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In the United States, women are nearly half the general workforce and are overtaking men in earning Bachelor’s degrees. In science, technology, engineering, and math—the STEM fields—more women and minorities are earning Ph.D.s than ever. At the same time, business and university leaders are seeking to increase personnel diversity because heterogeneity in gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and race/ethnicity are known to promote innovation. A variety of initiatives and programs are connecting the supply of scientists and engineers with the demand for a more diverse workforce. By Chris Tachibana

Workplace diversity in the United States is increasing, thanks to legislation beginning with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the women’s and gay rights movements, and immigration. An analysis of the federal STEM workforce showed that in 2009, employment of women was 27 percent compared to 21 percent in 2000. Overall employment of minorities in 2009 was 22 percent (ranging from 9 percent Asians to 1 percent American Indians). However, the overwhelming majority of scientists and engineers in senior executive positions were white men (scim.ag/MbO0ay). The same disparity in leadership is seen in academia. Only 3 to 15 percent of full professors were women in a 2005 survey of U.S. science and engineering departments (scim.ag/LJHvpx). The problem is not lack of candidates: the number of Americans receiving STEM Ph.D.s is growing, largely driven by women and minorities (scim.ag/LN4gfO).

Why Diversity Matters

But why is underrepresentation of women, minorities, and other groups important? Can diversity in color, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status really affect the workplace? Yes, say years of business school studies on performance, productivity, and profitability.

“Companies are investing large amounts of money in programs to increase diversity, especially in upper management—not to be altruistic but because it is more financially successful. They actually tell you that in leadership programs,” says Sandra Schmid. In addition to a biochemistry Ph.D., Schmid, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has a Master’s degree in executive leadership. Diverse teams bring multiple perspectives to problem solving, she says, and make strategic decisions that more fully reflect client demographics. The benefits of a diverse personnel are so clear that corporations actively compete to connect to professional organizations for underrepresented groups. Emily Ceisel is a diversity and inclusion specialist at the global biotechnology company Life Technologies, which has corporate partnerships with the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, among others. She says, “Companies know that in a competitive global market their workforce has to be representative of that market.”


Photo courtesy of Cedric Herring
“The bottom line is that we have to go beyond just celebrating diversity. We have to include people on an equitable basis.” —Cedric Herring

Diversity literally pays off, according to Sociology Professor Cedric Herring, University of Illinois at Chicago. His 2009 analysis of more than 1,000 general U.S. workplaces showed that personnel diversity correlates positively with sales, number of customers, and profits relative to competitors (scim.ag/N0HAKD). Critics say teams with varied cultures and backgrounds have poorer communication, greater conflict, and less integration than homogenous groups, and possibly lower performance if quotas force companies to hire unqualified workers. However, a hypothesis that melds these pro and con lists says that greater conflict means less groupthink and this is precisely why diverse teams are more innovative. Jonah Lehrer, writing about creativity, notes that a wide social network and interdepartmental conversations at work lead to novel exchanges that can spark innovation. Being forced out of a routine makes people more creative and open to new ideas (scim.ag/JBVVMj).

A truly diverse workforce also includes the perspectives and advantages of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, says Shane Snowdon, founding director of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Center for LGBT Health & Equity. “People who face discrimination from a young age often have extraordinary resilience and problem-solving and coping skills—that’s the other side of stigma,” she says. LGBT professionals are strongly motivated and a lifetime of awareness about others’ perceptions and prejudices makes LGBT leaders highly sensitive to team dynamics. Snowdon says that business leaders are realizing this, but surprisingly, life science researchers can be more conservative. They might say it’s because they’re focused solely on their research, says Snowdon, “But it’s not as if science is divorced from the rest of life. Consider how your employees are being held back if they can’t be themselves at work.”


