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WiSE, Graduate School Explore Remedies to Implicit Bias in STEM

WiSE panel
Panelists at a November 16 WiSE event share their perspectives how to be good allies to colleagues who face bias in STEM.

Over the past two years, Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) at Duke has held a series of events exploring implicit bias in STEM. Those events spurred discussions and a question from attendees: What can we do about it?

WiSE has been working to help answer that question. Its programming last year explored what can be done from the top down by faculty and administration. Its events this year are looking at solutions from the ground up, focusing on what students can do for each other.

WiSE panel
Chemistry Ph.D. student Felix Nwogbo (right) discusses
the issue of allies with fellow graduate students Caroline
Amoroso (left) and Victoria Nneji.

That was the theme for WiSE’s November 16 event, co-sponsored by The Graduate School. The event examined how students can be good allies for each other and create more supportive communities. Five panelists—all current Duke graduate students—shared their perspectives, and Francisco Ramos, The Graduate School’s manager of program assessment and evaluation, led a case-study discussion. [See Ramos's opening remarks about inclusion in science]

Julia Roberts and Candise Henry, WiSE’s program coordinators, said the event grew out of a suggestion by a WiSE member.

“One of our members approached us because she sometimes felt stereotyped into certain groups that she didn’t necessarily identify with,” said Henry, a Ph.D. student in earth and ocean sciences. “Most people have likely experienced some sort of typecasting at some point, so she was interested in exploring how she could be an ally to others in those instances and how others could be allies to her.”

That duality is a common situation for members of minority groups in STEM, said Roberts, a Ph.D. student in chemistry.

“There will be a time in your graduate school career when you need an ally, and there will be a time when you need to be an ally to someone,” she said. “So it’s really important we’re aware of all those instances in our own experiences for informing us about being successful allies to other people.”

Roberts and Henry said some of the major points they took away from the discussion were:

  • If someone tells you they need an ally or feel offended by something, don’t question the validity of their feelings. “Just be an ally, trust their feelings, and be there for them regardless of whether you agree with them at that particular time,” Henry said.
  • Being an ally doesn’t always require confronting the person who is making someone feel uncomfortable. “Sometimes it’s just pulling the person who needs an ally aside and saying, ‘I’m here for you; let’s not engage in this anymore,’ ” Roberts said.
  • Be mindful of the cultural bias that international students might face. “There are a lot of women in science who are very vocal about discrimination, and others who are very vocal about racial discrimination,” Henry said. “But bias against international-students is less frequently discussed because many of us Duke students have lived in the U.S. for a very long time, so we are all in the majority in that sense.”
The Graduate School's Francisco Ramos leads a
case-study discussion during the November 16
WiSE event on allies.

Ramos’s case-study discussion examined potential choices and dilemmas for someone in a position to be an ally, as well as resources on campus for dealing with sexual harassment and misconduct.

“It is important for these values of inclusivity and equality to be an integral part of Duke’s campus culture,” Ramos said. “As a part of that effort, we need to make sure students understand that they are not alone and that there are people at Duke who are specifically trained to help them handle these situations.”

WiSE’s spring 2017 symposium will continue the theme of allies. Part of the symposium will feature speakers on the topic, while the other part will be a general presentation by students and postdocs of their own research. Roberts and Henry say they want to encourage non-women to attend the symposium and other WiSE events. They were heartened to see a number of men at the November 16 event.

“Of course we have a bent toward problems that focus on women because it is WiSE,” Roberts said. “But it’s a broader issue, so we do want everybody to feel comfortable and feel involved in the conversation, because everybody is a member of Duke. These are things that are occurring and touching everyone in our lives, so it’s important for all of us to have a voice and have a discussion about it.”