How can we achieve diversity and inclusion in ecology?

Diverse and inclusive groups of scientists are more productive, innovative, and impactful. We used a nationwide survey of ecology and evolutionary biology faculty to determine the value of and level of engagement in activities related to diversity and inclusion.

Jun 03, 2019
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One late September afternoon in 2017, we met as a lab group to discuss a new, thought-provoking Science paper “Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough” by Chandler Puritty, Lynette Strickland, and others. We sat in our department’s conference room discussing the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion in our field. Above us, the walls were lined with pictures of former department heads - all older, white, whiskered men, not smiling in their photos, and not particularly inspiring to our young and lively group of women and men with diverse identities and backgrounds.   

A year and half later, our new paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution is the first to quantify faculty engagement in activities related to diversity and inclusion in ecology and evolutionary biology. Many of our research questions stemmed from lab meeting conversations like the one described above and, while we are thrilled that our research findings are now widely available, our own personal motivations for asking these questions are not conveyed in the article. Here, we share some of what compelled us to conduct this research and why we feel that the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology should be diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Miguel Jimenez (middle) helping local middle school students identify birds at a bioblitz hosted by Colorado State University’s SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability) chapter. Photo by Nicholas Wolverton.

Miguel Jimenez: I did not grow up with dreams of becoming an ecologist. I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago and spent more time attending concerts than I did in natural areas. My family pushed me to study medicine and become a doctor: the crowning achievement for first-generation Filipino immigrants. However, I became an ecologist because I had a professor who took me mist-netting and let me hold a bird for the first time and because I had a boss who spent an entire day teaching me how to identify prairie plants. I became an ecologist because I had advisors who believed in my work, even when I was struggling. I was lucky enough to have mentors who saw potential in me that I did not and who encouraged my curiosity in the natural world. 

I think we often discount how impactful simple interactions can be in influencing someone’s interest in our field. Understanding how we can best facilitate these relationships among people of different backgrounds not only helps to shape the next generation of ecologists, but also makes our work more accessible and relevant to the public.

Theresa Laverty explaining how to study bat communities during a monthly meeting of the Fort Collins Teen Science Café. Photo by Garrett Sisson.

Theresa Laverty: As a first-generation college student, I have largely relied on outside advice to navigate my experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student in ecology, a field unknown to my friends and family before I pursued my degrees. Now that I mentor several students – mostly women – extensively both in the U.S. and abroad, I recognize that I was always most comfortable interacting with and confiding in faculty whose demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds most closely matched my own. For this reason, I was curious to see who engages most in activities related to diversity and inclusion and if their departments or institutions reward or value these behaviors.

Liba Pejchar: As a conservation biologist and a mother, who was lucky to be mentored by extraordinary women, I see so much value in cultivating a diverse and inclusive community of scientists. Ecologists and society have the opportunity to create a future that sustains biodiversity and human well-being – but creative and collaborative problem-solving will be essential to achieving this outcome. A scientific community that better reflects society in regard to gender, race, ethnicity and socio-economic background will be much better equipped to tackle these challenges. I was interested in querying faculty to better understand how we could all take greater responsibility for changing the cultures of our institutions and our disciplines.

Coauthor and University of Wyoming faculty member Drew Bennett working with participants on an ecosystems services exercise during a workshop. Photo by Liba Pejchar.

Miguel, Theresa, and Liba: In March 2018, we sent off an online survey to faculty members in over 90 ecology and evolutionary biology programs across the United States. We asked professors how often they engaged in diversity and inclusion activities and the degree to which they felt their peers and institution valued these activities. One of our more hopeful findings was that we are not alone; the vast majority of our respondents strongly value diversity and inclusion. However, faculty may not ultimately prioritize these activities early in their careers because they perceive these activities as not being important for obtaining tenure or promotions. We also found faculty with underrepresented identities (i.e., nonwhite, non-male, and first-generation college graduates) were more likely to engage in many activities related to diversity and inclusion. We hope that our paper will stimulate discussions similar to the ones that motivated us to conduct our research, and that our findings will further inform the many diversity and inclusion efforts in the U.S. and beyond, which will make our science more effective and relevant.

Theresa M. Laverty

Postdoctoral Fellow, Colorado State University

1 Comments

Ruth Milne 3 months ago

Thanks for sharing your personal motivations behind the study, and thanks also for doing the research - important findings that must be shared, and hopefully a driver of positive change.