It’s Not a Pipeline Problem

Dr. Lisa Guerrero, Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusive Excellence, discusses why we should think differently about the lack of diversity in academia, particularly in STEM fields.

Lisa Guerrero

Thank you all for joining today. We’re going to be talking about the all-encompassing Pipeline Problem and really how it actually is not a pipeline problem.

So this topic sort of came about one, mainly because I’m sure you’re all very familiar with this idea of a pipeline problem, but it’s especially prevalent… It comes up as a gremlin in academic searches in STEM fields, which is not to say it doesn’t come up in other fields, but it does come up quite frequently in STEM fields.

So when I am talking to different search committees in STEM fields, I will always get this sort of reasoning that the reason that their pool is not more diverse is because it is a pipeline issue. So today we’re going to talk about the fact that it is in fact not a pipeline issue. And some of the reasons that we do have a lack of diverse pools in our academic searches and a couple of things to think about going forward.

We’re not going to do a super deep dive. I’m going to highlight some of the biggest issues that are affecting our ability to have diverse candidate pools. And I’m going to suggest some places to start at the end. But this is a very complex issue. The four issues that I am bringing to the forefront do not at all… are not at all exhaustive.

There are plenty of others, the biggest of which is systemic bias, right? So systemic bias is really just affecting all of our practices and structures, and that really is impacting on a consistent and constant basis our ability to have diverse candidate pools. But there are other more specific things that are affecting as well that we actually have agency over.

We have agency over systemic bias as well. But that’s a much larger problem to unravel. So let’s begin with the problem with the metaphor of the pipeline. On its surface, the pipeline argument is appealing for most people because what goes in must come out, right? So if the entrance to the pipeline is based purely on choice and more male and white scholars have chosen to enter than female and scholars of color, then the diversity gap becomes a reflection of aggregate individual will rather than systematic bias, which is not the case.

The pipeline argument also in which the constitution of the workplace reflects that output over time of a stream of trainees offers a mitigation by which disproportions are remedied incrementally, right, by talented individuals of a particular ascriptive characteristic. Be that gender, race or ethnicity, for example, as they enter the workforce. In this way, the pipeline solution suggests that problems such as tokenism, status expectations will eventually be ameliorated just naturally.

And as the number of women and people of color increases, sheer numbers and forced social contact should minimize stratification. That’s based on in-group bias, segregated social networking and mentoring, and the tendency to characterize success and authority in racialized and gendered terms. So these are some of the assumptions that this metaphor really encapsulates, but it’s important for us to ask whether this phenomenon is actually occurring, because the implication is that we can explain inequality as a function of insufficient numbers of trained women and people of color in the pool rather than as a result of ongoing discrimination that would require alternate remedies and would actually require us to do something.

So in other words, the common assumption is if it’s a pipeline problem, it will or won’t fix itself. There’s nothing we can do to fix it, right? So it becomes this sort of passive issue that we have no control over, that we can’t contribute to fixing it or it’s not fixing it. But as you can tell from my presentations title, this isn’t a pipeline problem.

It isn’t a passive issue. It isn’t that fewer women and people of color are choosing to enter into these fields, right? It isn’t a matter of choice. It isn’t a matter of lack of numbers. And we are actually the only ones who can fix the lack of diversity in candidate pools. Okay, so if it isn’t a pipeline issue, then what is it?

We’re going to, as I said, look briefly at four areas that have some of the biggest impact on the lack of diversity in STEM candidate pools. Again, there are other factors that are going to affect the lack of diversity in candidate pools, but these for some of the biggest. And while we’re focusing on STEM, because the lack of diverse pools is disproportionately a problem in STEM fields, arts, humanities and social science disciplines would certainly benefit from considering these areas in their respective fields as well.

So let us take a quick look at what these four areas are going to be. K-through-12 and undergraduate STEM education, mentoring and graduate education, recruitment practices, and research interests of diverse scholars. So first, let’s think broadly before we get into each of these specific ones. Let’s think broadly. Settings themselves have the power to signal the degree of threat or safety a person will experience.

