DIBS 2019-2020 Climate Survey

We, the Diversity & Inclusion in the Biological Science (DIBS) group, provide the first annual report on the climate in the Department of Biology specifically and, more broadly, at the University of Rochester. DIBS is committed to justice, values the power of an intersectional lens, and reimagines the impact biologists might have on our community. This survey, first conducted in 2019 and again in 2020, evaluates tendencies towards or away from equity in several manners in the Department of Biology at the University of Rochester. The DIBS committee is not officially affiliated but is directly intertwined with the Department of Biology at the University of Rochester. We aim to contribute to a growing conversation between institutions fostering change (see (Wallace and York 2020), BREWS report) and hope to continue monitoring the attitudes of members of the Department into the indefinite future.  

Local Climate

We asked respondents to report their experiences with, or observations of, different kinds of incidents regarding prejudice or subconscious bias in our department and at the university as a whole. For both the department and the university, microaggressions seem to be the most pervasive issue, followed by (in descending order) bias against women, bias against other underrepresented groups, bias against international students and personnel, and instances of blatant discrimination. At both the university and department levels, folks with at least one equity-seeking identity were more likely to observe bias compared to those without an equity-seeking identity. 

We also asked respondents to report their beliefs about the existence of different kinds of bias in our department and at the university as a whole. Again, the department consistently received better scores than the university as a whole. On average, respondents believed that bias against underrepresented groups was the strongest or most intense, followed by bias against women and bias against international students and personnel. Scores for belief in the existence of a given type of bias tended to be higher than scores for respondents’ experience/observation of the bias, although it is unclear whether the scales were comparable. At both the university and department levels, folks with at least one equity-seeking identity believed more strongly that bias existed compared to those without an equity-seeking identity. 

In 2020, we saw an increase in the mean score for belief that discrimination occurred and a decrease in the mean score for the observations of discrimination. In 2019, the score for observing discrimination against women and minorities was higher than the believed impact of discrimination against women and minorities. In 2020, this trend reversed: the observed discrimination decreased but the believed impact of discrimination increased, such that believed impact was larger than observed incidents. A multitude of factors could explain this change in attitudes. The decrease in observed incidents of discrimination was likely impacted by social distancing. The increased belief in the occurrence of discrimination may be associated with the widespread and mainstream conversations about discrimination against Black folks in the US, including considerations of police brutality and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, starting in the summer of 2020 (Buchanan, Bui and Patel 2020). 

Our survey respondents recurrently requested increased representation of equity-seeking identities in positions of power. Role models representative of an individual’s identity increases confidence, comfort and success (Gilardi 2015; Brown 2012). Requests for increased representation originated from multiple career groups, including undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty. The majority of folks asking for better representation are people with intersecting equity-seeking statuses. Different respondents saw a need for representation in a range of different areas. A majority of respondents asked for more diversity among the faculty. Some respondents also stated that the diversity of the graduate student body was not well represented on department committees. Respondents recommended improving financial support and programming for people with equity-seeking identities. We received recommendations for broadened representation for multiple axes of diversity. Calls for increased representation included more people of color, more religious backgrounds (with a specific reference to Islam), folks with first languages other than English, and transgender and gender non-conforming people. These answers reflect an increasing call across disciplines to increase representation of ethnic and racial minorities (O’Brien, Bart, and Garcia 2020; Schell et al. 2020; Graves 2019; Williams et al. 2021; Halsey et al. 2020) as well as LGBTQ+ people (Cooper et al. 2020; Hughes 2018; Cech and Waidzunas 2021). 

Survey respondents suggested training and/or workshops as a way to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within the department. Areas noted included education about marginalized identities; what the idea of “inclusion” represents and how it is both related to and different from the concept of “diversity”; and how best to learn from interactions with students and colleagues. Respondents specifically mentioned discussing implicit bias and how to learn from mistakes and get comfortable being corrected or called out as potential goals for training. Respondents wanted discussions on microaggressions, with specific mentions of microaggressions towards religion and nationality. However, some respondents expressed concern that conversations about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) may lean too heavily in the direction of providing guidance to allies, meaning they believed comparatively less energy was being spent on directly supporting people from underrepresented groups. Specific actions suggested in some responses included coordinating with individuals in diversity officer positions to initiate training and communication opportunities for the department.

A key and frequently requested call to action across all levels of the Department of Biology was financial support and programming for folks with equity-seeking identities. Respondents indicated that they want the department to move beyond recognizing a lack of diversity and commit to actions that will help improve recruitment and retention of folks with equity-seeking identities. Respondents asked for paid internships and increased stipends to aid with financial stability, as equity-seeking status often intersects with financial difficulty. To maintain diverse representation in academia (Estrada et al. 2011; Hinton et al. 2020; Whittaker, Montgomery, and Martinez Acosta 2015; Killpack and Melón 2016; Morgan et al., n.d.), students in equity-seeking groups need to be financially stable. For example, volunteer positions are not an accessible strategy for all students and the absence of financial support disproportionately impacts equity-seeking individuals (Scott-Clayton and Li 2016). While programs offering financial support to undergraduate students exist, many participants expressed that they were unaware of such programming. 

Pandemic Climate

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed innumerable aspects of the lives of the members of the Department of Biology at the University of Rochester. There was overall a negative impact of the pandemic on mental health of individuals responding to the survey. Equity-seeking individuals reported higher negative impacts on mental health than did non-equity-seeking folks. Across career stages, undergraduates reported the highest negative impacts on mental health. 

