Diversity in the geosciences and the impact of social media

A post by Anne JeffersonResearchBlogging.orgOne year ago, Kim Hannula, Pat Campbell, Suzanne Franks, and I launched a survey about women geoscientists reading and writing in the blogosphere. We presented the results at the Geological Society of America meeting, and Kim wrote a great post summarizing and discussing our data. Then I took Kim’s post, polished it up with great wording and thinking suggestions from all of the co-authors and submitted it for publication. It went out to reviewers and a few months later, we were accepted for publication.

In the September issue of GSA Today, you can find our article on The Internet as a resource and support network for diverse geoscientists. We wrote the article with with the idea of reaching beyond the audience that already reads blogs (or attends education/diversity sessions at GSA), with the view that we might be able to open some eyes as to why time spent on-line reading and writing blogs and participating in Twitter might be a valuable thing for geoscientists to be doing. And, of course, we had some data to support our assertions.

GSA Today is an open-access journal, so everyone can and should go ahead and read the whole 2-page paper. But if you want a few highlights, here are some selections from the paper:

The online opportunities for mentoring, networking, and knowledge sharing may be particularly valuable for women and minority geoscientists. Virtual networks offer opportunities to provide support and reduce the professional isolation that can be felt in physical work environments where there are few colleagues of a similar gender, race, or ethnicity. …

Women reported professional and social benefits from reading blogs. We used a five-point scale (1: strongly agree; 3: neutral; 5: strongly disagree) to assess perceived benefits. Of the professional benefits, respondents were most positive about learning things outside their specialty (avg. 1.9), followed by learning within their specialty (avg. 2.3), learning about pedagogy (avg. 2.4), and learning about technology (avg. 2.5). Based on these responses, we conclude that these women blog readers perceive positive professional benefits from their online reading. This suggests that social and other online media could be strategically used to supplement the resources available to all geoscientists, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, geographic location, or employment status. …

Geoscience students perceived the strongest benefits from blog reading, while faculty most strongly agreed that blogs helped them find role models and normalize their experience by finding that many other faculty share their experiences and perspectives. Women in industry perceived less social benefit from blog reading than those in academia, but women in government were the most negative about their blog-reading experiences. In particular, their responses indicated that blog reading had not been helpful to them in finding role models. …

Blogs and other social media may provide a source of community and role models for women geoscientists and help in the recruitment and retention of women from undergraduate education to faculty or industry careers. Our survey results show that blogs are already providing valuable benefits to white, academic women geoscientists, but that existing social media networks could be doing a better job of supporting minority geoscientists and those outside academia. We believe that professional societies, employers, funding agencies, and individual geoscientists should recognize the potential value of social media for supporting a diverse geoscience community. To be effective, such recognition should be accompanied by policies that encourage geoscientists to actively participate in geoscience-related social media opportunities. …

As a white woman geoscientist in academia, I have definitely personally and professionally benefited from my blog reading and writing time. (I even have a publication to show for it!) But I would to love to hear more from minority and outside-of-academia geoscientists about what blogs, Twitter, and other internet-based forms of support could be doing to better support you. As you can see from the paragraph above, what we ended up advocating was that institutional support for blogging and blog-reading would help increase participation. We thought that, with increased participation, more minority and outside-of-academia geosciences voices would emerge, helping others find support, community, role models, and mentoring in voices similar to their own. Meanwhile those of us closer to the white/academic end of the spectrum could learn from all that a diverse geoscientist community has to offer.

One final note, I’m a newbie member of the Diversity in the Geosciences committee for the Geological Society of America. If you have ideas for how GSA could be doing a better job of promoting and supporting diversity off-line and/or on-line, please let me know.

Jefferson, A.J., Hannula, K.A., Campbell, P.B., & Franks, S.E. (2010). The Internet as a resource and support network for diverse geoscientists GSA Today, 20 (9), 59-61 : 10.1130/GSATG91GW.1

Categories: bloggery, by Anne, publication
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Comments (7)

  1. Brian Romans says:

    Anne, this is fantastic! I’m thrilled you and your co-authors put the work in to write this and reach out to the GSA Today readership. I’ll be interested to hear what feedback you get.

  2. Scicurious says:

    Congratulations! I think this publication is a really great success for building community and increasing diversity in the geosciences. Also, it’s just generally a great article. :)

  3. Katharine North says:

    Great post, Anne (and Kim and others!). As a young, female geoscientist, I’ve already benefitted from the mentoring and sense of community created by the geoblogosphere, both through blogs and Twitter. As I move beyond academia in the near future, I hope to keep those ties strong. Thanks for the research and publication!

