Exclusionary behaviors reinforce historical biases and contribute to loss of talent in the earth sciences

published Feb 23, 2023 3:39pm


As the first and largest comprehensive workplace climate survey (>2000 completed surveys) of the earth and space scientists using validated tools, our paper published this week in the American Geophysical Union journal Earth's Future, provides some of the first quantitative evidence of the frequency and pervasiveness of a range of discriminatory behaviors in our field. We show disproportionate impacts of harassment, incivility, and negative identity-based language by gender - beyond the binary-, race and ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation, and career stage, with early-career geoscientists reporting more negative environments than later career stages. 

All of these groups report more negative career outcomes. For example, up to half of the respondents from historically excluded racial and ethnic groups report considering leaving their institution, changing careers, or leaving the geosciences altogether. "Our data provide quantitative evidence on how negative experiences and hostility in the workplace could be pushing some historically excluded groups out of the geosciences, likely contributing to continued low diversity in the field" stated Emily Diaz-Vallejo, one of the researchers and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. 

Even where the majority experience positive workplace environments, historically excluded groups disproportionately experience exclusionary behaviors. "Further, our data illustrate that an individual can experience both, e.g, their accomplishments can be lauded on their institution's website, while they endure ongoing and unchecked harassment" stated Dr. Rebecca Barnes, now at the Belmont Forum and one of the study's investigators.  

To our knowledge, this survey is the first comprehensive assessment of sexual harassment in the geosciences using the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire, a validated tool to measure a range of behaviors categorized as sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment. We found found that gender harassment, which is the least commonly recognized form of sexual harassment, is the most prevalent and a common denominator of other types of harassment. Our research underscores the importance of assessing behaviors, such as bullying and intimidation, incivility, and discriminatory language, that are not unlawful but can have harmful impacts on wellbeing, on career advancement, and on retention in the geosciences. One of the investigators, Dr. Blair Schneider from the Kansas Geological Survey remarked: "These findings amplify the pressing need to move beyond relying on legal definitions and start addressing these behaviors earlier when they occur." 

Historically, many efforts to address low diversity in the geosciences have focused on the recruitment of students into the discipline, which is important, yet as lead author, Dr. Erika Marin-Spiotta from the University of Wisconsin-Madison reflects: "Our data reveal that we critically need to address workplace behaviors affecting the retention of those already in the discipline." The prevalence and disproportionate impact of exclusionary behaviors hinder the sustainability and resilience of geosciences as a discipline and of geoscientists as practitioners and members of society. We also found that historically excluded groups report greater levels of discomfort with the presence of alcohol in professional settings, providing important data to inform organizational interventions.  

Our study focuses on a range of identities that do not conform to stereotypes of "geoscientists" and have not, traditionally, been the focus of efforts to assess diversity, equity, and inclusion. These data fill a very important gap, as there is little data available for underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, non-binary, transgender, disabled individuals, or those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, pansexual, and asexual in the geosciences, specifically, and in many other STEM disciplines. While many studies of workplace climate focus on one institution, by working with five professional geoscience societies and associations, our survey captures the experiences of individuals across sectors, career stages, and organizations. The findings from this survey has informed work funded by a new NSF ADVANCE award to the research team. 

This research was conducted by the ADVANCEGeo Partnership and funded by a NSF ADVANCE award to transform workplace climate and culture in the geosciences. We thank our partners the American Geophysical Union, Earth Science Women's Network, Association for Women Geoscientists, Geological Society of America and Soil Science Society of America for relaying our survey to their membership. Our team of authors includes geoscience researchers with expertise in strategies to advance diversity in STEM and social scientists with expertise in assessing workplace climate, including an organizational psychologist who is a leading expert in measuring sexual harassment and incivility. 


Article: Marin-Spiotta, E., E.J. Diaz-Vallejo, R.T. Barnes, A. Mattheis, B. Schneider, A.A. Berhe, M.G. Hastings, B. Williams and V. Magley. 2023. Exclusionary behaviors reinforce historical biases and contribute to loss of talent in the earth sciencesEarth's Future 11: doi.org/10.1029/2022EF002912