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Biden Administration announces initiative to bring equity to science and technology

Yesterday, the White House Office of Science and Technology announced a new initiative designed to address the enormous equity and opportunity gaps in STEMM education, training, investment, philanthropy, and business. The STEMM Opportunity Alliance is starting life with a collective $1.2 billion in individual commitments made by a diverse array of partners across government, academia, and philanthropy, including corporate partners like L’Oreal, 3M, Micron, Novartis, and Merck.

Because this is a government thing, there are plenty of acronyms to wrangle. STEMM stands for science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. The initiative was launched by three organizations, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF), all of whom had spent the better part of the last year researching how we lose talent in education and industry to bias and other barriers.

The STEMM workforce in the U.S. is primarily white and, outside of certain health care roles, primarily male. As a result, a lack of representation—Black, brown, Indigenous, rural, poor, disabled, LGBTQ, and immigrant—has led to persistent and measurable inequities. (And keeps this columnist in business.)

“History has shown, of course, that new investments in science and technology don’t always translate into equitable results for all people in all communities without sustained and intentional effort,” Alondra Nelson, deputy assistant to the President and deputy director for science and society at the OSTP, said at the kickoff.

That means finding new ways to create good, high-paying tech jobs that require training but not necessarily a college degree. Classrooms with currently underrepresented students are ignited by teachers who look like and value them. A research ecosystem that invests in a wider array of ideas and in places outside of known venture capital corridors. A welcoming workforce. Accommodations for working families. And the fruits of progress shared by all.

Partner organizations are making public commitments to do or continue doing their part and, just as important, share outcome data with the collective. By way of quick examples, 3M is investing in programs that support academic achievements for underrepresented students, and Biogen is launching a hands-on biotech laboratory program for middle and high schoolers. The DDCF got my attention for something very insightful: a $12 million co-funding initiative to reduce barriers that may prevent biomedical researchers with family caregiving responsibilities from continuing in the field.

Even though each participating organization may have a history of supporting STEMM initiatives on its own, the new collective focus seems notable for several reasons.

For one, it’s the first time that the government has asked all stakeholders operating within the STEMM ecosystem to evaluate their advocacy from an equity perspective. To do that, they effectively de-centered the “business case” for diversity and addressed the broader societal and reparative benefits this work might bring. And they started with a grand convening, giving a truly diverse array of experts and institutions who have been thinking about this on their own a chance to meet each other. It’s now a community of sorts—which was reflected in the delightful energy of the two-hour kick-off, which you might enjoy watching.

While it’s always inspiring to be in the presence of people who are working toward big, shared, planet-changing goals, it was fascinating to hear a common theme emerge: belonging. Nearly everyone spoke poignantly and passionately about the need to support a culture of belonging in every place they teach, work, or invest. It was the one thing everyone could do right now to make things better.

Start by thinking beyond representation.

“So often, this narrative has been centered on representation,” said Nikole Collins-Puri, chief executive officer of TechBridge Girls, a nonprofit focused on introducing girls of color to STEMM education. It’s time to think past the numbers and re-design the spaces people will enter. “Representation does not address the environment, the genius that is left behind when you’re asking our girls to fit into a system that never wanted them in the first place.”

Her advice is applicable anywhere inclusion is an issue: “We have to reimagine these environments so that our girls are centered in their own brilliance, centered in their own stories.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Rachel Lobdell.

On Point

When having it all means paying for it. My colleague Megan Leonhardt delves into the hidden tax that executive women need to pay to stay on the fast track: Paying for home and family support services, everything from cleaners to child care and beyond. “Hiring professional and household help is something that many working women agonize over and discreetly employ like it’s a dirty little secret, fearing they’ll come across as entitled, incapable, or worse,” she writes. “Yet for most men, it’s a given. Having an assistant at work and a stay-at-home wife as well a plethora of paid caregivers and household staff is the norm for most male executives.”

When being hired help means you’ll never thrive. The other side of this equation is the mostly women—typically poor, BIPOC, and immigrant—workers who provide essential cleaning, child, and elder care services in the U.S. There’s a shocking lack of childcare options for working families in the U.S—some 126,000 underpaid caregivers have left the industry since the pandemic began in 2020. To understand why conditions are so dire for everyone, Fortune produced a limited-series podcast about the U.S. childcare crisis and the people trying to fix it. Working along with my Fortune colleagues Maria Aspan, Beth Kowitt, and Megan Leonhardt, we dug into the history of childcare in the U.S. (chattel slavery alert) and why supporting children, families, and care providers is no longer a national priority. Who’s working on this? All four episodes are up now—you may be surprised at where we ended up. Please download, listen, and share, and get angry.
Where’s My Village podcast

Does diversity training work? Good question. The answer is we just don’t know. Betsy Levy Paluck is a Princeton-based professor of psychology and public affairs who studies prejudice and behavior change. She and her colleagues published a comprehensive review of the prejudice reduction literature designed to examine bias mitigation efforts from 2007-2019. “Since our review, despite the surge in diversity programming, there have been only a handful of additional studies. In sum, we don’t have good evidence for what works. We’re treating a pandemic of discrimination and racial and religious resentment with untested drugs.”
Washington Post

On Background, Belonging

After hearing the siren’s song of belonging at the STEMM Opportunity Alliance kickoff, I went right down a rabbit hole of belonging science reporting and came up with a resource to recommend: Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides, a new book by Stanford psychology professor Geoffrey L. Cohen. I’ll leave it to practitioners to help put his work into a broader context, but he makes a powerful and provocative case for how a lack of belonging has fueled hate movements, toxic partisanship, chronic loneliness, and unwelcoming workplaces. When our sense of belonging is threatened, he argues, the cost to our health and identities, and by extension, our communities and societies is real. Do you feel like you belong somewhere? Anywhere? Nowhere? You’re not alone. In addition to the social science of belonging, he offers some tactics and strategies for all of us to consider, all delivered in a kind and thoughtful voice. In fact, his idea about “wise interventions,” small nudges in behavior that can yield big impacts, had me reading late into the night. He showed up at the National Book Festival to break it down, link below.
Library of Congress

Parting Words

“The American cultural ideal of the self-made man, of everyone standing on his own feet, is as tragic a picture as the initiative-destroying dependence on a benevolent despot. We all need each other. This type of interdependence is the greatest challenge to the maturity of individual and group functioning.”

—Kurt Lewin, the founder of modern social psychology. The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin

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