  4. Tim says:

    Anne, while not relevant to your paper, I thought that I would add my 2 cents.

    It was the blogging community that re-awakened my interest geology. Many years ago, family commitments forced me to leave my institution. At the time, I was near completion of a BS, but as I grew older, kids and family forestalled my return.

    About 10 years ago, I suffered a debilitating injury that eventually cost me my job. I trudged along for a few years at a night job. It was at this time that I realized that I had always wanted to learn the night sky. So, in my downtime, I went outside with star charts and binocs… and cell phone internet!

    This led me to Dr. Plaits blog(on my cell phone)

    But, I am getting ahead of my self. A few years ago, after a terrible personal lost. I discovered the internet on the “big screen”.

    I noticed that my daughter spent a lot of time on-line. So, probably out of boredom, I started exploring this new(to me) medium. That, of course, led to the realization that a lot of people think like I. PZ’s blog led to your’s, and from there, I discovered many more.

    Over the past couple of years, reading geology blogs, I re-discovered a passion that I had, sort of, lost. Sure, I still spent time at outcrops collecting inverts, but what I saw was brick a brack! It was the blogging community that helped me realize that fossils are a tool.

    So, returning to the community of my alma mater, I contacted the dept., and there was a program designed for folks like me.

    Concluding, I would like to thank my daughter, the blogging community, and my institution.

    Thanks Y’all.

    P.S. Sorry, for the disjointed nature.I have had a few; too many???

  5. Maitri says:

    Nice post and paper, Anne. Congratulations to all authors. Attracting, retaining and engaging female and minority professionals is a long-standing topic of unresolved discussion at all major geology (and science) departments. I am on the alumni board of the University of Wisconsin’s geology department and we’ve found that competitive scholarships are key, but the problem really lies in a) the predominant white-male paradigm of academic achievement which affects the work of scientists like you and me, and b) science education and accessibility at a lower, grade- to high-school level. Furthermore, people in general, and not just women and minority groups, migrate to where they find the most cultural similarity and sense of community support.

    Still, there is something that bothers me about this approach and that comes from my own experience – throughout my academic life, I have never looked at myself as female or a minority and just as a scientist and technologist who wants to achieve the most in her chosen profession. Be it in academia or the corporate world in which I now work, I’ve always competed or achieved on my own merits and accomplishments, so there is an unavoidable sense of condescension when white people, and admirably so, sit around and discuss the inclusion of women and minorities, when this conversation needs to happen inside these communities in question. Minorities, especially, avoid certain life or work paths not necessarily because it’s not available to them, but because they don’t want it to seem as if they were helped.

    So, a great next step is to work to break past the very real digital divide and form real relationships with existing and potential minority and female scientists in their own spaces (which through years of blogging on New Orleans and Asian-American issues I have found are not the taken-for-granted channels like blogs and Twitter, but more MySpace, member-only forums and, mostly, word of mouth).

    But I would to love to hear more from minority and outside-of-academia geoscientists about what blogs, Twitter, and other internet-based forms of support could be doing to better support you.

    I addressed minorities in the previous paragraph. As for outside-of-academia geoscientists, there has got to be more of give and take and a better understanding of how scientists communicate in general. As a corporate scientist, I find that academia has major strides to make in communicating results and not hoarding them until publication in a hard-to-access journal only to be shared amongst subdisciplinary peers. For example, I conduct research on the computer simulation of the high-strain destruction of city-scale geographies; it is virtually impossible to find quality research on aspects of this topic although you know it’s being done. My company, on the other hand, is constantly tweeting and touting our results and offerings (admittedly to attract clients, but our work gets out there). Scientists will always find one another, but how to remove this overall suspicion and research hoarding between the academic and public realms? It comes down to a culture of open communication, regardless of your title or place in society, and not whether we blog or not, although blogs and Twitter can accomplish this more efficiently.

    Apologies for the essay and it may not all make sense, but as a minority female who lives online and has conducted academic and corporate research, there are a lot of interesting issues and buttons your post brought up. The biggest contribution we can make really is that we continue the dialogue.

  6. Thanks for your comments and compliments everyone. I want to pick up on a few threads in Maitri’s thoughtful comment. I think there is a key difference between attracting a new generation of diverse geoscientists and making sure we retain diversity in the current crop of geosciences students and professionals. I don’t think that social media can do much to help *attract* new geoscientists, but I do think it can help to create community and support for those people who have already realized they are interested in a geosciences career.

