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:
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.
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.