Credit: Eliot Khuner
“People who face discrimination from a young age often have extraordinary resilience and problem-solving and coping skills—that’s the other side of stigma.” —Shane Snowdon

How We Get There

Achieving workplace diversity requires full organizational commitment. Debra Leonard is chief diversity officer at Weill Cornell Medical School, where she also holds academic and clinical positions. Her mandate comes from powerful sources: the Liaison Committee on Medical Education requires student and faculty diversity for program accreditation and the National Institutes of Health have diversity requirements for funding. With this kind of backing, a diversity council or officer can get search committees to consider a wider range of job candidates, beyond those recommended by like-minded colleagues from similar backgrounds. “Otherwise, we tend to recruit people who look like us,” says Leonard. “It’s not conscious and it’s rare that people are just plain bigoted. It’s just the way we do things.” But Leonard’s job of recruiting and retaining members of underrepresented groups is not easy. The competition for qualified women and minority candidates is fierce. The problem, she says, is gaps in the pipeline: “Medical schools have outreach programs for high school students and undergraduates, but don’t follow through to the residency and faculty level. The network doesn’t have enough women and minorities.”

This is where mentoring programs can help. They can support students, junior employees, and new faculty by connecting them with veterans who can advocate for them and show them the ropes. Developing a diverse network of role models in academia and the public and private sectors is the goal of the Leadership Alliance, a national consortium of 32 research institutions, teaching colleges, and universities. Through a summer internship program and symposium, students are offered research opportunities and guidance as they consider career options, apply to graduate school, and enter the workforce. Executive Director Medeva Ghee explains that the primary focus of the programs is mentoring underrepresented groups but Leadership Alliance supports people from a range of backgrounds in a variety of fields. “We identify students who need the experiences we offer,” she says. More than 200 Leadership Alliance students have earned Ph.D.s and are now mentoring the next generation. The country has an urgent need for well-trained employees in the STEM fields, says Ghee. “Leadership Alliance meets the societal need by mentoring and producing scholars and researchers poised to contribute to a competitive 21st century workforce.”


Credit: Hank Randall
“More than 200 Leadership Alliance students have earned Ph.D.s and are now mentoring the next generation. The country has an urgent need for well-trained employees in the STEM fields.”—Medeva Ghee

STEM-based companies have the same goal: an educated, motivated, diverse workforce. Bayer USA Foundation, the Bayer Corporation’s philanthropic arm, promotes science literacy and education through its Making Science Make Sense program. For 16 years, this has included an annual Facts of Science Education survey of teachers, students, CEOs, and others. The most recent surveys have been about diversity. Based on the findings that increasing STEM diversity is a current priority at U.S. colleges and universities, the foundation hosted an April 2012 STEM diversity and higher education forum. Rebecca Lucore, the foundation’s executive director says, “Bayer and other companies invest a lot in K–12 STEM education programs, but if we put children on track to go to college in STEM only to be discouraged when they get there, it’s not a good return on our investment.” The critical factors, said forum participants, are setting an expectation of success, encouraging students, and providing them with resources that build their interest and confidence. “The consensus was that traditional weeding-out classes are not good for retaining STEM students,” says Lucore. She says that industries must play their part by letting students know about opportunities in STEM-based careers, and being partners in mentoring programs and internships that connect students to real-world scientists. Lucore says an additional challenge raised at the forum was how to encourage people with disabilities to pursue STEM careers.

Mentoring students with disabilities who are majoring in STEM fields is the goal of Entry Point!, a summer internship program from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This year, Merck & Co. selected five Entry Point! students for their Future Talent internship program. Stephanie Pallante, global university recruiting leader at Merck, says that internship opportunities are in research, manufacturing, and beginning this year, in global services, which includes information technology. Pallante says the Merck managers who work with the interns say they rarely need special accommodations and any adjustments are outweighed by the benefits of having eager, talented students who are “really at the top of their game.” Scientists who work with the interns say that they are a breath of fresh air and bring a university perspective to the Merck knowledge base. In turn, the students get a meaningful experience, says Pallante. “They’re not just an extra set of hands working on a project that we make up for them. They work alongside our scientists and production managers on something that is critical for our business.”

LGBT scientists also need role models and mentors, says UCSF’s Snowdon. A 2009 survey found that most LGBT employees are not out at work about their sexual orientation or gender identity (scim.ag/KMVlt5). Companies and academic institutions can create a better work environment by offering partner benefits, and by using inclusive language in everyday announcements and conversations. To LGBT scientists, Snowdon’s message is to think about how the world is changing because of LGBT people taking the risk of coming out. “The transformation of society we’re seeing in LGBT issues didn’t arise from marches or court decisions or large organizations,” she says, “but one person at a time coming out to other people. Take a chance and come out. It’s inspiring for junior employees, and other people will see that someone they worked with for many years is still the same person after they’ve come out.”