    As for attracting new geoscientists, I think Maitri is completely right that efforts need to be focused on face-to-face outreach in the pre-college grades. And, I think, this outreach needs to, at least in some cases, explicitly address the fact that students will be less attracted to places and careers where they don’t very much cultural similarity and community support. Building those aspects into pre-college geoscience outreach programs (and then continuing them into college and beyond) might be a way to attract and retain diversity. Of course, as pointed out in a recent AGU Eos article (available to members only unfortunately), successful outreach programs are often at the whim of unstable funding and there are not enough efforts to figure out how to systematically scale up and transfer lessons learned in one place to another.

    Maitri says “there is an unavoidable sense of condescension when white people, and admirably so, sit around and discuss the inclusion of women and minorities, when this conversation needs to happen inside these communities in question.” This statement bothers me, because I think I understand what Maitri is getting at, but I’m not sure there’s an easy solution. I think it would be great if minority communities internally had conversations along the lines of “there’s not enough of us in the geosciences; here’s what we’re going to do about it.” But I don’t think it’s fair to expect those communities to do it all on their own, without the active support of allies in the majority. Here’s why: It places another added burden on the exact people who are already feeling somewhat on the outside of the geosciences community. It asks minority to geoscientists to speak for and take the responsibility for others in their minority, when they may not want to so prominently self identify or have that responsibility. See for example, Maitri’s first sentence in that paragraph, where she says “throughout my academic life, I have never looked at myself as female or a minority and just as a scientist.” People who choose to take that view (which is a perfectly fine choice), may not as likely to initiate conversation and take actions as those that do more consciously and actively self-identify as a minority geoscientist….which makes the group tasked with fixing the diversity issues even smaller. And when the burden falls on a really small group of people, and everyone else gets a pass not to care, it can be extraordinarily difficult to effect real change.

    So I think there should be a place for majority geoscientists or white women geoscientists (like me) who look around them, see a diversity problem and want to be allies and sensitive helpers to contribute to the discussion, actions, and solutions. But the important thing is that be a dialogue across the spectrum of diverse geoscientists that is sensitive to multiple viewpoints. And that’s why Maitri’s comment about an “unavoidable sense of condescension” is really bothering me. Is it really unavoidable? What can I be doing to at least minimize the sense of condescension? Or is it just that as a white woman, I exude so much cultural hegemony that it overshadows and negates any good I might try to do on behalf of minorities that are non-white?

    Maitri goes on to make some other interesting points about the academic/private sector divide, but I think that’s enough for me at this time of morning.

  7. Maitri says:


    I once tutored a part-Native-American football player who, after a few sessions, said to me, “You’re the first tutor who hasn’t talked down to me, because you’re not white.” Whether that statement came from a lifetime of this young man’s resistance to the predominant white culture or his former white tutors took him on as a charity case I do not know, but this feeling of cultural exclusion is very palpable and present, and it is something the white majority is up against regardless of the purity of its intent. The point I am trying to make here is that no person or group, especially a hard-working female or minority scientist, wants to be treated as a project, a charitable result of the goodwill of the cultural majority. Yes, unfortunately, this discussion brimmeth over with cultural hegemony issues because, while you want everyone to be on equal footing, there are many in your place who do this because it’s the cool thing to do or because they were forced to. As we see everyday now in this silly Ground Zero Mosque issue and others like it, we are going to have to seize and widen that narrowing common-sense ground between cultural fetishism and latent/outright bigotry.

    The first thing that has to go in the geoscience community overall, and you have wonderfully demonstrated this personally, is the Us-Them mentality (even a latent one). Secondly, Place and Context are very powerful in a cultural dialogue; where this conversation happens and on whose terms wholly determines its success. And, don’t ever thing that your active support isn’t important! It is critical! But, as I said in my previous comment, it is imperative that we form genuine relationships with existing minority and female scientists in their own spaces, wherever they may be, and actively support that. Why is it that these folks aren’t on blogs and Twitter; are they elsewhere? Where is that? Can there be a third space where all of us can get together just to talk science, careers and the issues that hold us back, and not worry about it being our space or their space?

    In the data-driven field of science, there is only one viewpoint: the right one or the best theory to date. But, there are many different modes of thinking and research questions that diverse geoscientists bring to the table. Scientists like me who identify as scientist first and then female or minority will always find our way into the thick of things, and emit loud complaints if something or someone keeps us down because of sex or skin color. But, for those who can’t do that, yes, absolutely, let’s fight for them. There is a lot of cultural weight here, however. So, less championing and more real friendship and concern is what I ask for. This cannot happen en masse, but by naturally and organically forming a relationship at a time.

    I hope we can build on our conversation here.

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