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The Importance of Diversity in Science

As 3M’s Chief Science Advocate, Jayshree Seth has listened, learned and led through interactions with members from the entire stakeholder spectrum of the STEM ecosystem. She advocates for diversity in STEM and helps people of all ages around the world learn to appreciate science in their daily lives. Here, she shares her perspective about the importance of diversity and its role in advancing science and technological innovation.   

How does a diverse workforce in science and technology create new opportunities for all?  

A diverse workforce is a robust and resilient workforce, and it makes economic, moral and ethical sense. Diverse individuals from various backgrounds have different experiences and perspectives — and diverse ways of viewing a problem can help build better solutions. I have seen this first-hand, whether it was when we were developing diaper fasteners for wiggly babies, cosmetic wipes for oily skin or adhesives for extreme environments. Increasing diversity also spurs innovation by giving opportunities to diverse thinkers to solve the challenges we face. A diverse workforce also lends itself to a more positive public sentiment around science which can help increase support for science and create a wider acceptance of STEM-based innovations.  

What are the dangers of non-diverse thinking, and how can that change?  

Lack of diversity in STEM can stymie innovation and limit our thinking. Furthermore, a single-minded view of meritocracy can also promote undue focus on the individual and as a result lead to a loss of social context. We all need to develop an empathetic lens and be able to see our own privilege and contribute to alleviating inequities — it’s the right thing to do. Although there are many important initiatives to increase diversity, real change will come from a combination of creating opportunity for those who are underrepresented, helping support diverse students who aspire to be in the sciences, and using metrics and measures to ensure a more empathetic, inclusive and diverse workplace.  

Why is STEM equity important? 

The world requires innovation. Innovation needs science. Science demands diversity. Diversity warrants equity. Environments that lack equity can become closed communities analogous to what have been called echo chambers, where the same voices continue to reflect and reverberate, and the problem sets are identified with a very narrow point of view. This narrow view also makes science itself vulnerable. Moreover, a narrow perception of excellence results in a narrow cross-section of well-represented scientists getting the bulk of resources and recognition. This serves to limit equitable representation. The 2020 and 2021 State of Science Index (SOSI) results indicate that there is now the urgent need for a broader perspective and social context for science by building a more diverse and equitable science community and science as a more inclusive space.  

Historically, science and technology fields have been male dominated. How can more opportunities for women be created? 

This can be achieved in a multitude of ways. There has been a lot of effort to portray women in STEM so that more girls can envision themselves pursuing STEM education and succeeding in STEM careers. I grew up on the campus of a premier engineering institution and was surrounded by STEM professionals. I cannot recall a single woman engineer that I was exposed to at the time. Role models in science careers and adequate representation of women in science curriculum can also be effective strategies to combat stereotypes. Studies have shown that this can also counteract the impact of stereotypes that serve to limit self-confidence, discourage engagement and widen the achievement gap. In order to encourage more girls to pursue STEM education and more women to persist in STEM careers, we need to cast off the characteristics currently associated with science — and scientists — that hinder the engagement, participation and success of women in these fields. It’s about changing the very male-centric constructs, dismantling archetypes and stereotypes, and stopping the typecasting. 

How can participation of underserved communities be increased?  

The STEM spectrum ranges from early childhood, K-12, higher education all the way to the workplace — with challenges across this spectrum that can hinder the participation of underserved communities. These challenges can range from the simple gap of knowledge about what is out there and what the possibilities of future careers are, to the lack of role models and representation that can limit aspiration and inspiration to pursue STEM. For others it may be the limited financial means to support a STEM education, or it may be the minimal support and guidance as they navigate their educational journey. And for yet others it may be the explicit discrimination and implicit biases at work that have them stuck.  Metaphorical blockages along this spectrum deter substantive change, resulting in trickle-down effects downstream.  

How can sustained momentum and sustainable changes be achieved?  

Like many others, I think about this topic a lot. If I look at my own journey, as well as my experiences in raising my kids and my learnings from being in the role of Chief Science Advocate for 3M, I can see it is a complex, multifaceted problem. It involves stakeholders ranging from parents, teachers, educators, mentors, peers and employers with a strong role of family, schools, community, government, society and culture to address the barriers along what I think are the key elements of this ecosystem: Exposure. Encouragement. Empowerment. Education. Economics. Engagement. Equity. Moving forward, it is imperative to have a better understanding of the issues and solutions for each of the above elements of this spectrum. 

How can barriers around who can and should have careers in STEM be broken down?  

The diversity of the scientific community currently does not reflect the diversity of society as a whole. We need to address the negative biases associated with one’s identity (e.g., gender and gender expression, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age). I often think of the famous “draw a scientist” social experiment, where, at age six, girls draw 70% of scientists as women, but by the time they are 16, they draw around 75% of scientists as men. Much research has been carried out to understand why girls and young women don’t see themselves, or even their gender, in science careers. To break down barriers, there needs to be a comprehensive strategy with active top-down measures and accountability, meaningful metrics and monitoring, and grass-roots efforts and initiatives. Here are the ways we all can and must make more room: 

  • Facilitate diversity and support from the ground up 
  • Foster inclusion and be open-minded  
  • Further equity and make sure there are seats at the table for everyone