Opinion: Seeking Symmetry Among Physicists

Physics 13, 13
Those looking to make their academic departments more diverse, equitable, and inclusive can learn from previous wins and setbacks.

Achieving equity, diversity, and inclusion is a popular mantra—but is it important for the future of physics? A resounding yes to that question appeared several years ago in a public letter from more than 2000 physicists. The letter was a response to US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who, in a high-profile affirmative action case, questioned whether minority students would bring a unique perspective to physics. But what are the arguments for increasing diversity and inclusion? Some are practical: The change would make more talent available to our profession. Diverse teams of people also perform better than homogeneous ones. Another argument is moral: to have bias, discriminate, or exclude African Americans and other people of color, women, people with disabilities, or sexual and gender minorities is incompatible with basic human rights. Finally, there is a basic “symmetry argument”: How can we have a broad view of the physics problems worth solving if our community is fundamentally asymmetrical?

I am a white, straight, cis-gender, able-bodied male, and I have not personally faced headwinds in my career because of my identity. But I recognized many years ago that I was part of a physics community that was inequitable, too homogeneous, and exclusive, and I felt an urgent need to change it. That is why I stepped away from research to lead the first office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) devoted to community and equity, and why today I work with professional societies to increase equity, inclusion, and diversity in physics and astronomy. Most recently, I co-founded, with support from the American Physical Society (APS), an alliance called APS-IDEA. Together, we will help physics departments and labs undertake improvements in equity, diversity, and inclusion through a support network, coaching, workshops, and an online learning community.

What have these experiences and my research taught me? To begin, we can learn from the past—starting with my own department. During the 1970s and 1980s, MIT became one of the largest producers of physics degrees to black students, including Ph.D.s to theorist Shirley Ann Jackson, now the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; the late astronaut Ronald McNair; and the president-elect of the APS, Jim Gates. The department appointed to the faculty two African Americans and seven women—a number of female faculty that was not matched again until 2016. And faculty and students were active—particle physicist Vera Kistiakowsky launched the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, theoretical physicist Jim Young co-founded the National Society of Black Physicists, and graduate students led by Cynthia McIntyre organized the first National Conference of Black Physics Students.

Much of this success can be attributed to leadership and faculty commitment. Nuclear physicist Herman Feshbach, the department head from 1972 to 1983, was a strong advocate for affirmative action and social justice. He encouraged, for example, recruitment from historically black colleges and universities. Faculty members such as Michael Feld and Mildred Dresselhaus supported Feshbach’s vision and each supervised multiple black students to their Ph.D.s. But during the 1990s, new department leaders brought different priorities, and the numbers of African American and female faculty and students declined, with the exception of female Ph.D. students. Stanford and Georgia Tech took over as leaders among major research universities in training physicists of color.

This example, plus many more like it, underscores the need for a deep commitment by faculty and support from leadership. Leaders not only provide resources and direction, they also articulate values and influence behavior. In her book How Colleges Change, Adrianna Kezar shows that this attention to values, norms, and culture is essential to advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Beyond securing commitment from the top, how should a proactive department proceed? My advice is to avoid common mistakes. Avoid mandates such as required diversity training because they encourage resistance. Fight the temptation to rely on lone champions—individuals who dedicate themselves to recruiting and mentoring but have little support from others. These champions eventually retire, depart, or burn out. Finally, don’t expect that changing rules will automatically change behavior. As sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev warned in their 2016 article “Why Diversity Programs Fail”: “People rebel against rules that threaten their autonomy.”

Turning to what works, an important strategy is to share leadership of change by all who will be affected, irrespective of their social power. Have students and staff members participate in—or even lead—departmental committees. This engagement increases the chance that concerns will be heard and acted upon. It also provides a natural accountability mechanism for those in power. In addition, put “equity” before “inclusion and diversity.” Equity-mindedness means being aware of how culture and society marginalize members of certain groups, no matter how kind and thoughtful one is to them individually. A faculty member who has been repeatedly talked over, mistaken for an administrative assistant or janitor, or told that she or he does not belong is less able to concentrate on physics than one who never has these experiences.

Undertaking these steps is not easy because it requires self-assessment by both individuals and departments. But there are tools to help. A good practice is to utilize “sensemaking,” a shared learning process where a group discusses and seeks to understand disparate experiences and perspectives. This process can reveal a culture that is preventing underrepresented group members from thriving, and it can help efforts to recognize and rectify underlying norms and values.

Sometimes, however, a greater push is needed to motivate change. If those in power cannot drive effective change, then individuals within the department might initiate it with social-movement tactics. This means building a coalition within and beyond the department, identifying and utilizing powerful allies, researching the state of diversity and inclusion, and publicly presenting a compelling, easy to understand case for change. As Kezar explains in her book, these methods are based in extensive social-science research.

Is driving change the job of physicists? I believe it is, and it can be successful with the help of social scientists. Although cultural change is slow, we should expect greater symmetry in the physics community within a decade and thereby a richer and more productive field.

–Edmund Bertschinger

Edmund Bertschinger is a Professor of Physics and an affiliated faculty member in the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally a theoretical cosmologist, he has shifted his efforts into improving equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM. He was a co-author of the 2019 report on Diversity and Inclusion in Astronomy Graduate Education of the American Astronomical Society. He was also co-chair of the American Institute of Physics Task Force to Elevate the Representation of African Americans in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy, whose report The Time is Now was released in January 2020. He is co-PI of the APS Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance.

About the Author

Image of Edmund Bertschinger

Edmund Bertschinger is a Professor of Physics and an affiliated faculty member in the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally a theoretical cosmologist, he has shifted his efforts into improving equity, diversity, and inclusion in STEM. He was a co-author of the 2019 report on Diversity and Inclusion in Astronomy Graduate Education of the American Astronomical Society. He was also co-chair of the American Institute of Physics Task Force to Elevate the Representation of African Americans in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy, whose report The Time is Now was released in January 2020. He is co-PI of the APS Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance.


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