Effective recruitment, retention, and promotion of women & minorities in the geosciences: a session report

I'm back from the Geological Society of America annual meeting, and I promised to blog about my session. So... here it is.

Techniques and tools for effective recruitment, retention, and promotion of women and minorities in the geosciences. It's a mouthful, and included a lot of different perspectives, from information on the state of diversity in the geosciences today to suggestions for where we need to go to specific programs that have been developed to... well, to my talk, at the very end.

The session began with a personal perspective from Pamela Hallock-Muller, a marine scientist from the University of South Florida. You know, when I hear stories from women who entered the sciences in the 1970's, I am just floored by the things they went through. I mean, I remember people saying "girls can't do that" in the 1970's, but by the time I was in high school, Sally Ride had been on the space shuttle. But Pamela's had to keep fighting through her career, and... well, her story is pretty inspiring.

We then moved on to the state of diversity in the discipline. According to NSF's data, the geosciences have the lowest undergraduate enrollment of ethnic and racial minorities of any of the sciences. We're also a small field, so the percentages fluctuate a lot from year to year, but it's clear that we've got a lot of work to do. On the other hand, the proportion of geoscience doctorate degrees that go to minorities is similar to the proportions in math, computer science, engineering, and physical science. The numbers are small, though, so we probably shouldn't pat ourselves on the back about our success in retaining people. About 40% of bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in the geosciences go to women, and there hasn't been much change in the proportions in the past decade.

So, given the state of the discipline, what do we need to do? The introductory talks were followed by a cluster of talks dealing with general principles that can guide solutions, mixed with some discussions of specific programs that have been developed. Out of the "general principles" talks, the most intriguing (IMO) came from a group that has been trying to understand the types of motivations (including emotional and aesthetic) that inspire people to become geologists. If you read geoblogs, you can probably guess what some of those are: great field experiences, enjoyment of the outdoors, and the social experience of being a geologist. But those (and other factors that bring geologists together) can also be negatives. What about kids who didn't grow up comfortable in the outdoors, for instance? Education researchers talk about problems associated "novelty space" - how unfamiliarity can distract students from learning, and make an experience negative. The authors didn't mention this, but as I was listening, it struck me that subtle hints that "you don't belong here" - including a lack of people with a similar background (ethnic, cultural, gender, socioeconomic status) could also create negative emotions associated with field trips or with socializing with geologists. The authors made the point that negative experiences are not restricted to minorities or women - most people do not become geoscientists. As educators, it's important to turn these barriers into bridges for whatever students we have.

It was in this section of talks that we got The Question That Always Comes Up. Ann Givan mentioned the low numbers of female full professors (almost in passing, as a reason why solutions are needed), and a male audience member asked if it was just a matter of time - if we just needed to wait until women moved through the pipeline. The data that says that there really is a problem (AWG study, AGI Workforce Current, Nature Geoscience article) wasn't presented in this session, but two of the people who compiled the data (Suzanne O'Connell and Mary Anne Holmes) were there. And... you know, it feels like confronting a young-Earth creationist or something. There are studies that debunk the same old comments, but that doesn't keep people from making the same arguments. Very frustrating. But what I found interesting was that Suzanne and Mary Anne didn't respond with their data - they responded by saying "no - we know the people who are dropping out, and we know they're leaving despite being successful." I wonder if some kind of qualitative study (scroll down to 508 on this list of short courses) isn't necessary, in order to come up with hypotheses that can be studied with surveys and statistics. I wonder if the attempts to solve the problems are guided too much by assumptions? (I think that Mary Anne and Suzanne's Nature Geoscience article may have included interviews - I can't remember the details of it now, and it's behind a paywall.)

Anyway. Solutions, at all levels and with all kinds of populations. These included:

The session ended with the internet. (Also with a time conflict with posters and beer. Geologists are social, and also like free beer.) There were two talks: one on MentorNet, and mine, on blogs.

MentorNet is a web-based program that matches students with mentors from industry or academia. And they need more geoscientists to be mentors if they are to help geoscience students. So check out their web site.

Finally, there was my talk. I need to make a long post about the results, but I'll give the main finding here. In the survey we did in August, we asked women geoscientists who read blogs a bunch of questions about what they got out of reading blogs. We found a correlation between a group of responses (that is, people who agreed with one statement tended to agree with the others): that reading blogs makes me feel more normal, helps me learn about life as a women scientist, makes me feel more connected with other women scientists, and gives me access to a greater variety of role models that I have in my real life. These four statements were correlated with an increased interest in a career in academia, but not with an increased interest in a career in industry. I've got questions about why that is (and that's a topic for discussion when I say more about the data), but my take-home message is that women-in-science blogs are Good Things. FSP, Isis, SciWo, Zuska, Dr. Free-Ride: what you do makes a difference. You rock. And from a geologist, that's a compliment.

(And thanks to the bloggers who put off beer to come to my talk. I promise a full blog-version soon, and a discussion of the differences between posting preliminary results on a blog versus presenting them at a national meeting. I think there are more similarities than you might expect...)


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Forgive me if this sounds naive or something (I don't know all the arguments) but I always wondering if societies like The National Association of Black Geologists and Geophysicists helps prevent the integration and mixing of the races. If minorities have a place they can feel comfortable why would they want to try and integrate themselves into a group where they don't feel as comfortable.

Groups like NABGG (or the Association for Women Geoscientists, or the American Indian Science and Engineering Society) don't keep people from participating in larger organizations. They're a relief from being constantly in the minority. Going around GSA, there were only two times when the majority of the people in the room with me were not white men: at the session on recruiting and retaining women and minorities, and at the AWG breakfast. If you're a white guy, you might not be aware that you're surrounded by people like you - it might seem natural. But it isn't.

And groups like NABGG don't prevent integration. Success in the geosciences requires proving oneself to the field as a whole. Time in smaller groups like NABGG or AWG is just a way to stay sane and survive.


Your post inspired me to chime in on the issue of blogs. I decided to go back to school to pursue an advanced degree in the social sciences (educational/cognitive psychology in particular) primarily from reading the blogs here on science blogs written by women. I am working in computer science (database adminstrator/developer) and I am very unhappy with this "accidental" career choice. Reading the blogs here made me realize, the only thing holding me back from pursuing my goals was myself.

Challenges occur in any career. If I could go back and do it over again, I would have pursued something in the marine sciences (and not quit school to get married)...but now, I am interested in how we can get young adults interested in the learning process in general. What motivates them to learn and how can that learning happen...

I think the kinds of studies you are looking for are exaclty the kinds of things that provide hard data to influence changes esepcially at the high school level, where young women may be faced with bias against pursuing science careers...

By Catherine (not verified) on 24 Oct 2009 #permalink

To follow up on Kim's comments, groups like these also exist to support issues that are of a concern to those of us in the minority - but can be difficult to resolve because the number of people affected is relatively small... (even 100% of a 40% minority is still a minority when you consider the size of the whole - and very few issues affect everyone).

I was a bit bothered by the GSA scheduling that put the poster sessions directly opposite the end of the oral sessions - and the poster sessions included the free beer. The last few speakers in the sessions often don't get the best attendance, but then the poster sessions and beer make it worse. Oh well - at least there was free beer (timing my visit to the exhibit hall to coincide with the free coffee was a little harder....)