Combating Microaggressions in Science: Making Science More Welcoming and Inclusive

Jan. 7, 2022

Science needs to be more welcoming if it is to achieve its highest level of success. If students are to persist in STEM, scientific fields must become more welcoming to all. Those who identify with one or more demographic groups that have been historically excluded and/or underrepresented do not always feel included, and many who have been marginalized feel unwelcomed in STEM fields. For science to be the most successful, it needs diverse ideas and people. Inclusion and diversity make science smarter and more effective by introducing more ideas, approaches and solutions to the equation. Diverse STEM teams are key to excellence and full use of talent and competitiveness. If STEM is to attain excellence and reach its full potential, scientists must  change the culture so that it is more diverse and inclusive. In order to do so, scientists must first look at themselves and the roles they play in making the climate less welcoming than they profess they want it to be.
An initial step to addressing the exclusive culture of STEM fields is dismantling microaggressions. Microaggressions are the ways people belittle, minimize, leave out and stigmatize individuals, often without any awareness or intent. These actions come out of biases and socialization, and people often are not in tune with their biases— implicit and explicit, unconscious and conscious. However, becoming aware of one’s biases is important because awareness can help individuals self-edit, redress and refine actions to mitigate harmful impact on others. The sections below examine types of everyday microaggressions to demonstrate where they can show up, how they can impact others and how to be aware of them.

Subtle Exclusions

Subtle exclusions in science include using titles for men but not women, sometimes even in the same sentence. People use “Dr.” more for male scientists and physicians than for females in science and medicine, despite equal degrees and titles. Some individuals refer to women by names that are even more diminutive, such as “sweetie” or “honey,” instead of “Dr.” This use of minimizing terms is condescending and does not recognize the earned degree. Equivalent references are rarely used with male colleagues. 
In addition to not using appropriate titles, not using the correct pronunciation of someone’s name or correct pronouns is a subtle act of exclusion. Consider a scenario in which individuals are consistently misgendered in conversations, print or meetings. Repeatedly misgendering someone can make them feel stigmatized, cause lower self-esteem and reduce confidence. Consider the scenario in which individuals have to deal with others always mispronouncing or not even trying to say their names. Sometimes there is a temptation to make up a nickname or use a different name that may be easier to say. Taking the time to learn a name is a way people can be intentionally inclusive of others. To share a personal experience—once, I was introducing a speaker, and I looked up how to say her name and sent her a link to ask if it was correct. She replied that in 20 years of being in the United States, no one had asked how to say her name properly before, and she was clearly thrilled that I had taken the time and made the effort to do so. If scientists can say complex organism and drug names, then they can pronounce their colleagues’ names correctly with intention and practice.

Exclusion From Consideration

When scientists are looking for new opportunities and collaborations, they often think first of those they know and have a rapport with, and they do not always stop to consider those they are leaving out. The exclusions may not be intentional, but rather stem from a lack of consideration of new individuals and new possibilities.
Sometimes individuals are invited to the table but are still not given the chance to speak or given credit for their ideas. It is important to ensure all individuals, regardless of their identity, have ample opportunities and are welcome to participate and contribute fully. Some ways to achieve this participation include the following approaches:
  • Strike a balance between recognizing differences and overemphasizing them .
  • Survey the experiences of all in a setting to see if they feel included and welcomed. 
  • Create environments that support, recognize and value the contributions of all.

Hiring and Promotion 

While there has been an increase in STEM degrees over other degrees since 2010, women are still underrepresented in fields such as math, physical science, engineering and computer science. Hispanic and Black STEM workers continue to be underrepresented across the board. Research suggests that women and people from historically underrepresented groups still face hiring discrimination for physics and biology post-doctoral positions. Once hired, historically underrepresented groups report continuing to experience discrimination in STEM fields. 
To avoid systemic discrimination in the hiring process, committees need clear requirements, policies and procedures for hiring, promoting, nominating and selecting prior to the recruitment and hiring process.  Affording opportunities because of personal connections is preferential treatment that has a high potential for excluding those who might be the best candidates for the job. “He is a better fit,” is often code for, “I am more comfortable with him because he is more like me.”
Committees need to be aware of these human tendencies and be on the lookout for them. Training in implicit bias increases diversity in teams and supports team members. Professional development can be used to encourage employees to observe and consider bias and interrupt bias in a faculty search process.. Strategies have also been developed for equitable processes of promotion and tenure and to reduce the impact of bias in the STEM workforce.

Dismantling Gender Bias/Sexism and Stereotypes

Explicit forms of sexual harassment, relentless pressure for dates and remarks about bodies have no place in science or any other social setting. And yet scientists and the public still stereotype what a scientist looks like. Some scientists are still met with statements such as, “Oh, you don’t look like a scientist,” when they say what they do. Stereotypes based on size and looks, “sizism” and “lookism”, play a role in how scientists are perceived, as well as how welcomed some scientists are made to feel. 

Addressing Ableism

Additionally, scientists need to address how science has traditionally been delivered towards those who are abled and how to make better use of universal design to make science accessible to all. It is important that the STEM community debunks and combats exclusive ideas about who does science. Doing this will make science more accessible, welcoming and safe to all gender identities, gender expression styles, body types, body sizes, physical and mental abilities, race, ethnicities, faiths and beyond.

Microaggressions Add Up

Microaggressions are small injurious words and actions that can happen multiple times daily for some—and they add up. Receiving many microaggressions has been compared to the analogy multiple mosquito bites. When individuals are not the target of these words and actions, it is easy for them to think that the transgressions are small that folks should “toughen up” or accept that it “is just like that.” Those not impacted by the unwelcoming atmosphere do not always recognize the negative climate experienced by those who are marginalized; and that is part of the problem. Science should not settle for the current scientific climate.
Women and others who are often on the receiving end of these words and behaviors are advised on how to deal with microaggressions. This continues to put the responsibility on those being targeted, instead of on those making the comments and committing the actions, which allows the problem to continue. Individuals who commit microaggressions need to do this work themselves. Awareness is the first step, and from there scientists can engage in training and consistent self-reflection in order combat bias, microaggressions, discrimination and other exclusionary behaviors and perspectives. By doing this, each scientist can help build a more inclusive, diverse, equitable, accessible and accountable field.
For more examples and discussions of microaggressions in science, see the follow up discussion to the ASM screening of the Picture A Scientist film led by the ASM sub-committee for women in microbiology.


Author: Amy J. Reese, Ph.D.

Amy J. Reese, Ph.D.
Amy J. Reese, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biology at the University of Health Sciences & Pharmacy in St Louis.