When It Comes to STEM, Identity Matters

When It Comes to STEM, Identity Matters

By Taylor Mayol


Because more women could fundamentally change science itself.

By Taylor Mayol

Many of us are familiar with the basic issue around women and STEM — there aren’t very many. Various organizations, companies and universities have tried to tackle the problem of parity, and some have found success. But there’s a next-level conversation we may be missing entirely: What is the motivation for diversity within the ranks? 

So argues Dr. Danielle Lee, an animal behaviorist at Cornell who writes often about science, inclusion and diversity. Diversity in service of kudos or multicolored brochures is one thing. Recognition that identity matters is another. One’s identity and experiences inform a scientist’s area of study, her hypotheses, how she structures experiments. In other words, it’s not just about what science can do for women, but about what women can do for science. We spoke with Lee, a TED Fellow who studies African pouch rats, about her radical ideas for shaking up the system — including some personal reflections on how everyone needs a little mental health couch time. An edited version of our conversation follows.

OZY: What do you say to people who say science is blind or that identity in science doesn’t matter? 

Danielle Lee: We don’t yet have the vocabulary or the maturity to really have a conversation where folks acknowledge identity. Often, when women and women of color want to have a discussion about how identity affects their scientific work, we get a lot of pushback. They say, “Let’s just talk about the merit.” Science is still predominantly occupied by white men — and to be more specific, cis, hetero, white men, usually from families of some status. I don’t think that demographic really owns their identity because they’ve had the advantage of being the default.

Daniellelee handout

Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D.

Source Alecia Hoyt Photography

OZY: Can you speak to how women and their experiences shape the discipline itself?

D.L.: Over the last 40 or 50 years, more women have stepped into the biological sciences. Now we see the challenge of using white males — and now I mean mice — as laboratory animals. That’s been the default. I find it interesting that there are these parallels between what’s happening in our science and in the profession. So you had women challenging the use of those animals, saying we need to look at what’s happening with females, with older animals and younger animals.

That injection of feminist biology made a difference in how we started looking at questions. Because of that, we now understand that heart attack symptoms are very different in women than they are in men. We’re learning that symptoms of pain present themselves differently in men and women. 

OZY: Speaking of defending yourself, an editor of Biology Online once referred to you as an “urban whore” after you declined a request to blog for free. Is it something you and your peers confront regularly? 

D.L.: That was a very extreme situation. But, thinking about the women I interact with frequently and lean on for support, sadly this is not an uncommon reaction we get from people when we speak up for ourselves. You get people asking you for your labor or expertise for free. The part that’s consistent is when you tell them no, people often respond like we should be grateful that we were even asked to be used. Professionally, I’m dealing with standing up for myself in a way that still represents me. I consider myself very nice, approachable and accessible and I want folks to know that about me. But my accessibility doesn’t mean they have the right to not respect me. That’s the problem we deal with, women of color in science. 

OZY: Let’s talk isolation and mental health in the sciences. 

D.L.: I actually started therapy during my dissertation. I think it absolutely should be normalized. Everybody needs some couch time. There’s something particularly special happening to folks who come from different communities into science who have not historically been a part of science. It’s more about the higher-ed culture. I was just exhausted.

If I could get colleagues to recognize one thing, particularly when hiring people from underrepresented groups, it’s that it’s not our physical phenotype that makes us different. It’s also real life and what’s going on outside of work proper too. Can a person build a community? I don’t think there’s any discussion about that. Not thinking about those things means universities are probably going to lose those people just as they arrive. Even the simple little things. Getting my hair done, I need to block a day. It’s different for some of us. 

OZY: The scientific community needs to change — yes. But what should be done to change the status quo? 

D.L.: One really drastic thing I’d love to see happen is to have a few key folks spend a cycle — a quarter or a semester — deliberately seeking out [people who aren’t] cis, hetero, white men and inviting no one but people who are underrepresented in the field to include their voices, their participation on panels. Not to talk about diversity, but to talk about their science, their expertise. And don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t do it for cookies. When you highlight it as diversity, you’ll find a lot of people self-selecting themselves out of the conversation.