A primer on diversity

Contributed by Aara'L Yarber, Pennsylvania State University and UCAR Diversity and Inclusion Fellow


If you were to ask 20 people "What is diversity?", it is likely that you will get 20 different answers. Diversity is an evolving concept that is rarely defined in the research literature.

On the most fundamental level, diversity means "difference." Diversity is a characteristic of groups, not of individuals. You can talk about a member of a diverse community but not about a diverse individual.

Diversity refers to all of the ways in which people differ, including primary characteristics, such as age, race, gender, ethnicity, mental and physical abilities, and sexual orientation; and secondary characteristics, such as nationality, education, income, religion, work experience, language skills, geographic location, family status, communication style, military experience, learning style, economic background, and work style.

Defining diversity becomes the first challenge for any institution. Institutions should develop their own definition for diversity that is dependent on their specific needs for creating a representative pool of participants.

The idea of diversity can be further complicated and be mistaken for terminology such as equity, multiculturalism and inclusion.

Inclusion exists when traditionally marginalized individuals and groups feel a sense of belonging and are empowered to participate in majority culture as full and valued members of the community, shaping and redefining that culture in different ways.

Multiculturalism acknowledges and promotes the acceptance and understanding of different cultures living together within a community. As such, multiculturalism promotes the productive coexistence of different races, ethnicities, and other cultural groups in a given social environment.

From: Williams, D. A. (2013). Strategic diversity leadership: Activating change and transformation in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.


Primary and Secondary Characteristics of Diversity

Primary characteristics of diversity are usually the most visible; for example, gender, race, sexual orientation, and age, although often these may not be apparent. The visibility of primary characteristics is critical to the assumptions made by the majority society about the presumed worth of minority group members. The values and judgements assigned to these attributes by the majority group may determine whether minority group members are accepted as full participants.

Secondary characteristics are defined by way of experience. Secondary characteristics, such as family status, education, income, and communication style are vital in shaping one's educational and career trajectories. Secondary characteristics account for human agency and choice, so the influence of secondary characteristics is more variable and presumably less defining, although not always, than primary characteristics. In structurally inequitable societies where access to opportunities is not equal across populations, personal choice in secondary characteristics is not always fully realized.

Read more:

Loden, M. (1996). Implementing diversity. Chicago: Irwin Professional.

Williams, D. A. (2013). Strategic diversity leadership: Activating change and transformation in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus


Why is diversity important?

Multiple studies have shown that racial and gender diversity enhance creativity and innovation as well as strengthen complex problem-solving in work groups. The capacity of geoscientists to recognize and understand new scientific problems depends on the field's ability to recruit scientists from various backgrounds who are able to analyze problems in creative ways. We also believe that people from a diversity of backgrounds should have access to participating in scientific careers if they are interested in the field, regardless of the ultimate economic value of their potential contributions.

What does the research show?

  • Given that most scientific advancements are achieved through collaboration, people from diverse backgrounds provide different values, approaches, and perspectives to better address scientific problems.
  • Individuals within diverse groups tend to prepare more thoroughly and work harder to develop arguments as a result of collaborating with people different from themselves.
  • Homogeneous groups are more likely to practice "groupthink" due to premature comfort and overconfidence.
  • Solutions achieved by diverse groups have been shown to exceed solutions achieved by high-ability homogeneous groups.
  • Diverse work groups produce greater quality publications and more citations than that of homogeneous groups.
  • Key facets of identity are critical to the way one views and experiences the world. The differences of perspective due to demographic diversity, specifically gender and race, make measurable improvements in decision-making and problem-solving groups.

What does diversity look like in the geosciences?

  • Recipients of geoscience bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees have lower racial and ethnic diversity than other STEM graduates (1).
  • Between 1973 and 2016, only 20 Native American, 69 Black and 241 Hispanic or Latino women received PhDs in ocean, atmosphere, and earth sciences, constituting only 1.46% of all doctorates awarded over 40 years (2).
  • Asian Americans, which are not considered a "minority" group in STEM by the U.S. National Science Foundation, obtained only 6% of all doctorates in the geosciences in 2016. This umbrella term hides large differences in representation of different groups, including Native Pacific Islanders (Native Hawaiians and Polynesians) and Southeast Asian Americans (Filipino, Thai, and Vietnamese) who are underrepresented in STEM (3).
  • In 2012, faculty of color comprised only 3.8% of tenured or tenure track positions in the top 100 earth science departments (4).
  • In 2016, women represented only 20% of all geoscience faculty (5). This is an increase from 14% in 2006 (6).
  • Research on LGBTQ people in STEM is scarce because they are often left out of mainstream diversity initiatives (7, 8), yet studies indicate that LGBTQ people are less represented in STEM fields than expected (4).

