Equity in Science
Representation, Culture, and the Dynamics of Change in Graduate Education
Julie R. Posselt



Equity Work as Science

UNDER BRIGHT LIGHTS ON THE STAGE OF A LARGE AUDITORIUM, a panel of PhD students spoke from their hearts: “I’m blessed to have my advisor,” Christopher said. “I went to prison and spent most of my undergraduate years hiding from that history.” He paused, his face a mix of anger, frustration, and sadness. “I knew if I went to grad school, that I didn’t want to live like that. I wanted to be out as a felon. . . . So it’s really important for you to seek out people who will accept you for who you are.”

“Yeah,” said the woman next to him. “There was this time I was having problems with the lab manager, who constantly gave me a hard time. . . . It didn’t matter what I did, how I dressed, she always had something to say to me. So finally I talked to my advisor about it, and she worked it out.”

Reina, who had been mostly quiet, spoke up: “My advisor is wonderful, but she has much better book knowledge on matters of diversity than lived experience and practical knowledge. We relate as women and she’s really well read, but we’ll never connect on race. I have to be OK with that and respect her efforts to learn.”

In this short exchange and the longer discussion of which it was part, three doctoral students constructed their faculty advisors in three roles—one as a trusted mentor, another as an advocate, a third as a socially conscious learner. They fielded audience questions, talking about the worlds of science they had entered, how they were adjusting to those worlds and, in small ways, striving to change them. The professors did not need to be physically present for their influence to be felt.

Depending on the academic cultures in which a person has been trained and works, taking on the roles of mentor, advocate, or learner implied in this student panel may seem more or less natural. This book invites readers to learn from the successes and mistakes of faculty like them, a rarely examined group. How do scientists in predominantly and historically white, male disciplines work for equity, diversity, or inclusion? What role does graduate education play in creating equity in science? How can equity work be improved to create better outcomes and healthier academic communities for the present and next generations?

I define equity work as reconfiguring structures, cultures, and systems to empower marginalized groups and close disparities. I choose to set equity as the bar for the work that is needed instead of diversity or inclusion. Diversity and inclusion imply that the mere presence of difference suffices or that people can be allowed in, but on terms that maintain racial, gender, and other status hierarchies that subordinate historically marginalized groups. To close gaps and keep them closed means reckoning with multiple, intersecting power dynamics and empowering marginalized group members’ voices, votes, and other forms of influence—to define the present and future of the community.

Equity work manifests variably in metrics, in movements, in everyday experiences, and in professional practice.1 It is, at its most effective, a case of institutional change, defined as changing mindsets, policies, and practices across the multiple levels and cultures of a system, through collaboration across differences that typically separate us. With this systemic perspective in mind, I will argue that the dynamics of change aimed at equity, diversity, or inclusion in STEM can therefore be captured as well by ideas and metaphors from complex systems and quantum theory as those from the tidy predictability of classical dynamics. Institutional change can be messy, because we are working within—and are therefore affected by—the very systems of power and organizational structures that we are also trying to improve. We may find ourselves working with people, language, or knowledge that is new to us. Efforts are almost always partial and imperfect, and people within the same department or initiative may read the extent of progress quite differently. It’s not easy work, making it all the more important to learn from the mistakes and successes of outliers in the academic community who are taking it seriously. We begin with one of the most important concepts in change efforts—culture—and how disciplinary cultures in science present barriers to equity.

Blinded by Culture in Science

It is no revelation that culture change of some sort is needed in science, and so widespread is this awareness that more and more people want to be associated with contributing to positive cultural changes. The trouble is, few within science have been socialized to recognize the cultures in their midst, much less what changing them entails. Having defined culture outside the core of necessary knowledge to be an effective scientist, knowledge and skills for improving culture are limited within the community. It may well be that more graduate students in STEM are trained in using techniques in the toolbox of spectrometry than those in the toolboxes of effective teaching, mentoring, leadership, or change management—four practices that reflect and reinforce culture.

