Ana María Jaramillo

08.03.2024

News

“Science claims to be an open enterprise, but in practice, this is not the case”

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Complexity Science Hub researcher Ana María Jaramillo invites us to reflect on the fundamental question: Who is allowed in the world of science? Through her insights, she challenges us to confront the existing biases, dismantle barriers, and collectively forge a path toward a truly inclusive scientific landscape.

:: Who is allowed in the world of science?

There is extensive historical evidence showing how, even today, many scientific practices such as applications, technologies, experimental designs, and interpretation of results fall into perpetuating regressive social practices such as sexism, racism, classism, and cultural cohesion. In addition, the way scientific institutions were created excludes non-privileged communities in terms of wealth and social status, which is also correlated with other variables of ethnical background and gender. 

While in recent decades, there have been enormous efforts from some international institutions to make society more inclusive in terms of gender, these interventions have been heterogeneous across different disciplines, and there is still a huge gap in assessing this problem of representation with intersectional lenses. 

Here, my answer comes framed by the fact that theoretically, in 2024, science claims to be an open enterprise where everyone could participate, but in practice, this is not the case. There are immense strong structural barriers to entering the world of science coming from marginalized communities for which their basic human rights are not even fulfilled, and neither their knowledges – please keep the plural doing reference to non-western epistemologies –  nor other cosmologies – ways of conceiving the world – are valued. 

So, in reality, and in the majority of cases, the allowance for existing in the world of science comes from being a privileged person with the means to be trained and develop intellectual and technical skills that the majority of the world’s population doesn’t have, including many intersecting categories such as women, persons from non-binary genders, low-income backgrounds, ethnically marginalized groups, with physical and neuro-divergencies, and elders.

:: Who is recognized as a science person in specific contexts?

This is related to the spaces that are open to performing scientific practices. The most easily recognizable scientists are those with socio-demographic and intellectual backgrounds that align with the majority of the scientific community, and this can change at the institutional or departmental level, as well as, in conferences or networking events. Here, the challenge is to give platforms and open spaces to those people who want to or are pursuing scientific careers and do not come from hegemonic positions and enforce interventions where the majority gives value and respect to the knowledge that the new person is bringing. 

For example, analyzing academia as a complex system, think about those fields where the predominant people are still white men from wealthy countries; then, the entrance of women from low-income countries is a disruption to the system just considering that it changes the demographics of the field. In the beginning, the collective imagination of “a scientist” from those fields is not the women from low-income countries then this “new” person is not recognized as a science person as it is not part of the majority. 

And here, different discussions about the identity of a scientist take place in terms of how they should look and behave. Common interventions about inclusion exclusively target the newcomers to behave as the norm, as in many social mobility interventions. For example, using dark colors, speaking in plain tones, not behaving emotionally, and many others. Then, there is a lack of sense of belonging in these performative acts of the daily life of those scientists who are not part of the majority, and in most cases, there is no requirement for those already in the fields to respect, value and also learn from the newcomers. 

:: What does your research say about women in science?

In my research, which is work done with collaborators, we study how the participation of women in academia has been changing over time, with heterogenous increasing values depending on the field but a general underrepresentation of women in top-ranked positions – which are related to prestige, professorships, decision-making positions, and long career – is growing at a far slower pace. 

In addition, our studies underline the way that for women in science, being a minority in terms of participation, their representation in top-ranked positions is highly unequal when you intersect other characteristics, such as their ethnical background, nationality, or socioeconomic status. For this, research conducted by our group studies the complex mechanisms behind the interaction of minority and majority groups and shows evidence about the importance of the majorities in integrating minorities to help them increase their representation in top-ranked positions. 

Specifically, in academia, with data-intensive methods, we study the biases and fairness of citation rankings for underrepresented groups and propose mitigation strategies for those biases. Academic rankings tend to be hard systems in which there are small changes over time, which makes it difficult for new scientists to rise up in the rankings; then we need to propose interventions in the system in online and physical spaces that help women, non-western, non-Anglo-Saxon, and physical and neuro-divergent people to feel included as well as having open conversations about science without the hierarchies in scientific knowledges. 

In addition, my work relies highly on increasing diversity in science, in its practices, in who is conducting science, and in which knowledges are part of it. Here, I highlight my contextual limitations about the information and knowledge that I’ve consumed and in which I’m open to learning and open spaces of discussion to raise up decolonial scientists and people in general outside the academia. 

:: Is diversity good news for women?

Increasing diversity is not merely good news for women; diversity is paramount to achieving just societies, solving social problems efficiently, reducing inequalities, and expanding the boundaries of science. Diversity needs to be accompanied by strategies that foster mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation among individuals with differing attributes, which has been largely studied. Then, diversity should extend beyond individual attributes and be comprehended in terms of the environment and culture, underscoring individual beliefs and traditions. 

Increasing diversity, it’s complex as it comes with challenges that can be explained in terms of information gain. Diversity influences three dimensions of information: range, depth, and integration. The increase in diversity does not necessarily enhance the range of information because excessive diversity can saturate the depth of information and decrease the integration of information. 

Then, increased diversity in science is also contextual-based, but it needs to be addressed from a critical view of the privileges of those already in the system. And here I would like to raise a call to well-positioned researchers who need to participate actively in improving the scientific experiences of researchers from marginalized communities. Then, it is necessary to incorporate both bottom-up and top-down approaches to account for the formalization of diverse collaborations and diversity governance. The latter could be achieved by establishing diverse groups of research policymakers dedicated to improving conditions of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

:: How can women participate more fully in science?

I would like to reframe this question as the necessity of scientific systems to enhance and increase the fairer participation of women and other non-binary researchers, from marginalized and unprivileged backgrounds in science. In our research and other literature, there is evidence about how diversity is not directly translated into inclusion and integration. Here, I appeal to the scientific community to be aware of our role as privileged researchers with substantial means to enhance representation, recognition, and resources of oppressed, vulnerable, and less privileged communities to aid in healing the harm caused by entrenched biases, stereotypes, and structural inequalities. 

At the organizational level, specific interventions should be implemented, such as the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion boards, which are in charge of advocating for a more welcoming environment in research through direct actions such as creating spaces for nursing, kindergartens near workplaces, flexible time for parenting and caring responsibilities, children’s facilities, or funding nannies at conferences. In addition, spaces and economic resources for diversity governance and discussion topics that have rules of respect for diverse mindsets need to be in place. And, as individuals, we further echo the work of Felicitas Macgilchrist and colleagues regarding citation as a political practice and advocating for citation justice by intentionally citing researchers from marginalized backgrounds.

Ana María Jaramillo is a postdoctoral fellow at the Complexity Science Hub who is intrigued by the effects of segregation and diversity on science. As part of International Women’s Day, Jaramillo will give a talk about the integration of women in science.

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