That is, certain features or cues in a setting may create the expectation that a person’s treatment will be contingent on one of their social identities. This is known as social identity contingency. So social identity contingencies are possible judgment, stereotypes, opportunities, restrictions and treatments that are tied to one’s social identity in a given setting. So many of you may have heard of the concept of stereotype threat right?

That has demonstrated through research that often the anxiety over confirming negative stereotypes around gender or race affects the ability of women and students of color to perform in particular ways in sort of high stress academic situations. So stereotype threat is actually an example of a social identity contingency. Okay? And so basically just thinking of settings broadly and thinking of these contexts where possible judgments and effects that are based in your social identity could be happening.

This is what women and people of color bring into learning environments, right? So when it comes to STEM classrooms, to STEM graduate programs and professions, social identity, social identity, contingencies do play a large role in the success of women and people of color. Okay? So this is just coming into the environment, right into the learning environment. This is going to have a large impact.

So that’s just very broad. So with this in mind, let’s first turn to K-through-12 science classrooms and STEM classrooms. So in 2011, researchers Maltese and Tai discovered that much of what predicts students college matriculation occurs well before students enter college and noted that as students attitude in grade ten is a 0.86 predictor of their college matriculation and by grade 12, a 0.80 predictor of whether they will complete a STEM degree.

What this implies is that it isn’t academic preparedness alone, but also a student’s attitude and belief in both the benefit of college and their place within it, by their first year in high school, right, that largely predicts a student’s trajectory towards college. So what this means is that a lot of work needs to be done before grade ten, which also means that a lot of damage can be done before grade ten.

And when we’re thinking of STEM fields in particular, that means that a strong focus needs to be placed on educational equity in early STEM education, especially in how future K through 12 STEM educators are trained in equitable pedagogy. Okay? And so again, we’re thinking where we’re sitting right now that we don’t have diverse candidate pools. And this goes all the way back, right, all the way back to the work that needs to be begun in K through 12 to create a foundation and a trajectory for women and students of color to imagine themselves in these spaces, in these professions.

Right? So how does this shape the college science classroom? If early focus and success in STEM disciplines predicts matriculation in STEM fields, the equity gap in K through 12 STEM education means that many women and students of color will arrive in college classrooms lacking strong fundamental science content knowledge to prepare them to be competitive in entry level college courses.

And many of these entry level college courses in STEM disciplines operate as the quote unquote weeder courses right to weed out the seed who are viewed through a deficit lens as unprepared. Okay? So again, we’re looking we’re really spanning out about the steps that it takes to create an eventual diverse candidate pool. So for those who do end up taking courses, we have to consider what challenges they may experience in classes.

Again, thinking of social identity contingencies. Where few of their contemporaries, especially for students of color, would have preceded them to offer examples of appropriate expectations, of cultural norms, and advanced academic performance for both women and students of color. Additionally, research has shown that these identity identity challenges are magnified for women of color. Okay? So again, when we’re thinking intersectionality, when women of color enter STEM classrooms, these effects are magnified. Okay?

So we do know that women and students of color make it through K through 12. They go into undergraduate education and they do become STEM discipline majors, and they do go on to graduate education because despite these challenges, students and women of color really do want to enter into these disciplines. So a lot of this work is being done despite obstacles that are in the way. Now at this stage in graduate education

the the pipe… is when the pipeline metaphor begins to emerge. And it appears with the problem of the quote unquote, leaky pipeline. Right? So the phrase “leaky pipeline” describes the diminishing numbers of women and students of color in STEM fields. And unfortunately, again, this term implies a deficit minded view of students abilities to persist in such disciplines.

So a sort of theme that you will notice throughout is that this deficit lens really affects from the beginning point all the way until the recruitment stage, and it has a huge impact in the ways in which we think about the potential of women scholars and scholars of color. So the leaky pipeline suggests that students leak out and leave when they can’t meet institutional standards.

