The death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 ignited already high tensions in the U.S. Black
community after months of sheltering in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Much higher
rates of lost lives and jobs occurred in communities of color than in White communities. The
confluence of events highlighted systemic inequities for People of Color (POC), making them
visible to others. In the mostly peaceful protests that took place all over the world, an
interesting and positive observation could be made—there were many White participants,
signaling a change in the understanding of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” The wave of
protests sparked a wave of a variety of organizations and businesses issuing statements of
support. GSA was one of the first organizations to do this, while acknowledging that the
geosciences have not done a good job of advancing diversity. The current mindset provides an
opportunity for us to interrogate the discipline’s failure to achieve equity while it is
experiencing a mood of receptive inquiry. This article examines some of the historical data
on diversity in the geosciences and cites studies that provide possible reasons why
representation has not increased. A recognition of previous and existing programs currently
generating more POC geoscientists is key: Building upon them can provide a path to
successfully improving diversity in the geoscience community.
Nearly Four Decades of Diversity Gains?
The concept of “implicit bias” caught fire in recent years as an explanation for how people’s
choices and expectations impact evaluation, hiring, and promotion decisions. More recently,
machine learning applications were expected to eliminate bias because models trained with
just data would be free of human bias. One study concluded that judges’ bail determinations
for the riskiest criminal suspects were incorrect nearly 50% of the time (Kleinberg et al.,
2018). The promise of the machine to eliminate bias was very quickly dampened by the
realization of just how difficult it is to keep human biases out of the machine learning
process (Zou and Schiebinger, 2018). While we were examining our biases, representation gave
way to diversity, thereby softening the focus on parity. The result was that measuring all
students and faculty by the same metric prevented the desired increase of those
underrepresented in academia (Tapia, 2010).
The numbers of women geoscientists have increased since prior to the start of my professional
career at the U.S. Geological Survey in 1988, but I am still usually the only person in my
combined category (Black woman geoscientist) in the room. This reality is reflected in the
fact that the number of geoscience Ph.D.s awarded to Black and Native American people has
remained nearly constant in the 38 years of data shown in Figure 1, obtained from the
National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), illustrating where progress
has (or has not) been achieved regarding parity of POC in the academy. Parity relative to
the U.S. population would mean an earth-science department faculty is 13% Black, but the
portion of Black faculty remains significantly below that, less than 2%. The data analyzed
for this article is personally relevant for me; it tracks my involvement in the field
starting with my undergraduate study. Since 1980, the proportion of Ph.D.s awarded to Black
recipients averaged 2.6%. Martinez-Acosta and Favero (2018) suggested that diversity efforts
were unsuccessful because the culture of academia may not truly be inclusive. Organizational
culture change resulting from diversity training appears to have been short-lived in most
cases, and a study published in the Harvard Business Review found that voluntary
diversity programs in the corporate environment are the most effective at achieving equity
(Dobbin and Kalev, 2016). These findings are also applicable to academia, consistent with
the assertion by Golom (2018) that institutional culture is a significant obstacle to
Doctorates awarded in geoscience, atmospheric, and ocean sciences from 1980 to 2018, showing
distribution by ethnicity and race. Top histogram shows degrees awarded to women, bottom
histogram shows degrees awarded to men. Source: National Center for Science and Engineering
Another possible problem with diversity initiatives is that they are often implemented
beneath an umbrella covering all underrepresented groups. The most effective solutions for
each group can be different, though overlapping. Conflating diverse groups together may have
had a detrimental effect on the success of POC in higher education (Shapiro et al., 2017).
In the past few years, the number of white female Ph.D. recipients has reached near parity
with White men but Black and other POC still fall significantly short of representation.
Issues related to retention, support, advancement, and freedom from sexual harassment have
become more important for women than recruitment, as shown in a study done at Columbia
University (June, 2018).
For many years, a commitment to enhance diversity has been expressed by universities and in
the private sector, but the numbers indicate a lack of efficacy for those efforts or an
inability to turn good intentions into concrete actions. It seems clear that a
one-size-fits-all approach to improve diversity does not do so equally across all
underrepresented groups. With respect to increasing POC in the geosciences, additional
programs modeled after CDEP can fill the pipeline. The biggest challenge for replicating and
sustaining these programs is funding, which for CDEP and GeoFORCE comes largely from the
private sector because businesses recognized an opportunity to cultivate needed talent.
Making geoscience culture more welcoming to POC is only part of the solution, and the
critical question is whether the now-enlightened academic geoscience community has the will
to adopt and support (financially and otherwise) replications of programs that have proven
to increase representation.
We thank two anonymous reviewers for strengthening this manuscript and GSA for facing these
challenges. This work is an outcome of National Science Foundation—Improving Undergraduate
STEM Education (IUSE) Grant GP-IMPACT-1600429.
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Manuscript received 20 July 2020.
Revised manuscript received 24 Sept. 2020.
Manuscript accepted 22 Oct. 2020.
Posted 18 Nov. 2020.
© 2020, The Geological Society of America. CC-BY-NC.