Business school studies show that a work culture that embraces diversity with a goal of learning and integration is more effective at reaping the benefits of multiculturalism than one that tries to be “colorblind.” Valuing diversity is the philosophy at Life Technologies, says Diversity and Inclusion Leader Ronita Griffin. The company doesn’t stop at recruiting a varied workforce, but engages employees as diversity champions who act as mentors internally and as company ambassadors externally, at community diversity events. Life Technologies also trains its workforce in inclusion, which Griffin describes as “activating, respecting, leveraging, and enabling differences—learning how to recognize and take advantage of the rich diversity in our workforce.” Although workplace diversity training can be met with resistance, it can be engaging if it is practical, and answers questions that people feel uncomfortable asking. LGBT diversity training sessions can be intriguing, says Snowdon. “People welcome the opportunity to get their questions answered about populations they don’t know much about, like transgender people. Even employees who dread mandatory training often tell me they’ll go home and talk about LGBT issues—it’s ‘news they can use’.”

Overhauling the System

The pool of diverse, talented STEM-educated workers is increasing, but will not automatically flow into the workplace without institutional changes that require careful planning and flexibility. Debra Leonard says current career expectations in medical schools are “not realistic and not healthy. They are based on an old system when women took care of home responsibilities so men could work long hours. Today, we need to consider family care, for example offering childcare for travel to meetings, which are so important for professional development.” In a step in this direction, American Society for Cell Biology members can apply for childcare grants to attend the organization’s annual meeting, which offers advisory sessions on dual-career issues and other contemporary professional challenges. The National Science Foundation recently announced flexible funding policies to allow for time spent on family care.

Sandra Schmid calls for similar changes in academia. With two grown children and a husband, William Balch who is also a molecular biology professor, Schmid walks the walk of a modern scientist. She says the academic tenure system is an outdated, inflexible, “one size fits all” path that no longer serves science. Expecting to hit certain milestones at precise times is too limiting to accommodate a diverse scientific workforce. In the general U.S. population, more than 70 percent of mothers with children work, and science is no exception. People do their most exciting work at different times in their career, says Schmid, and should be evaluated for their overall potential, not just what they have done recently.

This is supported by results from a 2010 study of life science faculty at 50 universities (scim.ag/LZIIvW). Junior women faculty worked fewer hours per week than junior-level men, mainly in the research arena; the women’s teaching, administration, clinical, and professional activities were similar to men. However, women who were full professors worked more hours a week than men at the same level, especially in internal administration and external professional activities. This pattern probably reflects the greater family responsibilities of junior-level women, and the higher demand for senior-level women as institutions seek to demonstrate their diversity. This is why Schmid’s advice to scientists and administrators is, “Take the long view. Priorities are different at different stages of life, and demands and responses will change over time. Try to balance them over a career.”

In an upcoming book, Critical Diversity: The New Case for Inclusion and Equal Opportunity, Herring, with co-author Loren Henderson, is expanding his work on the benefits of corporate diversity to address LGBT, education, class, and wealth issues. “The bottom line,” says Herring, “is that we have to go beyond just celebrating diversity. We have to include people on an equitable basis.” Achieving this will take fundamental institutional changes, he says. “When you have groups of people who are systematically underrepresented, you have to change things to make sure they are systematically included.”

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Additional Resources

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This article was published as an advertising feature in the July 20, 2012, issue of Science.

Chris Tachibana is a science writer based in Seattle, USA, and Copenhagen, Denmark.

Featured Participants

Upcoming Features

Annual Postdoc Survey—August 24
Faculty: Balancing Academia and Entrepreneurship—September 14
Top Employers Survey—September 21 (online); October 19 (print)
Chris Tachibana is a science writer based in Seattle, USA, and Copenhagen, Denmark.
10.1126/science.opms.r1200120