Many people reported struggling with their workload and productivity during the pandemic. Overall, survey respondents reported a somewhat negative impact of the pandemic on their productivity. However, equity-seeking individuals reported stronger negative impacts on productivity. Graduate students and undergraduate students also both reported more negative effects of the pandemic on productivity than folks in other career positions. Survey respondents from many different career stages and roles in the department indicated concerns about getting things done. As might be expected, physical distancing rules proved to be a barrier to lab work and to collaboration. Barriers to collaboration were also a challenge for students taking classes. The pandemic was also a mental barrier to productivity. Finally, some respondents described the challenges of working from home, including unstable network connections, unsafe home environments, and additional responsibilities such as childcare.

Focusing in on the effects of the pandemic on people teaching and taking classes, both undergraduate students and faculty members struggled with workload. In general, undergraduates reported suffering from overwhelming workloads and insufficient support. These responses were similar to those from surveys conducted at Wake Forest University and Georgetown, showing that this is a general problem and not specific to our department or the University of Rochester. Meanwhile, faculty members stated that adapting to zoom teaching increased workloads and was highly time consuming, interfering with other improvements they wished to make for their courses. The increased needs of students and the time and resource constraints of faculty suggests that additional support for students from some source other than the faculty is needed, in order to get students the help they need while bringing faculty workloads to a more sustainable level. Student respondents suggested different kinds of support that would be helpful, such as having more TAs, more office hours, or remote study groups. The Wake Forest University survey saw similar comments from undergraduates, and the people conducting that survey hypothesized that this could be because instructors are intentionally or unintentionally assigning more work, expectations are unclear, or the work assigned is less flexible (for example, a student could skim an assigned reading if they are short on time one week and still participate in an in-class discussion, but if the assignment is to do the reading and then take a quiz or write a post about it, skimming the reading is no longer a possibility.)

Finally, respondents at a variety of career stages indicated that it would be helpful for evaluators (instructors, tenure committees, etc.) to provide increased accommodations and set lower expectations for the course of the pandemic in response to the workload and productivity challenges faced by many. In particular, both undergraduate and graduate students mentioned a desire for flexible deadlines, especially for important milestones such as qualifying exams. Faculty members expressed concerns over tenure policies, and wanted open acknowledgement of relaxing output expectations. 

Many folks reported mental health struggles resulting from or intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. These struggles included anxiety, fatigue, difficulties with motivation, isolation/loneliness, and fear for the physical wellbeing of oneself or loved ones. The sources of fatigue and motivation issues varied across responses. Among the most common sources were difficulties adjusting to lockdown, including separation from support networks such as university organizations or family (especially for folks with loved ones in different countries), fatigue due to many zoom meetings, working away from a typical workplace, lack of a structured schedule, interrupted sleep patterns, and greater difficulty communicating already existing issues with others. Anxiety and fear was commonly caused by the direct risk of infection to oneself or loved ones, the productivity/career advancement lost due to other mental health issues, loss or uncertainty in financial support, relocating to unsafe home environments, and pandemic restrictions putting some groups at greater risk of other threats. Respondents specifically mentioned feeling unsafe working late on campus because pandemic-related restrictions required them to park farther away. These results are similar to those found in other studies across students at multiple universities (Khan et al. 2020). In particular, these studies have found international students to be at high risk of mental health issues, likely due to a combination of the factors identified above (Sahu 2020). 

The most common suggestions to help in mental health during the pandemic were to promote awareness of both physical and mental health challenges faced by members of our community, and encourage individuals and groups to reach out, check in, and generally maintain regular contact to help normalize shared struggles, offer direct assistance, and reduce isolation and loneliness. There were also specific calls to directly include equity-seeking folks in the brainstorming and planning of any department actions to address challenges originating from the pandemic. 

Recommendations

Our recommendations for the department include both actions that can be taken by individuals within the department, and actions taken by the institution itself. We hope that all reading this report will consider supporting these recommendations and contributing to  goals for the department to become a more inclusive and supportive environment. The recommendations made by the committee are as follows:

  1. The creation of a departmental code of conduct to establish how to treat colleagues in the Department of Biology with respect and consideration. Codes of conduct for individual labs within the department are also highly recommended for those who have not already done so.
  2. Commitment to more training on diversity, equity, and inclusion. In particular, we suggest training focused on recognizing microaggressions and on supporting equity across diversity in gender. 
  3. Action to increase recruitment and retention of equity-seeking folks. The department could support the creation of micro-grants designated for equity-seeking folks. The department should also set diversity targets, and establish recruitment initiatives. The committees responsible for these recruitment initiatives should also be diverse.
  4. Promotion of compassion across the department for hardships faced, especially in light of the shared challenge of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Individual actions can include relaxing deadlines and evaluation criteria. Broadly, the expectations of what’s required to finish a PhD or receive tenure should be re-evaluated in place of only providing more time. Formal processes to request accommodations for important evaluations beyond the pandemic should also be in place. One option could also be to create a shared fund for students who need to take mental health leave, similar to the existing fund for parental leave.

The Commitments by DIBS for the community are: 

  1. Create an easily accessible compilation of already existing on and off-campus resources for equity-seeking individuals. These resources can include potential grants, career opportunities, workshops, and mental health support. Once aggregated, these resources will be made easily available to mentor figures, to facilitate their recommendation.
  2. Draft and spearhead development of a departmental code of conduct. Collect examples of codes of conduct used by labs across the department and create a template for other labs to use.

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