*All authors contributed equally 

As members of two student-led science policy organizations, Science & Policy Exchange and the Toronto Science Policy Network, we have come together to reflect on the current state of equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM research and education, and what systemic changes are needed to make meaningful improvements.

Diversity in STEM

Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC), women, and other marginalized groups continue to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as in leadership positions within academia and industry. This problem can be portrayed as a glass obstacle course that creates further barriers for inclusion at successive levels of the STEM career trajectory, from childhood education to career promotions. In academia, for instance, women only represent 12% of full-time STEM professorships in Canada, are paid less, and achieve fewer senior faculty and executive positions. Likewise, under-representation and pay disparities exist for Indigenous, Black, and racially diverse professors. While considering ways to address structural barriers to inclusion and diversity in academia, it is crucial to center the discussions around intersectionality. Systemic structures can create greater inequities for people with multiple marginalized identities and ultimately affect several under-represented groups differently; for example, BIPOC women face greater power and pay disparities than white women, both inside and outside of academia.

Greater diversity and pay equity in STEM are vital to support an inclusive and equitable society. Beyond equal opportunities, greater diversity can lead to better decision-making and problem-solving, increased creativity and innovation, and reduced biases. As highlighted by NSERC, “Canada’s greatest potential can only be realized when all people are welcomed into the laboratory, the classroom, and the field. We all benefit from the wide range of perspectives and talent that make our research and our society better… Canada can’t afford to leave talent on the sidelines.”

However, while current equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives by the federal government, such as the Tri-Agency EDI Action Plan and the Dimensions Pilot Program, as well as institutional EDI action plans, are positive steps towards improving EDI in STEM, they often do not address the roots of inequity. Namely, these initiatives do not address the pervasive and systemic inequities ingrained in academic culture. Furthermore, the scope of these federal and institutional initiatives only focuses on graduate- and faculty-level research at post-secondary institutions. As such, they do not address the inequities experienced by students from under-represented groups at earlier stages in their training throughout elementary school, secondary school, and undergraduate programs, which may alienate or hinder these students from pursuing further STEM studies.

Considerations for EDI policies 

To overcome these challenges, EDI initiatives and policies must target systemic structural changes to confront the widespread and culturally ingrained barriers to diverse STEM participation. At the university level, evaluation for funding and career advancement disproportionately rewards publication records at all stages of academic research, reinforcing academia’s “publish or perish” culture. Within and outside academia, other meaningful contributions are often overlooked, such as community outreach, mentorship and teaching, and service work, including service on EDI committees and juggling employment during studies. This is of particular concern given that women and racialized faculty report increased mentorship and service activities, leaving less time for research and grant-writing, which is often accomplished at the expense of work-life balance. Targeting the competitive publish or perish culture will improve equity in funding access and career advancement and promote a work-life balance within academia where everyone can thrive, not just those that are in positions of privilege.

Furthermore, current EDI policies also do not provide enough emphasis on the entire academic trajectory of an individual, failing to address how success at each career stage is critical to building success in the next. It may be advantageous to adopt a developmental perspective, in which we consider that the lack of diversity in STEM may result from many systemic barriers that appear during childhood and not only persist, but add up over time. In fact, early life experiences are crucial for individuals to develop a positive academic self-concept about their ability to become scientists. Through developmental cascades, positive experiences with STEM concepts and seeing diversity in STEM researchers during childhood may snowball and have long-lasting effects on one’s desire to pursue a STEM career.

Possible Solutions and Policies 

There are various approaches that academic institutions can take to support diverse STEM trainees of all ages. This could start with re-imagining how STEM is taught in the classroom, which is typically done from a Eurocentric perspective that is disproportionately centered around the contributions of Western male scientists. This approach can alienate STEM students from diverse backgrounds and discourage them from further pursuing STEM education. As outlined in Science & Policy Exchange’s recently published policy memo, the inclusion of Indigenous ways of knowing in public elementary and secondary curricula, developed through consultation with Indigenous leaders and scientists, can create a more inclusive STEM education for Indigenous learners. A similar approach to educational reform can be applied to include other forms of non-Eurocentric knowledge and feature representations of diverse scientists and their contributions at all levels of education.

Mentorship, particularly culturally responsive mentorship, is beneficial to STEM students from under-represented groups when developing their scientific identities. Efforts should be made to offer mentorship opportunities at all levels of STEM training. At the elementary and secondary levels, this could include government financial support for existing STEM mentorship programs run by non-governmental organizations for youth from under-represented groups, including Black and Indigenous youth and girls and gender minority youth. At the undergraduate and graduate levels, institutions could financially and logistically support options beyond the traditional professor-student one-on-one mentorships that disproportionately rely on the service work of faculty from under-represented groups. This could include inter-institutional mentor networks, alumni networking events for under-represented groups, and near-peer mentoring programs.

Re-defining research excellence is also crucial for addressing inequities faced by scientists in research and academia with respect to career advancement and acquiring research funding. A recent publication by the Toronto Science Policy Network highlights that the current definition of excellence in Canadian federal scholarship competitions emphasizes research productivity and undergraduate academic accomplishments. However, students belonging to under-represented groups, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, are often unable to take low or unpaid research opportunities during their undergraduate degrees and may need to juggle school with part-time employment in sectors outside of their field of study in order to financially support their studies. Excellence must be re-defined to support well-rounded candidates and value meaningful accomplishments in broad areas. For scholarships, equal weighting should be given to academic excellence, research ability, and personal characteristics, including leadership. For grant applications, a broad set of criteria, including teaching, mentoring, entrepreneurship, science outreach, and societal impact, should be considered.

The barriers to EDI in STEM are systemic, perpetuated by the structural components of STEM education, evaluation criteria for funding and career progression, and academic culture. Initiatives are needed at various levels to address these numerous complex and interacting elements. As institutions and governmental organizations work to make these changes, the voices of graduate students and early-career researchers should not be forgotten. As members of Science & Policy Exchange and the Toronto Science Policy Network, we have seen first-hand the importance of the voices of individual students and student-led groups in EDI advocacy. Institutions and governmental organizations should give students and early-career researchers a seat at the table when creating EDI policies and initiatives in order to learn from the unique perspectives of the next generation of STEM leaders and truly make STEM a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable community for everyone.