Address STEM inequality by reconceiving merit

The cultural yardsticks used to measure merit in STEM are warped with bias and often devalue women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ scientists with records equal to white heterosexual male peers. To fix STEM inequality, academia must reconceive merit


University of California San Diego ,University of Michigan
4 Aug 2022
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Academic scientists value scientific excellence and believe they can judge it accurately. Yet women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ scientists, who are just as productive as their white heterosexual male peers, are routinely marginalised and devalued. To address this inequality and to improve science, academic leaders and scientists need to reconceive merit.

In our book, Misconceiving Merit, we uncover two cultural beliefs or schemas that anchor sexism, racism and heteronormativity in academic STEM. 

The “schema of scientific excellence” is the collection of qualities that serve as a cultural yardstick for measuring up the scientific worthiness of one’s colleagues. It defines characteristics like creative brilliance and assertiveness as markers of excellence, and other traits – like a concern for diversity and equity – as potential threats to it.  

The “work devotion schema” mandates that faculty approach their jobs as a vocation and penalises workers with care-giving responsibilities believed to compete with this devotion.

These schemas often mismeasure merit. They pick up on the characteristics believed to signal excellence and devotion when embodied by white heterosexual men and often miss them when embodied in other scientists. STEM needs to reconceive merit in order to address these biases. We offer four strategies to do so. 

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Strategy 1: Understand common misconceptions

First, recognise the problem. The evidence in Misconceiving Merit shows that the characteristics revered in the schemas of scientific excellence and devotion are gendered and racialised, and they aren’t even necessarily tied to scholarly productivity. For example, most faculty we studied viewed assertive leadership – being competitive and risk-taking – as a marker of scientific excellence and as more automatically assumed of white heterosexual men.  Accordingly, STEM faculty who see themselves as assertive leaders have higher average salaries than colleagues in the same departments at the same rank. Yet, these assertive faculty don’t publish more, aren’t cited more and don’t earn more grant dollars than their less assertive colleagues.

The schema of scientific excellence also devalues commitments to diversity. Among equally productive faculty, those with strong commitments to diversity feel more marginalised. Women and people of colour are often assumed to be more committed to diversity efforts than their peers and, erroneously, that this commitment undercuts their scientific productivity.

Living up to the always-working demand of the work devotion schema leaves little time for rest and non-work activities. As women are more likely to shoulder more caregiving responsibilities, the work devotion expectation is difficult to manage. But the problem goes far beyond an hours crunch. In our research study, mothers spend just as much time per week on research as their colleagues, yet they are devalued as less serious and committed scientists. Mothers earn significantly lower salaries than fathers and childless faculty of comparable rank in the same department, despite the same stellar productivity metrics as colleagues.   

Strategy 2: Reconceive merit in hiring and promotions

Departmental assessments of merit need to be realigned with factors that are truly connected to creative scholarly contributions. Departments need to be explicit about hiring criteria before review of faculty materials begins. What does success entail in this department? At this institution? Does it include a more expansive set of criteria than just citation counts and grant dollar tallies? Research shows that systematically assessing candidates on hiring rubrics should be done strategically to mitigate bias smuggled into these ratings. Discuss anonymised rubric ratings in departmental meetings, noting the variability and fairness of each candidate’s evaluations. Be mindful of assumptions that may be devaluing certain groups.

Consider alternative metrics for assessing research productivity. For example, ask faculty job applicants to submit their top three “most impactful” publications – whatever that means to them – for first-round review in lieu of their full CV.   

Further, treat contributions to diversity as a serious credential in hiring and promotion. Faculty in our study sometimes ignored, or even rewrote, diversity statements when reviewing faculty job applications.

Strategy 3: Reconceive beliefs about the academic calling

The work devotion schema unfairly penalises caregivers, particularly mothers. Evaluate your institution’s family accommodation policies and who uses them. Are these policies fair, clear, and widely used without stigma? Do they account for adoption and eldercare? Consider hiring a campus-wide family accommodations expert who can confidentially advise faculty seeking to use the policies. Departmental and university leaders can signal respect for people’s personal responsibilities by scheduling regular meetings in the mornings or early afternoons before school pick-ups and sending emails only during weekday work hours.

Strategy 4: Peer-to-peer education and mentoring

Faculty peer-to-peer education can help overcome resistance to openly discussing diversity inequality in advancement practices. For example, when data on inequality in STEM are presented by departmental members who are seen as star scientists, their colleagues are more likely to embrace more equitable practices. Unwarping the cultural yardstick of merit also means changing how we mentor the next generation of scientists, emphasising the importance of equity, collaboration and communication.

Better for scientists, better for science

Reconceiving merit isn’t just important for promoting equity and well-being among faculty. It is important for science. The work devotion schema not only promotes exhaustion, it undermines creative thinking critical for scientific innovation. People produce more innovative work when they are well-rested and have time for relaxation and non-work pursuits.  

Demographically diverse and interdisciplinary teams often produce more innovative solutions than more homogenous teams. STEM merit should be measured in ways that reflect how STEM work is actually done and how STEM breakthroughs happen. Collegiality and collaboration should be highly valued, rather than assertive self-promotion. Diversity is an amplifier of innovation, not a threat. This reconception of scientific merit would move academic STEM closer to excellence.

Mary Blair-Loy is a professor at the University of California San Diego and Erin A. Cech is an associate professor at the University of Michigan. This advice is based on the research in their recent book Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.

Further reading to find out more about the issues outlined above: 

Competing Devotions by Mary Blair-Loy, published by Harvard University Press


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