Librarians and STEM Diversity

Recently, I had the great privilege of helping coordinate Network Detroit 2018, a digital humanities conference at Wayne State University. The theme of this year’s conference was “Digital Humanities and Activism: Communities in Motion”. Presentations explored intersectionality in digital humanities, the colonialism inherent in IT infrastructure, and diversity and inclusion issues. It was an inspiring conference, and it drew a truly unique cross section of the academic community.

In a conference full of memorable moments and indelible presentations, one particular graph stuck with me. I can’t seem to stop thinking about it, probably because when I saw it I felt like I had been punched in the gut. The graph showed women in STEM careers over time. You see, at the beginning of the graph, that there are next to no women in STEM, and then you see a slow creep upward. Today, over 80% of health science professionals are women, and they continue to make strides in biology and chemistry. But then… then you see engineering, statistics, and math, all of which are holding very steady below 50%, scraping for each percentage. And at the very bottom is computer science. Women have fled computer science since 1984. It’s not hard to guess why. Can anyone say “Gamergate”? (That is a pithy response, but the environment women must endure in computer science is well documented – and it is pretty terrible.)

women in stem

This is not the graph presented at the Network Detroit Conference, but it shows the same trend. Graph created by Randal S. Olson.

The graph didn’t break “women” down any further. In other words, I could only make educated guesses regarding the number of STEM professionals who are women of color, for instance, or transgender women. Diversity in STEM is dismal and it isn’t a secret. This is a clearly documented trend, and a lot of recent research explores why. It’s a multi-layered problem. For example, young girls often think they are worse at math than boys; one study document girls who thought they were doing terrible on a test because they were getting a B (not an A) while boys though they were doing very well with a C on the same test because they were passing the class. Girls are less likely to pursue a STEM degree, and are more likely to drop a STEM degree if they start one; over 49% of students who declare STEM degrees drop them before graduation. Even if a woman makes it through to a Ph.D. in a STEM field, she is far less likely to stay in an academic position long enough to make tenure.

On a personal note, when I was in high school, I thought I was bad at math. I thought I was bad at math despite the fact that I took many advanced math courses, including algebra, statistics, and geometry and aced them all. I thought I was bad at math despite taking college math and not only excelling at it, but enjoying it (particularly biological statistics). I thought I was so bad at math that I shouldn’t take physics – and I stopped pursuing a profession that I enjoyed because I was too afraid to take physics. I convinced myself that I would fail. My point in relaying this story is not to garner sympathy or pity. That would be pointless. I absolutely love being a librarian. This is my calling, and I’m damn good at it. But what would my life have been like if my self-efficacy regarding math was better? What would it have been like if I had a mentor encouraging me to take and pass physics?

Academic libraries are considered “neutral” spaces. In other words, no department holds sway in the library. A potential territorial dispute can be avoided in the library; topics can be discussed with civility and decorum. Libraries of all kinds are “collaboration” spaces, where different parties can come together to work on interdisciplinary topics. But libraries (academic, school, and public) can also foster great change in the academic community that surrounds them. One of the more inspiring examples of STEM promotion in libraries is NASA@My Library, a program spearheaded by NASA and conducted in public libraries in select states. Public libraries use resources put together by NASA to hold STEM programs and introduce patrons to science principles.

One of the greatest innovations that I see in STEM libraries in the future, one that I look forward to being a part of, is changing the literal face of STEM. Librarians are in a unique position to promote women and people of color in STEM. How? First, we can set up mentoring programs that encourage diverse students who are on the fence about entering a STEM major to do so, and then following them through their college careers to encourage them to complete the program. We can set up presentations, panel discussions, and workshops that showcase diverse people in STEM positions so that the face of STEM looks familiar. We can host support groups and clubs in our libraries, and provide planning support for those groups when they plan events centered on diversity in STEM. Some of the greatest work librarians do is create supportive communities; we can create a supportive and encouraging community that helps shepherd diverse students through STEM programs, working with the programs themselves to foster campus wide, supportive communities. Collaborating with on-campus mentoring programs that are already up and running allows for greater visibility of those programs while encouraging students and faculty.

A project that I hope I have a chance to work on would support and encourage women and people of color in academic faculty positions. Retention of women in STEM faculty positions is abysmal. The reasons for this are hard to tease apart. For example, the Matilda effect suggests that women’s work in science is considered less robust than the same work completed by men. That leads to fewer citations, less research impact, and less job stability. But faculty positions are also not conducive to a work-life balance which tends to be more important to women. This is a problem with the faculty positions (as almost any faculty member will tell you) and not women (which may seem obvious but bears mentioning). Librarians are in a unique position to encourage and support new faculty members, becoming mentors and guides through the tenure process, so that more women retain faculty status into the future.

As I mentioned in my previous article, I started library school knowing that I wanted to be a science librarian. Interestingly, I was discouraged from pursuing this path because science libraries are changing so fast, so dramatically, that the person I spoke with thought there wouldn’t be any jobs as a science librarian. That person was partially right; science librarianship is changing so fast to fit the needs of patrons that they don’t look familiar. Research data management has become a hot new thing and a lot of science librarians work with a lot of data. But there’s also a lot of new initiatives, like citizen science, science literacy, and data literacy, all of which science librarians tackle. The most difficult change, from where I’m sitting, won’t be in the services we provide to our patrons, but the people science librarians serve – and hopefully in the science librarians themselves. We need diversity in STEM now.

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