Culture is a system of inherited values, goals, and language that provides members with a shared sense of who they are and a common purpose for action. A multifaceted concept, culture most simply put “is reflected in what is done, how it is done, and who is involved in doing it.”2 One can observe culture in an organization by noticing shared values and beliefs. Though values and beliefs are abstract, they surface in predictable ways: how a mission or goals are defined and applied, evaluative criteria and the socialization processes through which new members are inducted, priorities used for decision making, and expectations placed on members and leaders.3 Culture is rarely unified or integrated. It can also be differentiated, as in groups with clear subcultures, and it can be fragmented when those sub-cultures are ambiguous or in tension. These are normal features of organizational life, and making space for people who think differently than those who have predominated is one of the surest paths to creativity and change in organizations.4

As people settle into a new group, especially one that aligns with their own values, they often cease to notice the culture. It is, to most people, like water to a fish—an essential medium, yet usually taken for granted unless we somehow get outside of it. In academe, we are usually so surrounded by people who think and act like we do that it becomes hard to distinguish, much less challenge, what is normal and necessary from that which simply reflects our local organizational culture.5 As is the case for fish adapted to mildly toxic waters, those who stay in academia long enough may stop noticing the toxicity of the culture in which we work.

For example, it becomes easy to lose sight of the mismatch between our cultural beliefs of equal opportunity and impartiality with the realities of inequities and discrimination. Beliefs associated with meritocracy (i.e., distribution of opportunities on the basis of individual effort, talent, and achievement rather than by heredity or privilege) and objectivity (i.e., impartiality and a focus on evidence over personal preferences or feelings) are two powerful aspects of academic culture, especially within science and engineering fields. We use meritocracy and objectivity to justify our systems for allocating membership and honors and, more fundamentally, to define who and what should be deemed legitimate.6 However, the strong commitment to these beliefs also obscures the ways we are responsible for creating and sustaining inequalities.7

For one, scholars who are accustomed to thinking that their achievements are earned, or who think of themselves as impartial, may be less vigilant against implicit bias and other forms of discrimination. Studies in economics have measured these tendencies. In an experiment with sixty-five men role-playing a game about hiring a factory manager, men primed to think of themselves as objective and logical were more likely to favorably rate a male-identified applicant with the same qualifications as one who is female.8 Ironically, a strong belief in our objectivity as knowers may predispose us to be less objective, and more biased, in judging merit. When we acknowledge that our systems and practices for ensuring equal opportunity and access are broken, then unpacking misperceptions about merit and objectivity becomes a powerful strategy for cultural change. Good intentions to be objective do not immunize us from bias. They can, however, make us more wary of our own judgments.

Nominally “impartial” beliefs can also make it difficult to perceive our role in inequalities by rationalizing them—cloaking social wrongs in more attractive rationales. In social science this is called legitimation, and it is the process by which unpopular ideas like inequality become accepted as normal and legitimate. In previous research I found that leaders of selective graduate programs rationalized their low admission rates of Black applicants as a problem of that group’s lower scores on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), which they thought of as more objective indicators of merit than the alternatives. Yet they were not attuned to the distributions and error on scores, or to their own tendencies to infer meanings from scores beyond those qualities that the Educational Testing Service (ETS) constructs the test to measure (i.e., reasoning and skills).9 I found they read additional qualities into GRE scores, such as who is intelligent, who poses a risk, and who ultimately belongs.10 Failure to apply the same scrutiny to the objectivity of our measures of merit that we place on other statistics has enabled academia to portray inequities in enrollment and completion as students’ problem, not ours. That perspective, however, occludes generations of injustice in American education and also the fact that professors have a choice every year about whether or not to prioritize racialized metrics among the information they could solicit about applicants.

For too long, claiming an insufficient supply of “qualified” graduate student and faculty candidates has served as what organization theorists call a social defense: a spurious story that people tell to protect themselves from the discomfort of acknowledging how their behavior and thinking may be part of the very problem they wish to solve.11 The uncomfortable truth is that the socialization that higher education presently provides into meritocratic and objectivist logics leads many scholars—in both the sciences and more broadly—not to see racial or gender inequalities produced in learning and work environments as a critical problem for them, in either an absolute sense or relative to other pressures.12

Additional refrains are also sung in minimizing the significance or urgency of inequities in science: Some do not see social identities and the perspectives that may come with them as relevant to them or to scientific work. Others dismiss higher education as too late to face inequities with origins in broader society or K–12 education. They may have inherited false information about what constitutes “risk” or the related falsehood that equity and excellence are mutually exclusive. Whole fields resist rethinking their course sequencing and prerequisites to enable a broader population to earn advanced degrees.

