A multi-institutional research group received an NSF grant to develop a measure of epistemic exclusion, a barrier to inclusion and retention of women and faculty of color in STEM fields

December 17, 2020 - NiCole Buchanan, WE2, Caroline Kraft

Does scholarly devaluation contribute to the leaky pipeline in the hiring and retention of marginalized scholars in STEM fields?

The Working Group on Epistemic Exclusion (WE2), a multi-institutional interdisciplinary research group, seeks to address this question through a recently awarded a 3-year, $804,000 National Science Foundation grant. This grant will fund the development of a scale assessing faculty experiences of epistemic exclusion, a form of scholarly devaluation that can thwart the inclusion and advancement of marginalized groups in STEM. The developed scale will provide a tool that researchers can use to investigate epistemic exclusion in STEM faculty across institutions.

Dr. NiCole Buchanan, Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University (MSU) is leading this project in partnership with Dr. Isis Settles, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, and Dr. Martinque Jones, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of North Texas. Other members of this project include Dr. Kristie Dotson, Professor in the MSU Department of Philosophy and African and African American Studies, Dr. Michael O’Rourke, Professor in the MSU Department of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinarity, and Dr. Marisa Rinkus, Postdoctoral Research Associate at MSU’s Center for Interdisciplinarity.

“Despite efforts to diversify STEM faculty, there has been minimal change over the past several decades. Our team has a body of work finding that epistemic exclusion is an additional challenge that undermines the retention of women and faculty of color,” said NiCole Buchanan.

Isis Settles added: “To be able to understand how common epistemic exclusion is among STEM faculty, and assess its impact on their career development, we need to be able to accurately measure the experience. That’s the first goal of our project.”

A theory of epistemic exclusion has been advanced by Kristie Dotson, a Black feminist scholar and project co-PI. This theory proposes that evaluation bias occurs because of prejudice and negative stereotypes toward historically underrepresented groups in combination with disciplinary norms about valued scholarship.

The WE2 group has conducted research on epistemic exclusion for the past several years. The WE2 team’s preliminary research on epistemic exclusion among faculty showed that it is more often experienced by women and people of color.

“Epistemic exclusion can happen to anyone who is doing research outside of their disciplinary norms, but who has those types of experiences is not random. Faculty of color and women in STEM have life experiences and occupy social locations that lead them to research interests that differ from disciplinary norms,” Buchanan said. Moreover, these forms of research are not equally valued, and as a result, their career accomplishments are also devalued.

Epistemic exclusion can ultimately lead to inequitable faculty treatment through biased evaluation metrics. For instance, because of biases about what is considered “good scholarship,” faculty who conduct research outside their disciplinary norms may report having fewer collaboration experiences with colleagues, having greater difficulty securing grant funding, and having greater difficulty publishing their work in top tier journals.

In addition to these factors, Buchanan said, “People also talk about epistemic exclusion in informal ways, being treated as if the work they do is incomprehensible, not legitimate science, not important to the field, and that it is somehow not worthy of investigation. They experience a lack of curiosity from their coworkers and colleagues and a lack of recognition for the expertise that they bring.”

Buchanan noted that epistemic exclusion is largely invisible to people doing faculty evaluation and assessment, but it has significant ramifications for faculty careers. The group’s forthcoming work demonstrates that epistemic exclusion is related to negative job outcomes, including lower job satisfaction and thoughts of leaving the institution. Faculty of color describe epistemic exclusion as negatively impacting their research trajectories and sense of belonging in academia.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the inequities among faculty members. Notably, women faculty and women faculty of color are experiencing greater impacts of coronavirus because of childcare needs and caregiving needs for family members who might be ill. Furthermore, the stress of the pandemic may intensify epistemic exclusion as universities work with fewer resources.

“Now more than ever it is important that institutions look at their policies and consider how they are creating inequities around the types of research scholars bring to the table because without the reward, recognition, and the validation of their work, we find that individuals want to leave the field, leave their institution, and leave academia,” Buchanan said.

WE2’s preliminary work may speak to recent evidence by Hofstra and colleagues (2020) of a “diversity-innovation paradox” in which faculty of color and women are often doing scholarship that is more innovative than that of their peers, but are less likely to experience the perks that typically go along with being innovative, such as promotions, salary increases, and recognition at departmental and institutional levels.

“Advancing this line of research may result in potential interventions and policy changes at institutions of higher education that improve the retention and promotion of women and underrepresented minority STEM faculty at our nation’s colleges and universities,” said Martinque Jones.

Buchanan added: “One of the costs to academia as a whole when we allow epistemic exclusion to occur is that we are actually limiting our innovation, which then limits our relevance to the global academic community. Reducing epistemic exclusion increases the likelihood that the work we do will be relevant to the public we serve.”