Model consists of three interdependent dimensions: racial consciousness, faculty behavior, and White interests. Racial consciousness is how well White people comprehend the racial structures of assumptions, privilege, and biases can cloud our world view. Faculty behavior examines how much a person’s racial consciousness influence decisions involving teaching, mentoring, designing curriculums. Those with higher levels of racial consciousness have a more expansive view of equality and make efforts to challenge classroom norms that promote racial hierarchies. Finally, White interests encompass how equitable learning outcomes for URM students will be accommodated when interests align with the White person’s interests. White interests often align with ideals and goals that will help maintain the current status quo, positioning White people at the top of a hierarchy rather than racial equity [5].

Step 3. REFLECT. White academics: stuck in the ivory tower and embarrassed to look in the mirror?

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

In light of recent Black Lives Matter movements, the racial inequity in science and academia has become a trending discussion topic in lab meetings, departmental settings, and during Zoom happy hours. While many conversations are productive, thought-provoking, reflective, and hopeful, many of us have also experienced uncomfortable conversations with some of our (White) faculty and mid-career researchers that left us disappointed, frustrated, and confused. Even with the best intentions (and we will get to that later) a disconnect persists; there is pushback from our superiors to reflect on the systemic White supremacy in academia. We must assess our own racial consciousness and how that influences the content we teach, the opportunities we provide, the barriers placed on URM students, and the archaic learning and social hierarchies we perpetuate inside the classroom or laboratory. It is difficult even for the most supportive and forward-thinking individuals to sit with this idea of perpetuating racial inequity. The guilt is a tough pill to swallow, but that is no reason for pushback.

Research is intersectional, so it is disheartening to interact with those who want to breeze over the racism and inequality that runs rampant in our field because it just doesn’t fit in with research topics. URM students carry years of racial trauma into academic settings where few can relate to that trauma, so it is enraging to see superiors and colleagues place the burden of addressing or learning about racism on these students. Racial inequality is a societal issue not specific to academia that we all can contribute to dismantling, so it is upsetting to hear others avoid the responsibility to end it by saying “it’s a [departmental / institutional / funding / societal] problem.” We will not see immediate change overnight, especially when we don’t take positive steps forward, so it is disappointing to see people throw up their hands in defeat because drastic, immediate changes can’t happen overnight. Now, to clarify, I in no way claim to be without fault. It takes purposeful focus every day to acknowledge, recognize, and reflect on how systemic racism influences me differently than others and take personalized actions to counter my exclusionary actions. It takes persistence and humility to reflect and be receptive to feedback to make long-lasting changes.

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

Step 4. LISTEN. Don’t take it personally, make it personal.

For White or overrepresented scientists, there may be a little voice saying, “But I am not racist, I don’t exclude anyone, I [insert ‘nonracist’ or inclusionary act here].” I’ve heard that voice too. But I’ve discovered that drowning that voice requires listening to people who have experienced exclusion and discrimination, who feel the weight of racism, and who have to carry on with their day while absorbing macro- and micro-aggressions in every facet of their life. Also, listen to yourself. The age-old quote “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is so 20th century. Words are powerful. Listen to your own words, and listen to how others respond to your words, both verbally and nonverbally. Leave your “intentions” out of it. We will all make mistakes. Instances where we don’t “intend” to make an exclusive or racist remark can still contribute to the weight and pain another person already carries. So, pay attention. Call yourself out or call out others when mistakes are made (e.g. saying slaves rather than enslaved people). Don’t make it about you and your intentions. Make it about the person who may feel uncomfortable and hurt. Listen, learn from, and reinforce those that use inclusive language. Don’t take it personally, but make reflections, and subsequent actions, personal.

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

It is going to take much more than participating in social media initiatives, conference plenary talks, and personal or lab discussions to break the ties of racism in academia. It is going to take much more than creating a diversity committee, signing a petition, or attending a march. While all of these actions are a great start, it is often easier to look outwardly and identify external issues, rather than looking inward and reflecting on how, as people in this society, we may perpetuate these issues. Dr. Namandjé Bumpus stated it best:

“I call on over-represented people in science who are expressing outrage about racism in broader society to focus the same level of energy on looking inwards, to wake up to how the culture in academic science is exclusionary.” 

STEP 5: CHANGE. Societal structure and inclusivity in the classroom (and beyond).

Here is the hard truth: you do not need to be overtly racist to be exclusionary or harmful. As Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens stated at the 2020 UNL Science Communication conference, “light skin is just normalized.” We need to stop denying that we have biased beliefs infused into our research, education, or everyday interactions. It is time to stop resisting the idea that so many of us have perpetuated an exclusionary status quo. This biased reality is something we MUST grapple with before moving forward to affect sustainable, inclusive change.

