Diversity in science 2018: why we should close the gap

With Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell winning the 2018 Breakthrough Science Prize this week, is it time we need to really start embracing diversity in science?

In 2015, The World Economic Forum estimated that it will take until 2133 to close the global gender gap. In our Salary Survey research published at the start of the year, women working in science and engineering earn a fifth less than their male counterparts. But with organisations having to publish their gender pay gap data each year in the UK, there is now pressure for companies in the science community to close the gap.

Many felt it was a case of justice served when Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell won the 2018 Breakthrough Science Prize this week. Her landmark achievement, the discovery of pulsars way back in the 1970s, should arguably have deserved Nobel recognition. Though the award is in itself a minor step, it does indicate that the science community is moving in the right direction.

But to achieve real diversity in science in 2018, innovative approaches need to be taken. With greater focus, we could achieve parity, increasing diversity and inclusion in science technology and engineering. But it will take more than awards to overturn the gender pay gaps we currently see in science. By no measure is science the worst offender in the UK economy, but there is certainly a lot of room for improvement.

Diversity, however, doesn’t just mean getting more women in science, though this of course should be a firm focus. Whilst we can now assess the gender pay gap data, we still don’t have reporting on other underrepresented groups, related to age, race, and disability. On this subject, it could be women themselves who change the scientific community for the better.

Following the Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s announcement, she indicated that she is donating her £2.3m prize to boost diversity in science. This doesn’t focus solely on women. The money will go towards funding PhD scholarships for female, black and minority ethnic and refugee researchers.

The move towards increasing diversity in science in 2018 could be seen as tokenism. But as scientists, we should trust the research. And the research suggests that increasing diversity in science has a positive benefit for everyone within the community.

A report by McKinsey in 2015 on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely. 

Diverse teams have also been proven to be more objective. This is obviously very important within science. Take Katherine Phillips’ study at the Northwestern University for example. Though we won’t go into the ins and outs of the study (click on the link to fully get to grips the process), the scientists assessed at the end of the study that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones in processing information more objectively. 

Even when we delve into science-specific studies on diversity, we find the same positive trends. A study of 2.5 million scientific papers found that publications written by ethnically diverse groups of researchers received more citations than those written by a single ethnic group. Diversity in science encourages better critical thinking, a greater focus on analysing a depth of opinions, and can also help foster creativity.

Because whilst objectivity is hugely important in science, creativity also happens to be a big factor in scientific success. It is, after all, outside of the box thinking that allows us to come up with innovative solutions to often complex problems.

As people with different life experiences, whether that be women, racial minorities, people with disabilities, or refugees, diverse people can offer new, fresh perspectives. And with new perspectives comes new more creative ways of approaching problems. The more we embrace inclusivity and diversity in STEM, the more likely we are to innovate.

Ultimately, the evidence is already there to suggest that we need to increase diversity in science not only in 2018, but in future years too. We need to not only focus on getting more women into science, we also need to start assessing how homogenous we are on race, gender, and disability. If we are going to develop the best scientists for society, we need to be as diverse as the population itself.

But how can this be achieved? From improving early years education that sells science as a career for all, to changing the way we market the industry to the wider world, there are steps we can already make. Though we don’t have all of the answers right now, with the creativity and analytical minds within the science community, we’re sure that if focus is applied on increasing diversity in science, the answers will soon be found.

For more fascinating insights into the ever-changing world of the life sciences sector, stay tuned to all SRG Blogs. 

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