  • Sources for Geoscience:

    (1) Baber et al. 2010. Increasing Diversity in the Geosciences: Recruitment Programs and Student Self-Efficacy. Journal of Geoscience Education 58: 32-42. (STEM = science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)

    (2) Bernard, R.E. and Cooperdock, E.H. 2018. No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geoscience 11: 292-295.

    (3) Didion et al. 2012. Colloquy on minority males in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

    (4) Nelson, D. J. in Diversity in the Scientific Community Volume 1: Quantifying Diversity and Formulating Success (eds. Nelson, D. J. and Cheng, H. N.) Pp. 15–86 ACS, Washington, DC, 2017

    (5) Wilson, C.E. Percentage of female faculty working within geoscience research fields. American Geosciences Institute Geoscience Currents 136: 8 March 2019.

    (6) Wilson, C.E. Female Geoscience Faculty Representation Grew Steadily Between 2006-2016. American Geosciences Institute Geoscience Currents 119: 17 August 2017.

    (7) Freeman, J. 2018. LGBTQ scientists are still left out. Nature 559: 27-28.

    (8) Cech, E. A. and Pham, M. V. 2017. Queer in STEM organizations: Workplace disadvantages for LGBT employees in STEM related federal agencies. Social Sciences 6: 12. doi: 10.3390/socsci6010012"



    Sources on Diversity Research:

    Antonio, A. L., et al. 2004. Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students. Psychological Science 15: 507-510

    Freeman, R.B., and Huang, W. 2014. Collaboration: Strength in diversity. Nature 513: 305-305.

    Galinsky, A.D., et al. 2015. Maximizing the Gains and Minimizing the Pains of Diversity. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10: 742-748.

    Herring C. 2009. Does diversity pay? Race, gender, and the business case for diversity.American Sociological Review, 74, 208–224.

    Jehn, K.A., et al. 1999. Why Differences Make a Difference: A Field Study of Diversity, Conflict, and Performance in Workgroups.Administrative Science Quarterly 44: 741.

    Lount, R.B., and Phillips, K.W. 2007. Working harder with the out-group: The impact of social category diversity on motivation gains. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103: 214-224.

    Page S.E. 2007. The difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Watson, W.E., Kumar, K., and Michaelsen, L.K. 1993. Cultural Diversity's Impact On Interaction Process and Performance: Comparing Homogeneous and Diverse Task Groups. Academy of Management Journal 36: 590-602.



    Read more:

    Huntoon, J.E. 2016. Increasing Diversity in the Geosciences. Retrieved from https://eos.org/project-updates/increasing-diversity-in-the-geosciences

    Huntoon, J.E, and Lane, M.J. 2007. Diversity in the Geosciences and Successful Strategies for Increasing Diversity. Journal of Geoscience Education 55: 447-457.

    Jehn, K.A., Northcraft, G.B., and Neale, M.A. 1999. Why Differences Make a Difference: A Field Study of Diversity, Conflict, and Performance in Workgroups. Administrative Science Quarterly 44: 741.

    Morris, V. R., Joseph, E., Smith, S., and Yu, T. 2012. The Howard University Program in Atmospheric Sciences (HUPAS): A Program Exemplifying Diversity and Opportunity. Journal of Geoscience Education 60: 45-53.

    O'Connell, S., and Holmes, M. A. 2011. Obstacles to the recruitment of minorities into the geosciences: A call to action. GSA Today 21: 52-54.

    Editorial. Of rocks and social justice. 2016. Nature Geoscience 9: 797-797.

    Stokes, P. J., Levine, R., and Flessa, K. W. 2015. Choosing the Geoscience Major: Important Factors, Race/Ethnicity, and Gender. Journal of Geoscience Education 63: 250-263.

    Williams, Q. L., Morris, V., and Furman, T. 2007. A real-world plan to increase diversity in the geosciences. Physics Today 60: 54-55.