Improving the diversity and equity in the physics community is an issue that I take very seriously. We must realize that a significant part of our job as educators and researchers is to provide a sense of safety and belonging to all of our students, mentees, and peers. To do this, we must be open and willing to listen to feedback and concerns when they arise. We must also be ready to change things for the better when we can, and not fall into the trap of continual data-taking and surveys. Perhaps most importantly, we need to use our positions to advocate for all members of our community.
I developed most of my thoughts on improving diversity, equity, and sense of belonging during my time on two DEI committees as a postdoc at the University of Michigan. I served on both the Michigan Physics DEI committee and the Michigan group in the wider APS IDEA program. My time on those committees was marked by the pandemic, so lots of discussion was focused on increasing accessibility for people who were significantly disadvantaged by the lockdowns and remote schooling, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The point that I most vigorously made and supported during committee meetings was the importance of acting on the information we have available at any given time, rather than always waiting for the next survey or study to produce results. I believe that collecting data on the departmental and institutional climates is necessary, and I advocate for evidence-driven action, but we must also remember that data alone does not solve problems — we must act on it.
My involvement in Fermilab’s Muon g-2 experiment also helped shape my outlook on DEI issues. Muon g-2 adopted a rigorous code of conduct and maintains an active ED&I committee. A key element of the code is explicit documentation about meeting conduct, especially how the chair of a meeting should act to facilitate productive discussion and prevent people from feeling marginalized or silenced by other voices speaking over them or to their exclusion. Intentional, conscientious moderation can go a long way toward increasing the equity of a space.
To foster a community where people feel that they belong, we must realize that people are individuals, not just collections of community identities. People as individuals deserve individualized attention. Many people have priorities higher than work or school, which is not a terrible thing. We should not be excluding or minimizing people just because they do not believe it is acceptable to sacrifice other aspects of their life in the service of academia. Especially in the case of our students and mentees, this means that we need to support transparency and be approachable, so that they feel comfortable bringing up concerns and asking for accommodations.
It is also important for us to maintain professional boundaries. Boundaries are especially important in relationships with explicit power dynamics, such as instructor-student or mentor-mentee relationships. In these cases, boundaries contribute to building an equitable space by ensuring fair treatment between students. This happens because boundaries go both ways, so some students will be more inclined towards more boundaries in a professional space, and it is unfair to penalize them by giving preferential treatment to students with fewer boundaries. This is, of course, a balancing act because it is also unfair to give less to students who are asking for more just because others are not. It comes down again to treating people as individuals and making appropriate accommodations under the guiding principle that we should not overstep into people’s personal lives, and we should avoid oversharing our own.
In a similar vein, we must understand that our decisions affect everyone in our groups. We need to consider not just the immediate decision, but also how it is going to affect our people. We must constantly ask ourselves if we are being equitable and developing a physics community where all people feel like they are welcome, seen, and heard.
We also need to realize that some problems that our students and peers come to us with are beyond us. In these cases (such as mental health concerns, physical health, abuse, etc.), getting directly involved is not always the best course of action, no matter how much we might want to help. We need to be aware that even well-intentioned actions can lead to further harm. In these cases, our responsibility is to know where and how people can find support and resources. It is also our responsibility to make accommodations which allow people to seek external support. Again, it is about realizing that priorities are fluid, and classes or research are not always at the top of the list.
Keeping in mind that this is a professional environment, we must strive to balance respect and expectations. To improve equity, especially between learners, we can introduce explicit agreements and mentoring plans. The important part of these agreements is that they require that people sit down and have a conversation about key details, such as work expectations and exceptional circumstances that might arise in the professional relationship. Revisiting these agreements often (a couple of times per year) also gives us a chance to check in and address any new situations before they have time to become problems. Frequent check-ins also help us to understand a student’s progress towards mutually defined goals that consider a student’s educational background, progress, and personal goals.
Within my direct sphere of control, I plan to leverage my resources to enrich the community and give people a sense of belonging. First, I will keep a high degree of respect for people’s time. The explosion of Zoom meetings during the pandemic has made it clear to me that not considering people’s time and contributions leads to burnout and general lack of morale. We must be mindful of how much time we are asking people to spend in meetings and of who needs to be present at those meetings. We also must moderate our meetings better, giving everyone a chance to contribute while discouraging others from devaluing our students and peers. Along a similar line, we must vigorously advocate for our students by acknowledging their contributions, and working to provide them with opportunities for further growth and career development; we cannot put the sole burden of advocacy on our students.
Last updated 18 October 2022.