A large, comprehensive study reveals what privilege looks like in science: straight, white men who are not disabled get more pay, greater respect and a wealth of career opportunities compared with all other groups.
Past studies have shown how sexism, racism and other types of discrimination separately contribute to inequality in academia. But sociologist Erin Cech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor compared the experiences of researchers who fit along a spectrum of 32 intersecting identities. She analysed data from a survey of roughly 25,300 researchers working in sectors including academia, industry and government in the United States, conducted between 2017 and 2019. The study was published in Science Advances last month1.
Cech, who describes herself as a white, queer cisgender woman, says the results reveal consistent, striking patterns of privilege that persist after adjustment for differences in education, experience, hours worked, family responsibilities and more than a dozen other confounding factors. Heterosexual, white men without disabilities enjoy a raft of unearnt benefits that cannot be accounted for by such differences, the analysis shows. They get paid an average of US$7,831 a year more than other groups, adjusting for confounding factors. They are also granted more career opportunities, feel more respected at work and experience less harassment than people in every other intersecting demographic group that Cech studied, and so are less likely to leave science.
“Time and time again, I’ve heard [people say] there’s no data to prove” that privilege exists, says Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Now, marginalized groups have hard data that they can point to and say, “here, this is what you’ve been asking for. Now what?” says Esquivel, a Black, queer, neurodivergent, Mexican woman.
More money, more respect
Straight, white men without disabilities received at least an extra US$32,000 each year compared with queer people of colour who had the same level of experience, tenure, hours worked, family responsibilities, education and other factors, Cech found. The most privileged group also earnt US$20,000 a year more than disabled people of any gender, ethnicity or sexual identity.
Kelsey Byers, an agender, asexual and multiply disabled plant biologist, who works at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, says the disadvantage that marginalized groups face is distressing, and the salary gap shocking: “As someone who has struggled to literally get in the door, [the findings] were a gut punch, but one I know is true.”
Cech found that the groups that are most disadvantaged are LGBTQ-identifying women of colour, and people with a physical disability, chronic illness or mental-health condition. People in these groups had lower salaries and fewer career opportunities, garnered less respect from colleagues and often felt excluded — even when their education, experience and job characteristics equalled those of their straight, white, male, non-disabled peers.
Christopher Jackson, a Black geoscientist based in the United Kingdom, says Cech’s study shows how identity and circumstance determines who gets to participate in science. “Being smart isn’t enough,” he says, because not everyone is given the same access to opportunities or peer support to help them to achieve what they wish. Many of the barriers that some people have to contend with also go mostly unseen, adds Jackson, who left academia in March to join a scientific consulting firm.
Esquivel hopes the data from Cech’s study will help to counter something she has experienced — researchers from privileged groups questioning whether marginalized scientists hired under diversity initiatives deserve their places in academia. People who are not marginalized need to reflect on how privilege has made their careers easier, she says.
Structural and cultural changes are needed to rectify the inequalities that contribute to people from minority groups leaving science, says sociologist Meredith Nash at the Australian National University in Canberra. “You can’t bring people from historically excluded groups into these fields [and expect them to stay] without creating an environment for them to thrive,” she says.
To create more equitable workplaces, Nash says, institutions and their leaders must overhaul processes that give unfair advantage to particular groups of people. She says that white, cisgender women such as herself often benefit from equity initiatives, also need to reflect on their privilege and use it to advocate in favour of greater diversity.
That means taking a critical eye to hiring and promotion practices, and rethinking how academia recognizes and rewards research excellence, says Cech. Given that systemic advantages are anchored in the historical over-representation of white men in science, structural and cultural change starts with that group, she adds. White men who are willing to reflect on and discuss these forms of privilege wield real influence, she says.
But past research has found that many white, male in some fields claim to be unaware of racism or sexism around them, despite evidence that their field can be a particularly hostile environment for women and people from minority groups. In a survey of physicists, white men often distanced themselves from the problem, saying that it didn’t occur in their laboratories, and that the solutions lay outside their sphere of influence.
That attitude propagates inequalities, says Timothy O’Connor, a disabled, white man and an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “We need to constantly be vigilant in addressing bias wherever we see it, even and especially in ourselves.” He adds, however, that more work needs to be done to appreciate the manifold experiences of researchers with diverse identities within groups that were “lumped together” in Cech’s study. For example, in its main analyses, the study did not distinguish between people with different types of disability or between those with varying LGBTQ identities. It also used broad ethnic divisions with little nuance, such as “Asian”. Cech says this was to protect respondent confidentiality.
Patterns of disadvantage and privilege are seeded long before people embark on careers in science, says Mohammad Taha, a materials engineer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who identifies as a non-binary, transgender, queer person of colour. Academia needs to do a better job of measuring the performance of people who have experienced disadvantage. Many of these people will not have had the same opportunities as their majority-group peers, and need to be judged accordingly when applying for jobs and funding, Taha says.
They add that many researchers have a genuine interest in making academia more inclusive, but fail to act. “Your inaction isn’t neutral; your inaction is contributing to this problem.”