Michigan Minds: Studying Social Inequities Affecting STEM Professionals

February 11, 2021

ANN ARBOR – In this episode of Michigan Minds, Erin Cech, assistant professor in the department of sociology in the College of Literature, Science, & the Arts, and faculty associate at the Population Studies Center, explains her research examining cultural processes of inequality. She also explores the importance of studying inequities in STEM, and her recent research into the disparities that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) STEM professionals.

Cech explains that while some researchers focus on structural processes like government and economic issues, her focus is on the underlying beliefs that can be problematic.

“As a researcher, I look at those cultural beliefs and practices, and rather than focusing on those things that are overtly biased, overt forms of sexism or racism or heteronormativity, I think about the things that fly under the radar of our expectations for egalitarian treatment,” she says.

When she started her higher education journey, Cech was in electrical engineering. She wanted to contribute to technologies and practices that helped people, and found that there were some practices that concerned her—particularly the sexism and heteronormativity she experienced herself within STEM programs.

“That really troubled me, so I sought out additional training. I got a degree both in engineering and in sociology, and sought opportunities to understand these processes at a deeper level,” she says.

It’s important to study and discuss the inequality in STEM programs, she explains, because everyone should have the opportunity to pursue a career in STEM without barriers. And because lacking diversity is bad for scientific knowledge overall.

“There’s all this research that has come out of the last decade that shows that when you have diverse teams, you come up with better ideas. We are facing many crises from climate crises to sociopolitical crises, to really difficult questions about surveillance and use of technology by those in positions of power,” Cech says.

“We want the best and the brightest in those decision-making arenas, regardless of their own socio-demographics. So it’s good for society and it’s good for science to have as many diverse perspectives as possible.”

Using quantitative and qualitative work, Cech strives to triangulate the kinds of processes that prevent inclusion. She provides an example called de-politicization, which is the belief that cultural, social, and political concerns should be ignored in STEM work.

Erin Cech

“That’s not actually the reality of the situation. STEM is always inherently cultural, political, and social because the people who do this work are humans. I like to say that the electrons are not whispering to us what about them we should study. We, as a social community, come together to decide what’s relevant, what’s appropriate, and what is tangential,” she says.

Her most recent project utilized data of over 25,000 STEM professionals to examine the experiences of LGBTQ persons within the context of STEM. Cech discusses that there is quite a bit of research about the inequalities facing people of color and women in the context of STEM, but there wasn’t yet a good sense of how LGBTQ persons are affected.

“What we found is not only were there these experiences of feeling socially marginalized, but LGBTQ persons were more likely to get the sense that their colleagues didn’t respect the work that they did. They had fewer professional opportunities, and they were even more likely to want to leave STEM entirely,” she says.

In order to make serious progress to achieve diversity and equality in STEM programs, Cech says the focus can’t solely be on fixing minoritized and marginalized populations.

“We have to change STEM itself, and that means changing what we think of as the ideal scientist or the ideal engineer, and what it means to be excellent in STEM to be more inclusive of a much wider array of considerations.”

This episode of Michigan Minds is a part of a special series focused on women in STEM as we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11. Listen to more episodes from this series.