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

Whether you are a seasoned faculty member or a first-year graduate student, opportunities to embrace equality in classrooms, laboratories, and beyond are at your fingertips, but it will take time, work, and self-discipline. This can be daunting, as many scientists are often spinning their wheels to “keep up” scientifically and it seems that the academic structure does not promote culturally-relevant professional development opportunities. What keeps me motivated is reminding myself that science and education are more than knowledge, research publications, or intellect; science at its’ best integrates knowledge with creativity, social skills, and relational awareness to develop trust and engagement with communities beyond our laboratory walls.

Thus, we as a collective academic community must push against traditional programs and faculty in order to promote research or outreach that benefits the broader community outside of academia. We must push ourselves to acknowledge the relationship between science and applied, intersectional issues such as social and environmental justice. Everyone’s journey to achieve change and inclusivity may look different, but we can all contribute something.

This can look like educating ourselves on racial inequality in STEM and ways to build trust and camaraderie with URM students, faculty, and community members. This can look like building a more inclusive academic network that lifts up and provides opportunities for all students. This can look like graduate students actively seeking out research assistants from more diverse backgrounds. This can look like seeking out collaborations with URM scientists. This can look like speaking up at faculty meetings or student organization meetings to promote inclusivity. This can also look like normalizing pronoun identifications at the beginning of class. It can be assigning readings from POC authors that encourage intersectional thought on topics that are normally considered “science neutral.” For a comprehensive look at what changes we can make in our classrooms, check out Dr. Bryan Dewsbury’s article on developing inclusive STEM teaching practices. Change will not happen overnight, but it will move faster if we all strive to be inclusive in our own spheres and normalize that inclusivity in our society.

STEP 6: REPEAT. The life-long journey of dismantling racism.

[Source: Sylvia Duckworth]

The journey to this point has made me feel a lot of feelings, but it pales in comparison to the centuries of trauma and the daily racist experiences so many others face. So I am in this for the long haul and will continue to dig deep into the roots of racism in our society. Yet, as Dr. Christopher Schell eloquently put during the 2020 North America Conservation Congress plenary talk, “antiracist work is like weeding out invasive plants––you can tug out the roots in your yard every day, but if your neighbor ignores ones in theirs, the work is never ending.” To plant new, inclusive, integrative structures in our scientific fields, we need everyone on board to remove invasive roots of racism first, particularly from the “yards” of authority. Science, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, IS a biased entity. As someone who is undertaking their own journey to more inclusivity, I am imploring academic faculty, administrative personnel, hiring committees, educators, graduate students or anyone who holds a position of authority and scientific mentorship: Use those same critical thinking skills that help you ponder the wonders of science beyond the academic sphere. Commit to setting aside time, space, and energy and use those skills to make real progress As first suggested by Thoreau, “unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.”


This piece was an emotional labor of love and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge:

  • the friends and colleagues who shared frequent, deep conversations on race, identity, and how to make effective change in our communities.
  • the editing team for providing invaluable feedback and patience as this piece went through many iterations.
  • the BLM community for their perseverance to continue fighting for justice and galvanizing the entire world to act and demand change.
  • the BIPOC scientists who have been open and vulnerable and willing to help people like myself reflect and learn what it is like to be an underrepresented person in academia.
  • the mentors and faculty that I have engaged with who have been open to learning and to those who have been resistant to these discussions. Both have inspired me to continue sharing and pushing for equity in my field.
  • Sylvia Duckworth (@sylviaduckworth on Instagram) for the artwork and sketchnotes that help me process complex issues and put things into colorful perspective.

Karli Chudeau is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group and a part of the UC Davis Coastal Marine Sciences Institute. She is interested in conservation management and assessing animal welfare in wildlife rehabilitation settings. Her current research examines how we can use behavioral management interventions, such as environmental enrichment, to improve reintroduction success with pinnipeds. She is also an avid ocean nerd.


[1] National Science Foundation and National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (2015)

[2] Page, S.E. 2008. The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, new edition. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 456 pp.

[3] Johnson, A., M.J. Huggans, Siegfried, D., & Braxton, L. (2016). Strategies for increasing diversity in the ocean science workforce through mentoring. Oceanography 29(1):46–54, http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2016.11.

[4] Ream, R. K., Lewis, J. L., Echeverria, B., & Page, R. N. (2014). Trust matters: Distinction and diversity in undergraduate science education. Teachers College Record, 116(5), 1–50.

[5] Haynes, C., & Patton, L. D. (2019). From Racial Resistance to Racial Consciousness: Engaging White STEM Faculty in Pedagogical Transformation. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 22(2), 85–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555458919829845

[6] Price, J. (2010). The effect of instructor race and gender on student persistence in STEM fields. Economics of Education Review, 29, 901-910. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2010.07.009

[7] Dewsbury, B. M. (2017). On faculty development of STEM inclusive teaching practices. FEMS Microbiology Letters, Vol. 364. https://doi.org/10.1093/femsle/fnx179

[8] Canning, E. A., Muenks, K., Green, D. J., & Murphy, M. C. (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances, 5(2), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aau4734

[Edited by Allison Lau, Alex McInturf, and Josie Hubbard]

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