And while it certainly may be true that, you know, students, quote unquote, leak out of their own accord and agency and choice, it is also quite often the case that women and people of color don’t passively leak out of the pipeline, but instead are often sort of forced out by kinds of pressures from what we’ll call blockages. Okay?

I take that metaphor all the way. So these blockages are created by particular actions and behaviors that are used to reinforce and perpetuate the disenfranchisement of women and people of color in STEM. And it requires an introspective look by the gatekeepers, meaning us, who hold the power to continue that disenfranchisement. So two examples of these kinds of blockages are the Unwritten Curriculum and Presumed Incompetence.

Now, let me just say here that the effects of the unwritten curriculum also plays a role in K-through-12 and undergraduate education. But when we’re speaking about graduate education and mentoring in graduate education, this is where the unwritten curriculum begins to have a kind of more substantive effect in the ways in which future professionals in STEM fields are being trained.

Okay? So let’s begin with the unwritten curriculum. So the unwritten curriculum is really comprised of those critical skills that aren’t taught in classrooms, right? That aren’t taught in courses. And so in graduate education, many critical skills for success in an academic career, like writing articles or grant proposals, reviewing papers and proposals, academic interviewing, networking, etc., are not taught in graduate level courses, right?

Most graduate level courses in any discipline is focused on content, right? It’s focus on disciplinary content. And so this unwritten curriculum is usually not taught, but rather is largely determined by an advisor’s willingness to teach it to an advisee. Okay? And again, thinking about that theme of deficit lens, also thinking about the impact overall of systemic bias. By and large, women graduate students and graduate students of color are not given access to the unwritten curriculum as frequently, right, as male white students, and either have to discover and educate themselves on it, or don’t learn it until the need is imminent.

Right? When they’re about to have an interview or, you know, when there’s a week out and they just saw a call for a grant proposal or something of that nature. In either case, the lack of sustained education in unwritten curriculum puts women, students and students of color at a large disadvantage in graduate training. And so there’s the practicality of not knowing the skills of the unwritten curriculum.

And then it’s the assumptions that go along with not knowing the unwritten curriculum. And that’s the second blockage of presuming incompetence. Okay? So the lack of familiarity with the unwritten curriculum exacerbates the biased expectations of underpreparedness or a complete failure from women graduate students and graduate students of color when, again, writing articles, writing grant proposals or other skills within the unwritten curriculum.

And the danger of this mindset, is that a normal setback that anyone would experience, right, like a declined proposal, mean even more when it happens to women and students of color because it reinforces the perception of low potential. Okay? So again, this this sort of lens is affecting everything as we’re going step by step. And so women students and scholars of color are really having to move forward in spite of all of these things and working with these things as they carry them.

But as we know, right, in spite of these obstacles, women and scholars of color do complete degrees and enter the academic job market where they get to face a new obstacle in recruitment. And so while there are many issues to take into consideration when trying to be equitable in our recruitment practices, and I actually cover them in a much longer training on equitable recruitment practices.

Today, I want to quickly mention one aspect that we rarely take into account in our recruitment efforts that do disproportionately impact women and students of color, as well as first generation students and working class, lower class, and working poor students as well. So we need to reorient our thinking about the quote unquote, quality of candidates, because oftentimes when we’re considering the quality of candidates, we’re looking at artificial cues and markers to distinguish the quality of a candidate.

And as we consider, say, for instance, the institution that candidates come from. Most of us forget that attending an elite or top institutions or being mentored by prominent people is linked to social capital. And systemic oppression, in particular, racism and sexism, ensure that socially marginalized people, particularly women and people of color, have less social capital. And so the thing as we are looking at the quote unquote quality of candidates, if we only rely on and we often do on those artificial cues and markers, a lot of women and scholars of color are sort of being overlooked because they don’t have that social capital that sort of puts them in the front in particular ways.

So for those who are not familiar with social capital or need a good definition, so social capital are the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively. Social capital is a measure of the value of resources, both tangible — so public spaces, private property — and intangible — actors, human capital people — and the impact that these relationships have on the resources involved in each relationship and on larger groups.

