Corrosion takes many forms when it comes to diversity, equality, inclusion

Columnist Constance Alexander shares a message about breaking down barriers to diversity in STEM fields from Dr. Rudy G. Buchheit, UK's dean of the College of Engineering .

Corrosion takes many forms in the work of Dr. Rudy G. Buchheit, Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Kentucky. On the scientific side, his research is mostly related to corrosion in aluminum alloys and products. On the humanistic side, he facilitates workshops at UK and elsewhere around the country to alleviate the kind of corrosion that blocks Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of under-represented groups in STEM areas of academia.

Constance Alexander

In his work with mostly men in STEM disciplines, Dr. Buchheit seeks to break down barriers to communication by following a straightforward set of house rules. The workshops he conducts as a member of UK’s DEI Leadership Team are organized into manageable, 20-minute modules in which everyone is encouraged to be open to learning.

“We meet in a room with chairs. No desks. No electronic devices. We sit in a circle facing one another,” he said during a recent presentation at Murray State University entitled Developing Majority Allies to Advance DEI in the Academy.

After remarking that engineers feel most at home in the midst of technology, safe in a lecture hall environment, Buchhart declared, “Most learning happens at times where you do not feel comfortable.”

Nervous laughter accompanied a comment from a man in the audience who quipped, “We don’t have to make eye contact, do we?”

Regarding the STEM fields, it is no joke that women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans remain under-represented. And with women and people in nonwhite ethnic and racial groups a growing part of the U.S. population, recruitment and retention of diverse talent is a must.

Implicit bias is one factor that impedes diversity, not only in academia but in most business sectors. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, people may not recognize their own biases because they run counter to their conscious, expressed beliefs. According to the SHRM, “Few physicians espouse racially discriminatory views, yet doctors tend to recommend less pain medication for Black patients than for whites with the identical injury.”

Buchheit summarized an experiment with academics conducted at Ohio State University that sent identical resumes of two candidates — half named John, the other half Jennifer — to 127 faculty at three public and three private U.S. research universities. Each application expressed interest in graduate school and a technician job, same words and format. Faculty were asked to rate candidates for competence and hire-ability, to suggest a starting salary, and to indicate how likely they would be to mentor the student.

The results were dismaying. Both men and women respondents unconsciously displayed gender bias against women, and both majority and minority members displayed biases against minorities. Women were harder on Jennifer than John.

Such negative effects of bias can be overcome but it is essential to create a structured decision-making process before screening and evaluating candidates for hiring, promotion, and advancement. As the process unfolds, decision-makers need to slow down. Mental shortcuts can result in implicit bias. At every phase, individuals need to remind themselves that implicit bias is liable to affect decisions.

An organization called White Men as Full Diversity Partners offers workshops that uncover the systemic privilege of white males. Buchheit described the dawn of his own awareness as an outcome of attending a multi-day session that stripped away the layers of privilege.

“The ultimate privilege,” he declared, “is not having to think about aspects of your identity.”

Murray State University is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Grant, ADVANCE, which is a program to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers, thereby contributing to the development of a more diverse science and engineering workforce. The presentation by Dr. Buchheit was one of a series of opportunities on campus to address various aspects of STEM academic culture and institutional structure that may differentially affect women faculty and academic administrators.

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Corrosion takes many forms when it comes to diversity, equality, inclusion


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