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Why Science Depends on Diversity

I was proud to be named to The Analytical Scientist’s 2016 Power List and among the top 50 most influential women in the analytical sciences. The list of luminaries represents how far STEM fields have come in welcoming people from under-represented groups into technical and leadership positions. But it’s too soon to rest. Though the sciences are increasingly diverse, I still attend many meetings where I am the only woman in the room, and sometimes feel I must work to be heard. Some people are less persistent, and we consequently miss a great deal of valuable input.

As recently reported in The Washington Post (1), the women of the White House staff have a pact to amplify each other’s ideas – by repeating and crediting them – to make sure they are heard. Let’s all vow to follow their example, and help other voices be heard. Whether you are a leader of today or tomorrow, seek to amplify the voices of the people who differ from you – and not just physically. Of course, diversity is about demographic differences, but it is also about inviting people with different mindsets, world views, personalities, preferences, and working styles to participate.

‘Invite’ is the operative word. We must do more than simply make room for people to express their opinions. It is human nature to want to form groups with people who seem like us; it’s an instinctive effort to feel included and avoid conflict. However, our desire for inclusion does not always make us inclusive towards others. According to diversity expert Helen Turnbull, our neuropsychology makes it more difficult for us to empathize with people we don’t consider part of our ‘in group’. Don’t worry; we are not doomed to homogeneity. We can challenge our brains to explore those biases and grow our capacity to welcome people who are different from us. We can work to help people feel that they belong, and that they will be heard.

To continue to prosper, civilization needs us to foster diversity. According to Stanford University researcher Margaret Neale, studies of working groups have shown that in more diverse groups each person brings a richer set of information to the table in anticipation of informing others and advocating for their ideas. Those discussions lead to more innovative solutions. We will need that creativity to solve the existential issues facing humanity – safeguarding energy, food and water for all, fighting antibiotic resistance, and tackling emerging diseases will all require ingenuity. Our economic security is also at stake; today’s business climate is marked by stiffer competition and constant pressure to adapt to new markets.

I still attend many meetings where I am the only woman in the room, and sometimes feel I must work to be heard.

In the 1960s, the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company was 50 years but today, it’s just 12 years (2). Businesses must change, or perish. In addition to the benefits of constructive conflict, teams of people with diverse views and experiences empathize with a wider range of customers, which leads to more readily adopted solutions. In other words, diverse teams respect what is unique about their clients. They are also successful change agents: research shows that diverse teams spread new practices faster within organizations because each team member influences a separate network (3).

How can we boost diversity? The US Department of Commerce cites a lack of female role models as one of the factors that contributes to low participation by women in STEM. Women hold less than 25 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, but are nearly 50 percent of the total workforce. The situation is similar for other groups; Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans each hold about six percent of STEM jobs, although they constitute 11 percent and 14 percent of the American workforce, respectively. When members of under-represented groups see people like themselves in top positions in government, industry, and academia, they believe that they, too, can succeed as leaders. Our efforts to increase diversity today will pay off exponentially as each generation attains leadership roles and inspires still more diversity among upcoming waves of STEM workers.

As the leader of a large technical organization, my goal is to continue to build a culture of scientific excellence that will thrive into the future. To produce the best science, we need everyone to actively participate. And so I will continue to invite, include, and empower people who are different from me.

I invite you to do the same.

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  1. J Eilperin, “How a White House women’s office strategy went viral”, The Washington Post, 25 October (2016). Available online at: wapo.st/2dFjIMx. Accessed 4 October 2016.
  2. C O’Reilly, ML Tushman, “Lead and disrupt: how to solve the innovator’s dilemma”, Stanford University Press (2016).
  3. RI Sutton, H Rao, “Scaling up excellence: getting to more without settling for less”, p.184 (2014).
About the Author
Laurie Locascio

Dr. Laurie E. Locascio is the Acting Associate Director of Laboratory Programs at NIST. As Acting ADLP, she provides direction and operational guidance for NIST's scientific and technical mission-focused laboratory programs and serves as principal deputy to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Standards and Technology and NIST director, among other duties.
Dr. Locascio's current permanent position is director of the Material Measurement Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The Material Measurement Lab has more than 1000 staff members and visiting scientists, and serves as the nation's reference laboratory for measurements in the chemical, biological and materials sciences through activities ranging from fundamental research in the composition, structure and properties of industrial, biological, and environmental materials and processes, to the development and dissemination of certified reference materials, critically evaluated data and other measurement quality assurance programs. The Material Measurement Laboratory serves a broad range of industry sectors ranging from transportation to biotechnology, and provides research, measurement services and quality assurance tools for addressing problems of national importance ranging from assessment of climate change, to the investigation of new sources of renewable energy, to improved diagnostics and therapies for health care.
Dr. Locascio previously served as chief of the Biochemical Sciences Division in the Material Measurement Laboratory. She received her B.Sc. in chemistry from James Madison University, M.Sc. in bioengineering from the University of Utah, and Ph.D. in toxicology from the University of Maryland at Baltimore. She has published more than 100 scientific papers and holds 11 patents in the fields of microfluidics, biosensors and sensor/flow systems. Some of her honors and awards include the US Department of Commerce Silver Medal, US Department of Commerce Bronze Medal Award, ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry Arthur F. Findeis Award, the NIST Applied Research Award, and the ACS Earle B. Barnes Award for Leadership in Chemical Research Management. She is a Fellow of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE).

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