How Can We Fix the Lack of Diversity in Geosciences?

By Erik Klemetti | April 25, 2018 9:25 am
Denison Geoscience students on Ironbound Island in Maine. Erik Klemetti

Denison Geoscience students on Ironbound Island in Maine. Erik Klemetti

I love geology. It’s what I do. It asks questions fundamental to our understanding of the planet (and beyond), questions that I feel should resonate with everyone on the planet because we live on Earth! Every day, each of us interacts with geologic processes whether we realize it or not – maybe it is the topography we travel across to get to work, maybe it is the materials we use in our daily lives, maybe it is soil we plant our food in – they are all rooted in the geosciences. I’ve said it before: everyone in college should take a geoscience course, but it shouldn’t end there.

So, why does the field in the United States have such a diversity problem? Take a look at this graph showing the distribution of students getting a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Geosciences in 2017 from the American Geosciences Institute Workforce Report:

Distribution of racial and cultural background in the geosciences, 2017. AGI.

Distribution of racial and cultural background in the geosciences, 2017. AGI.

Graduating BA/BS students are 75% white.

Compare that to the rough average of all white college students in the United States (41%) and you can see how disproportionate this really is. The distribution for masters and Ph.D. graduates seems better, but when you see that only 3% of all Ph.D. graduates are “multiracial” and 19% are “unknown” (meaning they didn’t respond to the question on the AGI survey), we can see that wow, things are not good.

Speaking as a Latino geoscientist (and actually one of a small percentage of Latino who have gotten a Ph.D. in geosciences during the last 25 years), I don’t even know where to start solving this problem. The distribution of women in geosciences has gotten a lot better over the past few decades. In fact, today there are more women graduating with a BA/BS in geosciences than men, but that ratio reverses when it gets to masters and Ph.D. graduates (we’re losing women along the way, folks). The percentage of female faculty has increased, but we still have a ways to go.

One of the reasons that might be most compelling for why geosciences lacks diversity in its students is that, in general, it lacks it in faculty. Go to any geosciences meeting and above the age of 50, the field is dominated by white males. My experience was atypical as both my Ph.D. and postdoctoral advisors are women, but across the field, white males are the elder faculty at most universities and colleges. This is changing with the younger ranks, with more women joining faculty, but we still sorely lack under-represented minorities in geosciences faculty. It takes work to tackle these issues as they can be rooted in complicated issues like implicit and unconscious bias. They also require us to not only strive for diversity but also become more inclusive and supportive to graduate students and new faculty.

Students who show up in geosciences classes see a clear lack of role models in the faculty. I mean, if you are an under-represented minority and you see that almost all the faculty in the field are white, then it might seem like it is a field that wants to be white. I think this is not the case for many of us, but the perception is there. Combine that with a lack of peers in the department, then we are far from a welcoming discipline to those non-white majors. If you are looking for mentors that might understand your background and situation, geosciences seems to be lacking if you’re Latino or African-American or more.

Geosciences isn’t a field that most students have experience in high school, especially if you aren’t from a part of the country where the geology is all around. Many students who grew up in urban settings or the midwest may not have had much or any experience out in the field, even camping or hiking. When dropped in a geology course, it is very daunting if you’ve never really spent time outdoors. Geology is clearly linked to “being in the field” to the point that many students might think of it as a “lifestyle major” – you need to be outdoorsy to be a geologist. Heck, I almost didn’t become a geology major because I was convinced by other friends that I wasn’t “crunchy” enough to be a geologist. When we need to be more inclusive, this perception does the opposite.

My research student loading samples into an XRF during her summer project. Erik Klemetti

My research student loading samples into an XRF during her summer project. Erik Klemetti

However, the discipline isn’t just rocks and hiking and camping. It is advanced lab science. It is observations from space. It is high-powered computer modeling. It combines all the sciences into a broad understanding of the planet. I have found that when I am surrounded by diverse colleagues and students, my work is better. I get more, different ideas and hear about a wider variety of experiences. Students that I have had that are from outside the largest slice of the pie are no less compelled to study the Earth than the majority. (And note, this doesn’t even take into account other forms of diversity in the field, like gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class and more).

I don’t have any solutions beyond reaching out to support students from under-represented groups who show up in my classes and give them opportunities to explore the field as they choose, not as we expect. There is no “typical” geoscientist other than someone fascinated by how the Earth works. We just need to make the discipline — students, faculty and more — reflect the diversity of our country.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs
  • OWilson

    Minorities like Einstein, Madame Curie or Mother Teresa will always emerge and be recognized when they have something meritorious to offer the world.

    “Diversity” is not an academic qualification! :)

  • Uncle Al

    Hey ladies – a career is not a doorway into self-fulfillment. It’s a crappy job with personal high up-front costs that leave you few options for motherhood. Men know that about their jobs, hence traditional alcohol abuse and owning flashy stupid vehicles.

