Diversity and Inclusion in Entomology: Keeping People in the Pipeline
By Hannah Penn, Ph.D.
There are many obstacles to tackle throughout your career—finding employment, securing research funding, engaging the public—but barriers due to personal identity should not be one of them. Katelyn Kesheimer, Ph.D., an assistant professor and extension specialist in entomology and plant pathology at Auburn University, has been working to promote more inclusive environments in entomology. As part of this effort, she served as a co-organizer for a symposium titled “Leveling the playing field: How entomologists can work to reduce bias and create safe workspaces” at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia in Vancouver in November 2018. Below, I interview Katelyn about the symposium and her plans for future endeavors to promote safer conferences and workspaces.
Penn: What was the impetus to organize this symposium?
Kesheimer: Following the success of the #MeToo movement, the timing seemed right to grab people’s attention about an issue that has plagued entomology and the sciences for decades. It was an organic process of putting together a group of both early- and later-career entomologists from industry, government, and academia who all had valuable wisdom to share.
I think in many cases these special topic symposia are just as important as discussing the latest research. We need to call attention to unsafe workspaces and teach people the tools to cope with and ultimately overcome these issues. There are myriad reasons, but the fact of the matter is we are losing intelligent, passionate scientists, and that is unacceptable. We can do better.
What are some of the biggest barriers to success in science and entomology that early-career professionals (ECPs) face?
I think one of the biggest challenges is generally life post-graduate school. There are so many unknowns in the job market today, and no two career paths look the same, but we inevitably compare ourselves anyway. We struggle with both professional and personal security and don’t always know where to go for help, if we seek help at all. The uncertainty and rejection are tough and can lead to feelings that we are not good enough, or “imposter syndrome.”
One of the things presented by Gail Kampmeier in the symposium was implicit bias in letters of recommendation, whether it’s for graduate school, a fellowship, an award, or a job. Both writers and reviewers of such letters need to be aware of the unconscious influence that words used to describe a candidate can have on decisions of hiring committees and judging panels. For ECPs, this bias can prevent a qualified candidate from getting a grant or position, ultimately closing doors and opportunities that should be open.
You included dedicated discussion periods during the symposium. How did those go? What are some of the main topics that caught people’s attention?
Our goal was to bring up some difficult topics that are seldom discussed in a professional environment and allow people to anonymously answer questions through polls on their cell phones. Showing the live results let everyone know that things such as harassment at meetings or publication bias might be a concern among many entomologists. So, by the time we got to the discussion section, we hoped it would prompt an open dialogue and allow people to have honest discussions. I was glad that people were being open and honest with us, but it was tough to hear some of the experiences that our peers had to go through.
One topic that garnered a lot of discussion was addressing physical needs during field work; we are all biologists, so you’d think that we would be OK with things like going to the bathroom, menstruation, or breastfeeding, but these have all been taboo topics. Another issue was harassment or assault at scientific meetings. It was clear that most people had witnessed or experienced inappropriate behavior at some point in their career, and that was disappointing. No one, student or otherwise, should be made to feel like they don’t belong at meetings designed for professional development.
Do you have any advice for fellow entomologists on how to promote safe workspaces within their sphere of influence?
As a brand new principal investigator, this has been on my mind a lot recently. I think safe workspaces are born out of your daily interactions with everyone in your lab, office, program, et cetera. Hostile work environments where students feel disrespected, unsafe, or, worse, compelled to leave the field, aren’t created overnight; therefore it is important to construct environments where everyone has a voice, no matter their rank, and that voice is respected and heard. Codes of conduct, like the one implemented by ESA, are great for letting people know that bad behavior will not be tolerated and that there is a mechanism for reporting when that safe workspace is violated. I also encourage anyone working at a university to become familiar with their university’s Title IX office and policies. In the US, Title IX is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination in education based on one’s sex. It covers everyone regardless of gender identity and also prohibits retaliation against someone who may file a complaint. These offices are literal lifesavers, and we all should be aware how they can help keep students safe.
The organizing committee for the symposium is excited about the momentum generated, and we hope to turn that into another symposium for Entomology 2019 in St. Louis. We are focusing on how to keep people in entomology, embracing diversity, and utilizing audience participation again so we hear from as many people as possible.
Hannah Penn, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology at Louisiana State University and the North Central Branch representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org