Discrimination is not a new topic, we hear it on the news, we see it on social media, we have -hopefully- talked about it with our peers in conferences or during lunch. It might sound even repetitive. But then, if we have talked, read and heard so much about it, why are we still writing on this? Unfortunately, we still hear people showing themselves as superior because of their privileged position. And no matter if this privilege is the gender, the social status, the nationality, the language they speak, their hierarchical position in an institution, etc; they are all social constructs dependent on the context. Slowly, times change, so now is necessary to change the way we address to each other, approaching the most to what equity offers: “In a just society, the rights of individuals would be protected, the interests of constituent groups would be balanced, and the use of coercion would be discouraged (Graves et al. 2022)1”.
The unfair or prejudicial treatment of people based on specific characteristics like culture, age, race, sexual orientation, financial, nationality or gender, -or discrimination- has physical and mental repercussions. The way that these repercussions are measured is through the increased amount of stress which can reach dangerous levels, so much so that it has been described as a public health issue. The physical impact of racial discrimination can be observed in the decreased life expectancy in different races. In 1960 there was a gap of 7 years shorter lives for the black race, in comparison to white people. In 2005 the gap was 5,1 years, despite the increase in the average of life expectancy for both races (Williams & Mohammed 2009). This gap might be explained by the bias in medical and pharmaceutical research that has been directed primordially to white males, leaving women and black races underrepresented in clinical trials and, therefore exposed to higher health risks, for example in heart disease and cancer, where African American have around 40% higher mortality rates due to lack of research, diagnose, medication and overall care; the death rate in the black race in the first decade of 2000s is comparable to the one that both whites and blacks had in 1950 (Williams & Mohammed 2009).
Mental health is equally affected usually reflected in depression and overall poor mental- health but any type of discrimination affects heavily directly the person towards the aggression is targeted and The American Psychological Association (APA) has declared that regardless of your own experience, being within a group that is discriminated against can be equally stressful, affecting their career and job opportunities in addition to their daily life (APA 2019).
Overall, discrimination is a big issue in society and Academia is not the exception. Racial Discrimination has been recorded to affect the community since the beginning of times. In mid 1860s L. Agassiz founding member of the National Academy of Science (NAS) only supported slavery abolition to bring back the Africans to their original location claiming to be a different human species. 1962 the differences in races was “scientifically justify” by Antropologists Carleton Coon and Carleton Putman which helped to segregate specially African races. William Claytor was a Black topologist from Howard University who faced problems to be accepted. Despite the praises of colleagues and professors to stand out for his ideas and publications, in 1936 he was rejected to stay in Hotel of the Conference hosted by Annals of Mathematics, were he had published, only because he was Black(Graves et al. 2022).
Similarly, many other minoritarian groups like women face a wide extent of unnecessary bullying during their entire career. Both agressions and microagressions were endured by the very small amount of female present in academia despite of the very small recognition. An example of this is the geomorphologist Jane Willenbring, professor at Stanford University who in 2017 spoke out about the bullying she faced while being in the field by her supervisor David Marchant (Wadman 2017) or Nancy Hopkins molecular biologist in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not only harassed by the very Francis Crick but also described how smaller her space in the lab was and had to sneak in the lab and measure every single lab in the building to prove the authorities that she was treated unfairly (Hoopes 2011) (Shattuck & Cheney 2020).
Some other scientists in the community accepted not only segregation of a large group of people but also they rejected hypothesis that now are the base of modern biological science: Mendelian genetics, proving that scientists can be wrong, as any other human can be (Graves et al. 2022). This shows that scientists are humans with imperfections, them and their scientific data, facts, models and theories are still dependent on social environment, biases and social group norms (Graves et al. 2022).
The problem with discrimination is that it was very well replicated, stimulating the real source of discrimination: fear and misunderstanding. Fear permeated so well the daily bases, that even after decades of observing the negative effects of segregation, in 2024 we still see the prevalence of White male in Academia and an underrepresentation of Black, Indian-american, latinos, homosexuals and female figures in power or higher positions.
Currently, the gender and race variability in science has increased, the percentage of minorities are very slowly rising and the few of them already there are thriving with the correspondent struggles; however, the day to day discrimination is now more present in the form of “microagressions” such as snubs, slights, and misguided comments that suggest a person doesn’t belong or invalidates his or her experiences and that is probably the modern discrimination that we should address consciously nowadays.
What are we missing from lack of inclusion in Academia and why are we advocating for inclusion? From segregation we are missing a great number of scientists with great minds that could contribute in many ways to research because of their own particular ways of approaching life, their different questions and different ways of solving a joint mystery. We are advocating for receiving better the differences that people have, so that they feel comfortable being who they are and have mind space to work and pair up to innovate. We are advocating for collaboration over competition.
In the end, let us remember that science is motivated to solve society issues regardless of the field; many times, even financed from these people’s taxes. Translating science into the society is determinant so let us remember that involving society should be our dutty, not a choice. Finally, a fairly addressed point in Graves et al. 2022 is the erosion of trust from society towards science because the last has consistently alienated, being science almost exclusive. An example of this is the COVID pandemic in 2019-2021 and the way that people rejected so much the vaccines because of the lack of information, research inclusion and overall small inclusion of society in the process. “Restoring trust is imperative because public trust in science is a critical bridge for the translation and application of scientific discoveries.”2
But how do we include people? If fear is what moves discrimination, then bravery is the key to combat it with kindness and empathy, motivated by curiosity. Curiosity to understand what other people need to say, without the need of agreeing. Kindness to others and to ourselves while learning how to do it. As a good friend and coach told me once: “if you have been walking into a forest for more than 20 years, is not going to take you one day to walk out of the same forest”, we should be patient with the process and practice every day until we master the technique.
Social media has been important for the scientists (and non- scientists) of different minorities to get in contact to each other and create channels of communication to create stronger communities within Academia that reinforces and reminds them their needs and rights to have better performance. Hopefully more institutions will keep joining with inclusion policies and areas to mediate any kind of aggression. Because in the end, to include people from different backgrounds is our choice and responsibility.
In some extent we are not so different to plants: we also need to diversify ideas, we can survive with ideas inbreeding but only if is not deleterious for the population, specially if an idea-pathogen arrives to affect the population, our idea-immune system needs to react to it and adapt to survive.
- American Psychological Association (APA). 2019. (https://www.apa.org/topics/racism-bias-discrimination/types-stress#:~:text=What%20is%20discrimination%3F,it%20happens%20is%20more%20complicated..)
- Graves, J. L., Kearney, M., Barabino, G., & Malcom, S. 2022. Inequality in science and the case for a new agenda. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 119(10), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2117831119
- Hoopes, L. 2011. Nancy Hopkins’ Keynote Speech Shockers. Nature Education.
- Shattuck & Cheney. 2020. Picture a Scientist. Uprising production.
- Wadman, M. 2017. Disturbing allegations of sexual harassment in Antarctica leveled at noted scientist. Science. doi: 10.1126/science.aaq1428
- Williams, D. R., & Mohammed, S. A. 2009. Discrimination and racial disparities in health: Evidence and needed research. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 32(1), 20–47. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-008-9185-0
About the Author
Rigel Salinas-Gamboa is PhD in Max Plant for plant breeding in Cologne, Germany, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. She is also very interested in science communication and in creating a collaborative atmosphere among scientists. You can find her on X: @Rigelitactica.