It is generally seen as a form of capital that produces public goods for a common purpose. Now, let’s just I’ll just say right here, right now, everyone has social capital. Okay? Our experiences allow us to accumulate social capital. But again, because of the varied identity positions that we all hold in society, our social capital is sort of differentially valued.

So there are two issues with social capital. There’s probably more. But for our consideration, there are two issues with social capital. First, social capital is not equally available to all, just as other forms of capital are differently available and accessible. Again, any other type of capital, the different things that influence our ability to access it is the same for social capital.

Okay? So as I said, that oftentimes our ability as either women or people of color to access particular types of social capital are near impossible. Okay? The second issue with social capital is that not all social capital is created equal. The value of a specific source of social capital depends in no small part on the socioeconomic position of the source within society.

So a great example of this is that all PhDs are not created equal. Right? And we know this, right? We know this having been in the institutional environment for as long as we all have, even if we just arrived, we know that not all PhDs are created equal. A Ph.D. from an Ivy League holds more social capital than, say, a Ph.D. from a state institution.

Now, we know that on its value, both of these folks and who hold a Ph.D. in one or the other have been trained in the same content. Right? And the same types of knowledges around their discipline. But because socially, Harvard and other Ivy Leagues hold more value, right? What that means is that when we’re looking at quality, that is one of those artificial cues that we think links to a person’s worth or value.

Okay? There are these quick shortcuts, which is what biases, right? Biases are quick shortcuts where we read social capital as absolutely equating to a person’s value. Okay? So what happens in recruitment is that we often really do rely on what social capital tells us without stopping to think about how social capital is not equally available. Right? And how it is weighted differently in how choices around accessing social capital are made.

Right? It may be that a person got, you know, could have perfectly, you know, gotten into Harvard or another Ivy League for their Ph.D. But because of, say, caretaker obligations, children or having to work a job that they may have already had. Right? They couldn’t leave where they were. And so it made more sense for them to get their Ph.D. at a state institution that was closer.

Right? We don’t know any of these things. Right? We don’t know any of these backgrounds to people’s artificial cues. Right? But we’ve already placed value into them as we read them. So this is one of the things in our recruitment that we really need to sort of stop and take more consideration about. Now, increasingly, another piece that contributes to the disenfranchisement of women scholars and scholars of color is a growing shift in focus of the research that they do, which frequently veers away from traditional discovery scholarship.

So what we have seen through research, but also just on the ground, right with our own undergraduate students and graduate students and with junior faculty who are being hired and coming into the institution, is that the desire to support underserved communities, discover applied concrete solutions to complex social problems, and to develop the next generation of women scholars and scholars of color really appears to be central to the career aspirations of many women and people of color.

These topics, as I know, is not shocking to any of you, are not largely research interests that are legitimated by traditional academic metrics. And this lack of professional recognition often means that if women and people of color are committed to the work they want to do and also to being part of the academy, that they must do the work that they want to do, in addition to the research that is seen as legitimate by their institutional peers who will to a large extent determine their professional trajectory.

Right? And we’re seeing this more and more as junior faculty are coming into the institution. And it’s not just WSU. It’s all institutions. But we see it at WSU where more and more junior scholars are coming into the institution wanting to do publicly impactful community engaged scholarship and their senior peers not knowing what to do with that. And because they don’t know what to do with that

delegitimating it sort of out of hand that that isn’t real research, right? And so it’s incumbent upon us to begin to learn new practices of how to equitably evaluate this work that more and more younger scholars are invested in doing. Okay? So as I mentioned, we’re just sort of kind of touching the surface of these four big areas that have some of the largest impact on the lack of diversity in our candidate pools.

But all of these issues, as you can see, are our responsibility to fix. It isn’t some pipeline, right, where not enough women or people of color are going through it. It is actually by design that we have created structures and practices that the outcome is fewer women and scholars of color are being considered to be our colleagues, especially in the STEM disciplines.

