Diversity in the Life Sciences: Why It’s Not Enough

Feb 14, 2023

By Warner Santiago, Senior Director of DEI and Workforce Development, MassBio

While diversity is important for producing the highest quality science, it’s not enough. The point of promoting diversity isn’t simply to have differently colored bodies coexisting in the lab, but to ensure everyone can show up and contribute as their full selves. Without a culture of inclusion and equity, diversity can represent another form of oppression and exclusion. Without broader culture change within our discipline, we’ll likely continue to see: 

  • Black, Latinx, and Indigenous PhD scientists, as well as their White and Asian women peers, reporting significantly less interest in pursuing academic research careers than their White and Asian male colleagues, despite achieving the same or higher levels of research productivity 
  • Significant underrepresentation of scientists from many Asian backgrounds in leadership positions despite their substantial numerical presence in our workforce 
  • Promoting diversity without committing to racial justice; reinforcing the social hierarchies that have marred our society and enterprise for centuries; directly harming scientists from underrepresented minorities (URM) and other minority groups; and impairing the entire life sciences community, which loses out on their contributions. 

How We Move Forward: Listen, Acknowledge, and Act 

To move forward, the scientific community—especially those who are in positions of power—must listen to those who’ve lived with systemic and racial inequity, acknowledge where we are and how we got here (including our own roles in perpetuating inequity), and then act to make things better. 

Listening means: 

  • Taking the time to understand the well-documented ways in which racism and other forms of bias infect our enterprise, and the emotional toll they inflict 
  • Providing the space for URM trainees and colleagues to share their experiences with racism (while also recognizing their agency to choose not to relive potentially traumatizing experiences) and what they want from their institutions and colleagues 
  • Consulting with and learning from the expertise of our social scientist who’ve developed robust tools for understanding human and organizational psychology that can equip us on our journey toward progress 
  • Importantly, listening must be done to learn, not to defend ourselves or the perceived meritocracy of our institutions. 

Acknowledging means: 

  • Clearly describing where the scientific community stands with respect to racial equity 
  • Recognizing the multifaceted forms of racism (beyond implicit bias) that we’ve allowed to exist in the life sciences community 
  • Interrogating the unique manners in which racism and sexism intersect to harm Black, Latina, and Indigenous women in science. 
  • Listening and acknowledging, especially as it relates to matters of race, can be hard, but it’s necessary to lean into the discomfort if we want science to be better. When we realize that we—through action or inaction—have failed, and that these failures have harmed those around us, we have a choice. We can lean into these hard truths and do the work of repair, or we can continue to deny the harms we’ve caused, which only metastasizes them.  

Moreover, when acting locally, we must carefully consider the context and available resources, and then make changes to address the specific challenges in the environment. Specificity is key. Generalized solutions for scientists with identities other than those that have been dominant (e.g., White, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle class, and male) won’t advance racial equity or inclusion within our system. More effective solutions can mean, for example, adapting models to promote success for the URM workforce, or redesigning the hiring and advancement processes to build and equitably evaluate a diverse applicant pool. As we act, we should collect data to assess whether our initiatives are achieving their goals. Continual action will be necessary, which means guarding the hard-earned gains we’ve made while continuing to develop new strategies to ensure our system becomes what it can and should be—one that welcomes and supports us all. 

The challenges the life science community faces in achieving racial equity are common in many professions, yet we can make real progress if we act to make positive change. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people need what all other people need: opportunity, resources, and respect. As we recreate our spaces to be more just, equitable, and inclusive, the result will be enhanced diversity, better science, and ultimately a better society. 


Asai, D. Excluded. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 21(1). 2019 

Gibbs, Kenneth. Promoting diversity and advancing racial equity in the biomedical sciences. ASBC. 2021 

Editors of the Harvard Educational Review. Unraveling the Double Bind: Women of Color in STEM. Harvard Educational Review (2011) 

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