There are also structural forces in play. Doctoral students have long been positioned dually as students and employees, but the balance has shifted in many places toward the latter. Admissions and education have thus come to consist of hiring and supervising skilled employees as much as identifying talent and cultivating scholars. Therefore, judgments of “merit” often emphasize experience and achievements over potential. It is not hard for faculty to point to the structures in which they are situated—university policies and budget models, the pressures to publish and bring in grant funding, and a broader policy environment—as reasons not to elevate equity considerations.

Working Toward Solutions

Yet for every professor making excuses for inequalities or evading responsibility for them, there are others determined to be part of the solution. Scholars from myriad backgrounds are working hard to buck inertia and overcome resistance. They want to leave their department, their discipline, and the academic profession more humane than when they entered it. They want to do better and be better themselves. They want to push the diversity conversation into questions about climate and how the system we have created drives away talented students of all backgrounds. They want to talk seriously about shifting community norms and reward structures to be more amenable to scholars with families and more respectful of the contributions that people of color make. They want, somehow, for the jerks in their communities to be held accountable.

Some are doing much more than passionately holding such desires, good intentions, and visions of a better world. They are putting in serious time—often nights and weekends—on task forces, initiatives, or grants that their institutions and promotion criteria may or may not value. They are confronting the obstinate and doing science differently in the spaces in which they have authority. They are collecting and analyzing data about their programs, taking a hard look at their own behavior, and reforming policies and practices. I was struck by how many of the professors I interviewed used the analogy of work-life balance to describe the difficulty of balancing their scientific work with work related to demands for equity, diversity, and inclusion. The work is important to them and worthy of effort but poorly woven into the fabric of current academic expectations. They may not be fully confident in what they are doing or whether they are balancing their obligations appropriately, and they may disagree with colleagues on tactics. However, there are more people working on this than ever—and they want to get it right.

Thus, we have in academia both significant barriers and significant resources for cultural change. Academia is an institution, which means it is constituted not only by organizations but also by shared stories, values, and norms that regulate behavior, provide identity, and constrain change. Meritocracy and objectivity are two such values. However, we also have increasingly urgent calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion and some serious efforts toward these goals. What’s more, investments from foundations and universities, experimentation with the rules of the game, and demographic trends all favor the interests of a more diverse society. Will harnessing these resources be enough to overcome—or even circumvent—the barriers?


1. Another definition of equity is “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential” (Policy Link, 2015).

2. Tierney (1988), p. 3.

3. Tierney (1988), p. 8.

4. Differentiated and fragmented organizational cultures are normal and expected in heterogeneous organizations (Martin, 2001).

5. Of the forces that organizational culture exerts in higher education, William Tierney (1988) writes, “Institutions certainly are influenced by powerful, external factors such as demographic, economic, and political conditions, yet they are also shaped by strong forces that emanate from within. This internal dynamic has its roots in the history of the organization and derives its force from the values, processes, and goals held by those most intimately involved in the organization’s workings. An organization’s culture is reflected in what is done, how it is done, and who is involved in doing it. It concerns decisions, actions, and communication both on an instrumental and a symbolic level” (p. 3).

6. Carter, Dueñas, & Mendoza (2019); Gonzales (2013); Posselt (2016).

7. By “we,” I am referring to all of us engaged in education, whom I consider responsible for shaping its trajectory.

8. Uhlmann & Cohen (2007).

9. Miller & Stassun (2014); Educational Testing Service (2018). See also Educational Testing Service (2019).

10. Posselt (2016).

11. Petriglieri & Stein (2012).

12. The need to question meritocratic foundations of current systems for allocating educational opportunity is one of the core tenets of critical race theory. See, e.g., Ladson-Billings & Tate (2016).