Department of Biology Seminar Series Demographics Report
Initiatives to improve faculty diversity and recruit graduate students from underrepresented minority (URM) backgrounds take place against a backdrop of other systemic inequalities (Gibbs et al. 2014). Seminar talks at universities cultivate scientific communication and networking, which are critical to professional training and skill development. Seminar speakers tend to be celebrated, successful scientists, and therefore serve as role models to their student-majority audiences. The presence of seminar speakers with URM backgrounds reaffirms the possibility of career success for trainees sharing those identities. This is especially important since URM scientists typically receive fewer accolades for their scientific contributions than their non-URM counterparts (Hofstra et al. 2020). Diversity in STEM is critical for excellence in science (Hofstra et al. 2020), and representation of diverse academics is critical for fostering excellent scientists (Milem, Chang, and Antonio 2005). Such representation is especially important when a university’s home department does not have faculty that adequately represent diverse backgrounds. This analysis seeks to determine how effectively the Department of Biology has accomplished recruitment of diverse seminar speakers that reflect the demographics of graduate students.
Women are underrepresented in the seminar series
Over five years, there were 43 female seminar speakers out of 109 total (39%; Fig 1A). This pattern is similar to the speaker nominations for the 2020-2021 academic year (Fig 1B), where 9 out of 24 nominations were women (38%). This overall pattern is reflected by the underrepresentation of women at the faculty level, where 36% of tenured and tenure-track faculty are women (Fig. 1C). To determine if there is a relationship between host gender and speaker gender, we compared the gender of hosts and their invited speakers for a subset of data for which this information was available (N=63). These relationships were non-random (X2=6.120, p=0.013), where men are over twice as likely to invite men over women (25 men versus 10 women nominated by men), whereas women faculty tend to invite external speakers that are women (17 women versus 11 men invited by women). At the trainee level, roughly half of graduate students are women (53%; Fig 1D), suggesting that the gender representation of both the faculty and the seminar speakers do not reflect trainee gender diversity.
Figure 1. Gender diversity in the Department of Biology and its seminar series. Presenting gender was noted for external seminar speakers and members of the department at different academic stages, and was coded as binary male (green) or female (orange). (A) Seminar speakers over a five year period were mostly men (61%). (B) The nominated speakers for the 2020-2021 academic year were mostly men (62%). (C) Faculty in the Department of Biology are majority men (64%). (D) The current graduate student gender diversity (as of summer 2020) is relatively even across presenting binary genders.
The departmental seminar series lacks diversity in race/ethnicity
The majority of speakers in the Department of Biology seminar series over a five year period were white (82 out of 109 or 75%; Fig 2A). The second highest percentage is Asian speakers (11 out of 109 or 10%). Hispanic speakers were also relatively low (8 speakers out of 109 or 7%). Over the entire five year period, there was only one Black speaker in the Department of Biology seminar series. The nominations for the 2020-2021 academic year were similar to the five year data, with 15 white, 3 Asian, 1 Hispanic, and 2 Black scientists nominated as seminar speakers (Fig 2B). We note that a small number of faculty account for most of the nominations of diverse speakers. For example, all Black scientists (1 speaker in the five year period and the 2 nominations for the upcoming year) were invited by a single faculty member. Furthermore, although the demographics of nominations for the 2020-2021 year look promising with two Black scientists and one Hispanic scientist nominated, only one Black scientist was invited, as the others were marked as “second choices”. Both the seminar speakers and the faculty are less diverse than graduate students in the department (Fig 2C), which are 53% white, 25% Asian, 14% Hispanic, and 3% Black. Overall, the race/ethnic diversity of the seminar speakers do not reflect the diversity of graduate student trainees.
Figure 2. Race/ethnic diversity in the Department of Biology and its seminar series. Presenting race/ethnicity was noted for seminar speakers and members of the department at different academic stages as white (yellow), Asian (dark green), other (khaki), Hispanic (sage), and Black (garnet). (A) Seminar speakers over five years and (B) speaker nominations for next academic year (2020-2021) are predominantly white. (C) Self-reported race/ethnicity of trainees are more diverse than the proxy demographics of seminar speakers and departmental faculty. As percentages were rounded to the nearest integer, some charts do not add up to 100 percent.
Our analysis of the Department of Biology seminar series speaker demographics shows that fewer women and individuals from groups historically excluded from STEM are invited to give seminars, mirroring the demographics of the mostly white and male tenured/tenure-track faculty. Overall, the demographics of seminar speakers do not reflect the diversity of the graduate student population in our department.
