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Pluralism and Inclusion Work

pluralism, n.
Recognizing more than one set of fundamental principles, fostering independent cultural traditions of minorities, and sharing power with people who are different from us.
We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
-- ALBERT EINSTEIN

[TO BE UPDATED]

A university professor's job description is multidimensional, involving teaching, research, mentoring, administration, outreach, etc. Education itself plays a key role in society, in advancing and diffusing knowledge. For both of these reasons the university profession would benefit from, and must strive for, greater diversity of practitioners. In order to work towards the goal of authentic pluralism, inclusion work -- the method -- must be addressed.

Inclusion work is a collective issue. It concerns women and men and nonbinary folks, Indigenous and settler peoples, racialized and White peoples, disabled and nondisabled folks, trans and cis folks, and so forth. Accurate historical information is crucial to discerning today's starting line for any given group. The issue of how in future to close the gap between two groups naturally involves both the group in front and the group behind. That human diversities typically intersect and interact makes this all the more challenging.

Many well-meaning people in rich White industrialized countries believe that equity is the same as equality, inclusiveness is the same as diversity, and everything is about individuals. We need to have a much more sophisticated structural analysis than this. Inclusion work is not simply about whether the playing field is level; it is also about whether the game is even best played on a sports field. Questions about how academic excellence is evaluated are enormously important and interesting. The most crucial are: (a) what is the set of indicators of academic excellence, and (b) who decides that set?

Hallowed indicators of academic excellence are not as objective as often advertised. For example, a famous Swedish study [1] exposed serious gender bias flaws in peer review, the fundamental mechanism of research evaluation. Gender bias [2,3] also occurs in student evaluation of faculty teaching, as shown in e.g. the famous Canadian study [4]. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

The problem is with the people who judge those indicators. This problem is best solved by death.
-- [famous, male, White] physics professor, USA

In the past, professors have routinely chosen someone exactly like a younger version of themselves in academic job search processes. However, the above quotation highlights why cloning should not be the default means of academic procreation. Inclusion work needs to be mainstreamed and embedded in the university profession sooner rather than later. We need to foster pluralism, and this can be hard when you have grown used to everything in your life being centred on you and your kind.

Discussions about inclusion in the context of academia need to involve recognition of the elite role of universities in higher education, where professors in a wide variety of disciplines integrate research and teaching at the highest levels. There is no paradox here: excellence and inclusion are fundamentally compatible. Indeed, from a human resources point of view, excellence can be achieved partly via inclusion.

Role models matter, especially to students, who are the primary people we serve. Therefore, a particular type of affirmative action can usefully be included in a portfolio of inclusion strategies. If two people X and Y score the same to within error estimates, and X is from a historically under-represented group while Y is not, then it makes sense to award goodies to X ahead of Y. After all, X takes many more hits than Y because of that very same status (perhaps without Y even realizing).

While members of historically under-represented groups may understand well what is needed to drive decision-making on inclusion work, whether or not they so participate is their own decision and theirs alone to make. The responsibility for rectifying any problems lies with everybody: it is not up to people from a minority group to solve bigotry problems. Buy-in from the majority group is required to move societies forwards on humanly meaningful timescales; it also helps prevent social justice leader burnout.

In the best university tradition, a fruitful way forward lies in bona fide research on discrimination and inclusion work. Such research on academia will be naturally be done within institutions; national and international comparisons will also be useful. Regarding physics and gender, important international conferences on the issue have been held every three years since 2002 [5]. Other useful resources can be found in [2,3,6].

Excellence and inclusion cannot be honestly separated. Everyone is on the hook for doing inclusion work, regardless of their level of education on the issues. The only way that physics will become more welcoming to historically under-represented groups is for us to stop centring the masculine, White, cisgender, heterosexual, abled, socially awkward stereotype of a physicist in the central mythologies of our discipline.

  1. C.Wenneras & A.Wold, Nepotism and sexism in peer-review, Nature 387, 341-343 (1997).
  2. M. Urry, Speeding up the long slow path to change, (2003)
  3. BerniceSandler.com
  4. L.Sinclair, & Z.Kunda, Motivated stereotyping of women: She's fine if she praised me but incompetent if she criticized me, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26, 1329-1342 (2000).
  5. IUPAP International Conferences on Women in Physics.
  6. Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies, online resource at LSE.