Summary: April 20, 2017 Discussion

Corlett Wood presented “The benefits of diversity (in science).” Here is her summary:

In my talk, I explored how and why demographic diversity is beneficial in science and in non-science fields. I focused mainly on studies that explored the consequences of gender and racial/ethnic diversity.

The benefits of diversity fall into three broad categories. First, diversity begets diversity. Diverse role models contribute to the retention of underrepresented groups in science (Drury et al. 2011). Second, people from different backgrounds often ask different research questions and pursue different objectives. For example, medical studies that included female authors were more likely to examine health outcomes for both men and women (Nielsen et al. 2017). Combating gender bias in medical research is likely to mitigate some very real health risks: the majority of drugs withdrawn from the US market between 1997 and 2001 had greater health risks for women (US General Accounting Office 2001). Finally, diverse groups outperform homogenous groups. In the business sector, companies with diverse workforces or management outperform those that do not (Herring 2009, Kersley and O’Sullivan 2012). The performance benefits of diversity are evident in academic science as well. Papers with both male and female authors, or by ethnically diverse groups are published in higher-impact journals and cited more than those authored by homogenous groups (Campbell et al. 2013, Freeman and Huang 2014).

Widespread evidence that diversity improves group performance dispels two common misconceptions about science: that it is immune to cultural influences, and that scientific advances are driven by brilliant individuals rather than by great groups. The mechanisms underlying the benefits of diversity remain an active area of research, and there are at least three hypotheses to explain them. One is that diversity promotes critical thinking, because diverse groups are more likely to challenge ideas and subject them to scrutiny. Another is that demographic diversity is associated with functional diversity: diverse groups are more likely to approach problems with a complementary perspectives, approaches, and skills (Hong and Page 2004). A third is that diverse groups have better social dynamics, resulting in higher collective intelligence (Woolley et al. 2010).

The benefits of diversity outlined above are only a few of many, many arguments in favor of diversity. All disciplines should work to increase diversity because a lack of diversity in science is symptomatic of pervasive barriers facing underrepresented groups. Promoting diversity is an essential step towards justice and fairness in science and society; any other benefits are an added bonus.