So where do we begin? There are plenty of places that one can begin, but if we’re looking at the areas that I touched on briefly, what can we do? So K-through-12 education. So one thing that we can do is that we know that we have a disciplinary education colleagues, right? Most of whom sit in our departments. Right? And when they don’t and when they do, we need to work closely with those colleagues.

Right? To mutually guarantee that future STEM education teachers are being trained through a lens of educational equity so that more girls and students of color see themselves as future STEM professionals. And so, again, that’s only going to happen through mutual collaboration. We all are the senior, right where the where the people who are doing this discipline now in the academy.

And if we want to begin to imagine that our colleagues are going to look much different and much… much more diverse in the future, then it really is up to us to work with those education scholars who are training, the teachers who are going to be teaching STEM courses in K through 12, otherwise that education will remain stale and will continue to be filled with those obstacles that we talked about for both girls and students of color in K through 12 education. Graduate Education:

So we focused on mentoring, right? And how that really does often negatively impact the trajectory of women scholars and scholars of color. So one step to take — and this is not just in graduate education, but also in peer mentoring, right, in network mentoring — is to make the mentoring of women and people of color generally across disciplines, but certainly in STEM in particular, a meaningful component of tenure–promotion process such that faculty are evaluated and held accountable for their mentoring practices, right for their advising practices.

We know that our teaching practices right, both through student and peer teaching evaluations, are used to assess teaching effectiveness. Yet there’s no equivalent evaluation for student or peer mentoring. Right? So that means largely there’s going to be a range of the type of mentoring that all graduate students are gaining, but particularly women and students of color. Right? So while colleges and universities are very clear in their expectations for graduate student performance, for junior faculty performance, they’re typically silent on what those graduate students and those junior colleagues can expect from mentors.

Right? Which is kind of like saying, well, you can’t really expect too much. Right? Because what we’re saying is we’re not committed to holding people accountable for mentoring impactfully. Okay? And we can expect people to be… to not be mentored impactfully and, you know, not sort of struggle to be successful. And again, we can look around and see many colleagues who are women and people of color.

And just to take into consideration the many extra things and labors that they had to do to get to that position is also one thing that we don’t stop to consider, right? And so it shouldn’t be that people who want to be part of the academy should have to do so much extra labor because just at baseline, academics have to do a lot of labor already.

Okay? Changing Disciplinary Imaginations: So determining how these commitments can be incorporated into the values and reward structures of the academy generally, but of your discipline specifically, this would likely increase minoritized students interests in faculty careers. These strategies begin to shift our focus from providing more scholars from diverse backgrounds with the potential opportunity to pursue a faculty career, to actively cultivating talent and encouraging talented junior scholars to become part of the academy.

If you’re not paying attention, what we know is that undergraduate enrollment is shifting and it’s shifting rapidly, and it will be much different in just a few years than it was a decade ago. There’ll be more first generation students, more students of color, more Pell-eligible students, which means that we need faculty who have and share those experiences with our students in order to impactfully create future pools of scholars.

Okay? And finally, instilling equity into our recruitment practices. This is from the beginning, right, from how we write NOVs, even from how we imagine a position operating within our department. Right? But from how we write our interviews, to how we circulate those calls, to the questions we ask candidates, to the lenses that we evaluate, that we evaluate candidates through all of these things need to be revised.

Okay? We often lean again because most faculty are overworked and it’s like, “This is how we’ve always done it.” And it’s easier to do that. But we always lean into how things have been done and unfortunately how things have been done means that minoritized communities are really being negatively affected. Okay? We know that scientists, computer scientists, engineers, along with the artists and the poets and the sociologists of the future, are going to be designing the world that everyone inhabits.

So we need women and people of color to enjoy an ambient sense of belonging in these professions. If the future they create is going to be one in which all of us feel included. So regardless of where each of us individually and collectively are or choose to begin, we have to begin. Okay? We we just do. We don’t have another choice.

And so I will end with this sort of declaration that is not a pipeline problem. It’s an equity problem and it’s our problem. So take it upon yourselves to take the steps that you can again, both individually, but also collectively, to begin to consider How do you how do we begin to change? How do we begin to improve?