the pay raise for being a straight, white male in US science

Diverse mix of technicians, dressed in lab coats, discuss work procedure in a laboratory.

The study reveals how certain groups of people in science are more privileged than others.Credit: Getty

A comprehensive, comprehensive study reveals what privilege looks like in science: Heterosexual white men who are not disabled get more pay, more respect, and a host of career opportunities compared to all other groups.

Previous studies have shown how sexism, racism, and other types of discrimination separately contribute to inequality in academia. But sociologist Erin Cech of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor compared the experiences of researchers who fit a spectrum of 32 intersecting identities. She analyzed data from a survey of approximately 25,300 researchers working in sectors including academia, industry, and government in the United States, conducted between 2017 and 2019. The study was published in Progress of science last month1.

Cech, who describes herself as a white, queer, cisgender woman, says the results reveal consistent and surprising patterns of privilege that persist after adjusting for differences in education, experience, hours worked, family responsibilities and more than a dozen of other confounding factors. Heterosexual white men without disabilities enjoy a number of unearned benefits that cannot be explained by such differences, the analysis shows. They are paid an average of $7,831 a year more than other groups, adjusting for confounding factors. They are also given more career opportunities, feel more respected at work and experience less harassment than people in any other cross-sectional demographic group Cech studied, so they are less likely to drop out of science.

“Over and over again, I’ve heard [people say] there is no data to prove” that the privilege exists, says Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Now, marginalized groups have hard data that they can point to and say, “here, this is what you’ve been asking for. Now what?” says Esquivel, a black, queer, neurodivergent Mexican woman.

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More money, more respect

Heterosexual white men without disabilities received at least $32,000 more each year than gay people of color who had the same level of experience, seniority, hours worked, family responsibilities, education and other factors, Cech found. The most privileged group also earn $20,000 a year more than people with disabilities of any gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity.

Kelsey Byers, an agender, asexual and multi-disabled plant biologist who works at the John Innes Center in Norwich, UK, says the disadvantage marginalized groups face is distressing, and the pay gap shocking: “As someone who has struggled to literally get in the door, [the findings] They were a punch to the gut, but I know it’s true.”

Cech found that the most disadvantaged groups are women of color who identify as LGBTQ and people with a physical disability, chronic illness, or mental health issue. People in these groups had lower wages and fewer career opportunities, garnered less respect from their colleagues, and often felt left out, even when their education, experience, and job characteristics were the same as their white, heterosexual peers. men and without disabilities.

Christopher Jackson, a black UK-based geoscientist, says Cech’s study shows how identity and circumstance determine who can participate in science. “Being smart isn’t enough,” he says, because not everyone has the same access to opportunities or peer support to help them achieve what they want. Many of the barriers some people have to deal with also go unnoticed, adds Jackson, who left academia in March to join a scientific consulting firm.

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Esquivel hopes the data from Cech’s study will help counter something she has experienced: researchers from privileged groups questioning whether marginalized scientists hired under diversity initiatives deserve their places in academia. People who aren’t marginalized need to reflect on how privilege has made their careers easier, she says.

culture change

Structural and cultural changes are needed to rectify the inequalities that contribute to minority people dropping out of science, says sociologist Meredith Nash of the Australian National University in Canberra. “You cannot bring people from historically excluded groups to these camps [and expect them to stay] without creating an environment for them to thrive,” she says.

To create more equitable workplaces, Nash says, institutions and their leaders must review processes that give unfair advantages to particular groups of people. She says that white cisgender women like her often benefit from equity initiatives, they also need to reflect on their privilege and use it to advocate for more diversity.

That means taking a critical look at hiring and promotion practices, and rethinking how academia recognizes and rewards research excellence, says Cech. Since systemic advantages are rooted in the historical overrepresentation of white men in science, structural and cultural change begins with that group, she adds. White men who are willing to reflect on and discuss these forms of privilege wield real influence, she says.

But previous research has found that many white men in some fields say they are unaware of racism or sexism around them, despite evidence that their field can be a particularly hostile environment for women and people of color. in a poll from physicists, white men often distanced themselves from the problem, saying it did not occur in their laboratories and solutions were outside their sphere of influence.

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That attitude propagates inequalities, says Timothy O’Connor, a disabled white man and evolutionary geneticist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. “We need to be constantly vigilant in addressing bias wherever we see it, including and especially in ourselves.” He adds, however, that more work is needed to appreciate the multiple experiences of researchers with diverse identities within groups that were “clustered” in Cech’s study. For example, in its main analyses, the study did not distinguish between people with different types of disabilities or between people with different LGBTQ identities. He also used broad ethnic divisions with little nuance, such as “Asian”. Cech says this was to protect the respondent’s confidentiality.

Patterns of disadvantage and privilege are sown long before people embark on scientific careers, says Mohammad Taha, a materials engineer at the University of Melbourne, Australia, who identifies as queer, transgender and non-binary person of colour. The academy needs to do a better job of measuring the performance of people who have experienced disadvantage. Many of these people will not have had the same opportunities as their mainstream peers and should be judged accordingly when applying for jobs and funding, says Taha.

They add that many researchers have a genuine interest in making academia more inclusive, but fail to act. “Your inaction is not neutral; their inaction is contributing to this problem.”