The call for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion actions by the trainees in our department called for more diversity within our department. While changing the demographics of our faculty will take time and significant monetary investment by the university administration, diversifying our seminar series is an immediate action to address trainee concerns with no additional funds needed. Here we make some recommendations to increase the diversity of our seminar series speakers:
(1) Diversity must be deliberate and faculty should make an effort to invite speakers outside of their own demographic. For example, male faculty, which are the majority in the department, tend to invite male speakers. Additionally, non-white speakers are invited by very few individuals in the department. For example, all Black speakers in the dataset were invited by a single faculty member. Each year when nominations are solicited, faculty should consider asking an individual whose science is excellent, who would be of broad interest to the breadth of our department, and who reflects the diversity of our trainees, as these traits are not mutually exclusive.
(2) Faculty should consider working with members of their laboratories to select speakers or the department should allocate more speaker slots to graduate students. Graduate students tend to invite more diverse speakers, and allowing them more slots would not only increase the diversity of our seminar series, but would also allow our trainees to have more networking opportunities and autonomy in shaping our department.
(3) If there is difficulty in nominating potential speakers that would increase the gender or racial/ethnic diversity of our seminar series, we suggest consulting diversity databases like DiversifyEEB, DiversifyMicrobiology, BlackinNeuro, 500QueerScientsts or similar lists of scientists from groups historically excluded from STEM fields, such as this list of Inspiring Black Scientists in America.
We recognize that these recommendations may come to the surprise or concern of some members of the department, and we are not suggesting that there is active bias in selecting seminar speakers. However, we suggest that faculty make an active effort to explore their implicit biases, as individuals or committees that do not believe they hold bias tend to affirm inequalities in science (Régner et al. 2019). Another counterpoint could be that Black scientists will be overwhelmed with invitations this coming year due to the BlackLivesMatter movement and that they will not be able to accept our offer to speak in our seminar series. We should not stand in the way of uplifting or promoting our Black colleagues, and should let them prioritize when and who to visit rather than withhold invitations under the false pretense of protecting their time. In summary, the Department of Biology faculty can make small changes to increase the diversity of our seminar series and the inclusion of our graduate students in our scientific community by providing role models that expand the currently narrow demographics.
Data acquisition: Departmental seminar speaker names and affiliations were obtained for 5 academic years (2015-2016 through 2019-2020) from the Department of Biology website. The speaker’s host was also noted when available, both faculty members or groups of graduate students. Speakers from within the department (i.e. promotion seminars or job candidates) were excluded from the dataset. Due to COVID-19, some seminars were cancelled in the 2019-2020 academic year, but these were still included in the analysis. Speaker nominations for the 2020-2021 academic year were also analyzed as this represented the nomination pool from faculty, who can nominate up to two speakers any given year. Both nominations were included in the analysis, although not all faculty nominated two speakers.
Data analysis: We analyzed the demographics of seminar speakers and faculty hosts for five years and compared them to the demographics of current graduate student trainees (as of Summer 2020). As this data was collected retrospectively, speakers were not asked for their identities at the time of visit and were instead hand-coded using personal knowledge, photos, and CVs. As a result, the presenting gender of each speaker and host was recorded as binary (man/woman), though we acknowledge that biological sex and gender identity is not always equivalent. Race/ethnicity demographics of speakers were noted as above for gender and split into five groups: Asian, Black, Hispanic, white, and other, as these are the categories used by the National Science Foundation. Self-reported demographics of current graduate students was obtained from the Department of Biology’s Student Services Center. Our request for faculty demographics was denied at the departmental level and thus was not included in this report. We acknowledge that proxy assignments of race/ethnicity are a limitation in this present study. However, we believe that the overall trends presented here reflect the gender and racial/ethnic diversity that graduate students would perceive in our seminar series as the audience. We encourage the department to collect demographic information on seminar speakers in future years so that we can be more accurate and inclusive of identity in the future.
Conceptualization: Aurora Alvarez-Buylla, Giovanni Forcina, KC Farrell, Lauren O’Connell
Analysis: Lauren O’Connell, David Ramirez
Data Curation: Kathy Morway, David Ramirez, Vanessa Sutter
Visualization of Data: Lauren O’Connell
Writing: Billie Goolsby, Giovanni Forcina, Nora Moskowitz, Lauren O’Connell
Report Review: Sue McConnell, Ashby Morrison, Kristy Red-Horse
Gibbs, Kenneth D., John McGready, Jessica C. Bennett, and Kimberly Griffin. 2014. “Biomedical Science Ph.D. Career Interest Patterns by Race/Ethnicity and Gender.” PLoS ONE. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0114736.
Hofstra, Bas, Vivek V. Kulkarni, Sebastian Munoz-Najar Galvez, Bryan He, Dan Jurafsky, and Daniel A. McFarland. 2020. “The Diversity–Innovation Paradox in Science.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117 (17): 9284–91.
Régner, Isabelle, Catherine Thinus-Blanc, Agnès Netter, Toni Schmader, and Pascal Huguet. 2019. “Committees with Implicit Biases Promote Fewer Women When They Do Not Believe Gender Bias Exists.” Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0686-3.