Society needs diversity in STEM
Diversity bolsters knowledge creation and positively advances science and technology for our future
Dr. Carla Fehr is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and serves as an advisor to the Gender and Social Justice program. She is an expert in gender diversity in STEM and feminist philosophy of science.
Fehr’s research explores the social nature of science and technology and how our culture influences the knowledge we produce. Across our academic and research activities we must consider the impacts on society. We asked Fehr how we can strengthen science and technology to positively advance society and ensure all members of our communities thrive.
Opinion by Dr. Fehr
If we want better science and technology that contribute to the well-being of all members of our society, then we need to build a culture that includes and respects diverse practitioners, researchers and students in the STEM fields.
My research shows that scientific communities who include members from diverse backgrounds, social and material locations, and those who hold different theoretical perspectives, facilitate research that is more creative and produces outcomes that better meet the needs of a wide range of publics than homogeneous scientific communities. This means that research communities should value diversity not only for ethical and political reasons, but also because it makes our science better.
Diversity drives innovation, bolsters knowledge creation and strengthens the science and technology workforce. So why is it so uncommon in science and technology fields?
The absence of diversity in STEM is not a fluke or coincidence. It is the result of patterns of injustice that are built into the values, structures and everyday practices of many of our institutions. Changing these elements of an organization’s culture can be difficult and requires that some people give up some current practices that make their work easy and comfortable. However, we’ve seen the payoff is worth it to advance exciting new research.
For example, the influx of feminist women researchers into primatology in the 1970s resulted in attention being paid to female primates and to the nuances of primate social structures that were previously neglected. Female researchers addressed this knowledge gap and developed new theoretical and methodological resources that are now standard for not only studying primates but general animal behavior. Including more women in the field opened a new way of studying ethology and has advanced our understanding of animals.
We have also seen that when members of our society are excluded from STEM, damaging consequences occur. You’ve likely heard of examples where racism is embedded in artificial intelligence, such as facial recognition software that doesn’t recognize Black women’s faces or misgenders women of colour. This is directly related to exclusionary practices. Women of colour have commonly been excluded from computer science and technology, leading to the development of products that don’t serve a large population of people.
Some of the culture changes needed can start in the classroom. As a professor, I teach my first-year students to be careful and critical consumers of knowledge. I want them to ask themselves, “How was this knowledge created and who is missing from the process?” At Waterloo, we are training the future STEM workforce, so we are responsible for actively creating diverse educational spaces. This means diversifying our syllabi, expanding our department’s definitions of scholarship and pushing for policy changes to make university campuses more open to women, members of the disabled community and 2SLGBTQ+ people.
These changes require courageous leadership, time, energy and expertise, but will benefit our institutions and societies immensely if we do it well. Our students are our future leaders, policymakers, scientists and practitioners — they are powerful — and with that power comes the opportunity to positively contribute to the world around them. We need to put in the work now of creating diverse spaces to nurture these minds so they can advance better science and technology outcomes for our future.
Join Fehr along with her colleagues Jennifer Saul, Joanne Atlee and Lai-Tze Fan as they discuss gender in computer science and technology on Friday, November 17 at 2:30 p.m.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.