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Can Interdisciplinarity Attract More Women and Minorities to Academia?

The word that comes up again and again is “resonate.” Whenever a discussion gets going about interdisciplinary research — whether in the social sciences or natural sciences — women and minorities often say the topic resonates with them. However, to date, there is no comprehensive research addressing the issue.

To begin more formal discussions and propel future research, Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, professor and department chair of the Environmental Sciences at Barnard College, and Dr. Diana Rhoten, program director of the office of cyberinfrastructure at the National Science Foundation, planned a two-day conference that took place at Barnard College Nov. 12 and 13.

Scientists, educators, historians, sociologists and policy makers discussed how women and minorities might be drawn to interdisciplinary research. The three main questions were:

  • Are women and minorities more likely to be drawn to interdisciplinarity?
  • What are the real-world implications of having an interdisciplinary research framework?
  • What characteristics of interdisciplinarity coincide with research programs sought out by specific social and ethnic groups?

“We have people coming together who hadn’t really talked with each other before,” said Pfirman. “They’re starting to see the connections of how it might play out — all the way from your own learning as a student through to your career trajectory and then how you’re evaluated as a scholar.”

“A lot of the discussion was about how do we attract, retain and satisfy women and minorities who choose to do scientific research in an academic context,” said Rhoten. “What kept surfacing is this is a major question in general and interdisciplinarity might be an avenue.”

For more than a decade, universities and U.S. funding agencies have promoted the expansion of interdisciplinary research. Running a parallel course has been the effort to increase the participation of women and minorities in science, math and engineering. There is little data evaluating a correlation between the two, but Pfirman and Rhoten both said that whenever the topic comes up, the response is decisive.

“When Diana and I go out and give talks about this subject, people just come up to us afterwards and say how grateful they are for us taking up this issue,” Pfirman said. “We feel there’s something there and we’re really excited about exploring it.”

Added Rhoten: “This is a point of inquiry that needs to be taken up by psychologists, sociologists, administrators and educators. If we’re going to improve the conditions of being a practicing scientist in academia, we need to look at these questions.”

The issue of interdisciplinarity is not just related to what would be identified on many campuses as interdisciplinary majors or programs, such as women’s studies, Africana studies or gender studies. Future research should encompass social and natural sciences as well as emerging fields. Those engaged in interdisciplinary research may become lost in bureaucratic red tape, as programs or centers often lack the stability and tenure options of a department. Rhoten noted that newness, flexibility and freedom of movement must be balanced with the practical realities of a life in academia. Most of the data currently available has been gathered for another reason and then re-evaluated. Going forward, hopefully more specific research will commence.

Pfirman said, “There is a tendency for women potentially to be more interested in interdisciplinary aspects. I’m planning to quantify this now, to show people where we stand and encourage people to ask this question more. We’re kind of at this tantalizing edge, where we think there might be something there, but can’t get out in front and say, ‘Yes, this is indeed the case.’

“The discussion has been opened. It seems like there is a lot of interest in trying to understand the complexities of this and what the implications are.”

The results of the two-day conference will be published as an SSRC Report on the Columbia ADVANCE and Barnard Web sites.

–Lois Elfman

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