Diversity challenging not just tech companies but universities too

Things to be learned from Silicon valley? Thermos, CC BY-SA

Last week, MIT released a report that closely examines the state of diversity within the university.

The report considers MIT’s diversity not just in terms of students and faculty, but also looks at the Institute’s non-faculty research staff who represent approximately 28% of the institution as a whole.

Releasing the report was a brave move for the university. It provides a frank and realistic evaluation of where MIT stands in the heated debate concerning diversity and inclusion in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

As members of the MIT community who also research and advocate for diversity both within and beyond the ivory tower, we were interested in understanding how these developments ran in parallel with ongoing debates about diversity in other high-profile STEM spaces, such as the tech industry in Silicon Valley.

Given the rising concern and criticism surrounding the lack of diversity in the tech sector, how do prestigious and influential STEM establishments like MIT compare when we dig into the actual numbers?

The results

The effort was spearheaded by the newly formed office of MIT’s Institute and Community Equity Officer (ICEO), Ed Bertschinger.

Prior to taking on the role of ICEO, Professor Bertschinger served as the head of MIT’s Department of Physics, where he successfully established initiatives to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities who graduate from the department. This latest report is the result of extensive research Bertschinger and his team conducted during his first 18 months as ICEO.

Some of the news is very good – MIT has experienced great success in diversifying the undergraduate student body in terms of including women (45%) and underrepresented minorities (24%). (MIT uses the term under-represented minorities, shortened to URMs, to refer to US citizens or permanent residents who are Black, Native American, Hispanic or Latino, and two or more races including any of these.)

However, there has been less success in diversifying faculty and graduate student populations. Racial minorities in particular remain significantly underrepresented compared to their overall proportion of the US population. The most sobering statistics concern the percentage of URMs occupying positions as postdoctoral fellows (2%) and research staff (4%), positions that often serve as critical stepping stones to promising careers in both the private and public sectors.

It is difficult to compare MIT’s numbers to other universities. The MIT ecosystem is unusual in terms of the remarkably strong presence of non-faculty research staff on campus. Lincoln Laboratories, for example, a federally funded unit focused on national security, employs around 3,400 staff and scientists.

In light of this large population of professional researchers, tech companies like Apple and Google may provide as appropriate of a point of comparison as other research universities.

How does MIT compare to Google and Apple?

Bertschinger suggests this sort of comparison in his report, describing MIT as “in some respects a conglomerate of more than 1000 business units” which averages out to a remarkable one per faculty member.

Of course, MIT’s professors are focused on teaching and service as well as their research interests. This suggests that they should be held to higher standards on diversity and inclusion than for-profit businesses. For that reason, drawing comparisons to large tech companies is an interesting parallel to consider given the mounting pressure the latter have been coming under to demonstrate their commitment to greater diversity.

What the university report highlights, however, is that companies like Apple and Twitter are substantially outperforming MIT across these metrics.

This side-by-side comparison raises important questions about whether the conversation surrounding “diversity in tech” should be broadened to include elite research institutions like MIT, which often draw from and feed into the same talent pool used by top tech companies in the private sector.

Why the disparity?

The findings of the MIT report may be surprising to those who are familiar with the university’s long track record as a testing ground and advocate of affirmative action.

In fact, the institution’s active commitment to diversity over the decades has resulted in dramatic increases in the number of women and minorities admitted as undergraduates, graduates and faculty. A conscious decision was made in each of these areas to recognize the role that cognitive diversity, or diversity in the perspectives and tools we use to solve problems, played in maintaining MIT’s status as a world-class academic institution.

The areas where MIT struggles most with diversity are the ones where a centralized effort to diversify hasn’t taken place.

As Ethan personally knows from running the Center for Civic Media, most hiring decisions for non-faculty research positions tend to be made by individuals acting independently of a formal process or set of standards.

This independence is premised on the idea that principal investigators, often people at the very forefront of their fields, are best positioned to identify who is the “best of the best” for their teams. However, in such a system of individualized decision making, we run the risk of perpetuating a “mirror-tocracy,” rather than a pure meritocracy. This phrase was famously coined by the internet entrepreneur Mitch Kapor in order to describe our tendency to easily recognize and reward excellence in individuals who remind us most of ourselves.

It may be that MIT is suffering from some of the same problems faced by companies in tech - a narrow pool of applicants for competitive positions, a lack of mentors and diverse aspirational figures and a “bro-grammer culture” that is skewed towards white males.

Indeed, given how dependent the tech economy is on highly skilled technical labor, it’s also worth considering how the demographics in academia impact the development of a diverse tech workforce more broadly.

Lessons from Silicon Valley

MIT and other elite research institutions can learn from the efforts currently being spearheaded by leading companies in the tech sector.

As a first step, many of these companies have begun to release more data about their employee demographics and make public commitments to improving these numbers.

Over the last year and a half Google has begun to provide training on implicit bias for its employees.

Implicit bias stems from the mental shortcuts we take in order to fill gaps in our knowledge about someone, or make sense of the complex world around us, by drawing from trends and patterns observed in our prior experiences.

One of the primary recommendations of the recent ICEO report is that MIT should provide implicit bias training for everyone in the MIT community, as such bias can affect every form of assessment and evaluation on campus, including student reviews of faculty teaching. At the very minimum, MIT should require such training for anyone with hiring responsibilities in the Institute.

While it may not be possible, or desirable, to completely centralize the hiring of research staff and postdocs, it may be a good idea for MIT to regularly review such decisions in the aggregate. This would further assist in helping people to understand their own patterns and biases, and subsequently modify their behavior.

As members of the MIT community, we think that the Institute’s decision to release detailed information about its diversity is an admirable one.

We would like to call for other large research universities to similarly reflect on the biases and imbalances that may be reflected in their professional research staff population.

The more these conversations can be done in public, the faster we can get on the road to addressing the problem, which often stems from unconscious practices rather than overt discrimination.

As we’ve seen in the tech sector, such efforts are the first step in the long journey to creating organizations that are fundamentally more inclusive and diverse. These kinds of conversations are the first step to such meaningful change.