    Males and females are not interchangeable. Wait until a representative sample needs to micturate in the field.

    Example #1: “Hey Joe, look at that arc!”
    Example #2: “Get me a Gloria Allred!”

  • Mary Chandler

    Here we go again with the postmodernistic drivel of identity politics that is diversity.

    Never has this blatant virtue signalling ever solved any problem. And you know why? Because there isn’t any problem!

    When have artificial quota’s ever solved anything? How often don’t you hear scientists lament the fact that cancer would have been conquered decades ago if only more transgenders joined the field of oncology? And climate change would have been easily solved if only we would have forced more black, lesbian wheelchair-bound women into climate sciences!

    Because REAL scientists are valued for their scientific contribution and critical scientific thinking. For devising better theories. For advancing their field through hard work! Not just for the color of their skin, or the contents of their underwear, or any of 73 and counting gender pronouns that seem to be in vogue this very moment.

    It’s a sad testament that scientific magazines and more and more universities have fallen victim to this radical-leftist, politically correct nonsense, that is spreading like an intellectual cancer within society.

    So please, take your sanctimonious, self-congratulatory, holier-than-thou opinions and sod off. Go join the Humanities cult and leave the real science to those who actually want do it!

    • Erik Klemetti

      Ask yourself: How many extremely talented people didn’t join the field/science because they weren’t welcome. That is what making diversity important does: it welcomes everyone of all backgrounds to the field, rather than excluding people for reasons beyond their talents.

      And by the way, this is my blog, so I’ll thank you to not tell me to sod off.

      • Tom Tom

        The answer is none. You have no proof that we lost anything. All we know is you and people like you were accepted with out evidence and you have been wrong about everything. The fact that you censor people who disagree with you means you are wrong and you know it. First of all no scientist is welcome people have to past tests. Anyone who needs cookies and milk and a teddy bear to become a scientist is cut out for it. Why do you think everyone has to be a scientist any way? Scientist are not better then other people. We need people who help others both men and women more than we need someone who makes bombs. You obviously think that women are crap because they aren’t men.

      • karaool .

        Damn right, Erik, that’s telling ’em!

        • karaool .

          I was being facetious, Erik. You f’in hypocrite. Sod off.

      • OWilson

        For a long time men ruled the world. The women were content to just rule the men :)

        Now, as Uncle Al infers, women too must go out every day and suffer the slings and arrows of daily life, and a lot of them do not look happy!

        Exclusion is bad, but affirmitive action is the soft bigotry of low expectations!

        And until all Governments, Agencies and Institutions consider all citizens equal and treat them accordingly, there will be no peace!

        • Marineaks

          Just crap. Discrimination has been illegal since 1972 passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. You can put down the under representation of non-traditionals in science to a lack of interest among the so-called victims.

          • OWilson

            Merit makes a successful brain surgeon.

            The market (you and I) reward the best, with no regard for sexual orientation, religion, or ethnic origin!

          • Marineaks

            Your last sentence is pure drivel.

          • OWilson

            So’s yer old man! :)

          • Marineaks


      • Marineaks

        Just crap. Now non-traditional scientist wanna-bes have to have a welcome mat rolled out for them? Typical liberal excuse for lack of ability or interest by the proposed victims of the evil good ole boy establishment. Pure crap.

      • Mary Chandler

        So where exactly are the policies of universities published that state that e.g. black people need not apply? Or transgenders with perfect SAT scores are not admitted? Guess what, there aren’t any. Because they DO NOT EXIST.
        Everybody in science is welcome and get’s a chance to excel at it, provided they make the cut intellectually.

        To state that people can only feel welcome if their specific minority is artificially represented at an organisation is the epitomy racism in itself!
        And that is exactly what lies at the heart of gender and identity politics.
        It diminishes the accomplishments of individuals to nothing more than the characteristic of their minority, be it color of their skin, or what’s between their legs.

        Diversity is the ridiculous postmodernist notion that equality of opportunity must equal equality of outcome! And if society does not adhere to this lunacy, the radical left will demand that it be enforced, so that reality will be brought in line with their opinion.
        If 12% of the population is black, by law there must be at least 12% black scientists! In every field! Irrespective of the black individuals wishes whether they want to be a scientist in the first place, or not

        Diversity doesn’t make people welcome. Diversity is the tiranny of group thinking, and dividing the world into oppressors and victims, instead of individuals.
        History has shown what such dogmatic reasoning will lead to.., the worst moments of humanity.

      • karaool .

        Erik, you need to stop up-voting your own comment; people are bound to get suspicious.

    • saymwah

      Erik, thanks for this post and keep up the good work. Too bad anyone with the stones to even point out the elephant in the room gets mobbed by the right-wing troll army protecting their fragile egos. The good news is that they do it because they know they are losing.

  • karaool .

    Thank you, Erik, for exposing the true face of Caucasian “science”! And, boy, is it ugly. Next up, reparations!


Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.

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