Putting Diversity at the Heart of Marine Ecology

by Nadia Jogee.

I’m probably not the first person to point out that these are strange times we are living through. Last year we saw children take to the street to demand action on climate change. And now against the backdrop of a global pandemic we are seeing people take to the streets to demand racial equality.

With people’s attention rightly being focused on the protests, it may have passed you by, but Monday was World Oceans Day. People might think of the seas as being what separates us, but the world’s oceans do not see borders or race. They connect all of us in ways that we don’t yet fully understand. From the air we breathe, to the food we eat, the energy that powers our cars and the income we depend on, the ocean is at the heart of it all.

If action is not taken, climate change and other anthropogenic disturbances in our oceans will undoubtedly have a disproportionate effect on developing nations and poorer coastal communities. The effects of climate change in areas like the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, where I work, could be devastating. Rising sea level, stronger hurricanes, longer dry seasons and shorter wet seasons, coupled with the degradation of coral reefs make for a bleak future for many living in these areas. The world looked on as African-American communities were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, let’s not let that happen again. It is crucial that we listen to their needs. We need an academic workplace with more BME members, which will lead to louder voices for overlooked and marginalised communities.

The fields of conservation and ecology are very familiar with diversity, after all most of what we do is to try to maintain it. Yet the demographic composition of the field of ecology and conservation is far from representative of the population as a whole. If we were to treat the academic workplace as a sample we would certainly say it was biased. In 2016, 72.8% of members of the Society for Conservation Biology marine section were from the USA, Canada, the UK or Australia, the remaining 27% represented 64 countries 1. Yet diversity in race and gender in the workplace has many benefits, such as increased innovation 2. It has also been shown that research articles with more diverse authorship have higher impact. And most importantly, without the voices of ethnic minority groups who will be affected by future scenarios, we overlook the needs, skills and equipment required for them to adapt to change.

I am proud that the Changing Oceans Research Group recognises the need for change. The iAtlantic project pulls together people from Europe, South Africa, Cape Verde, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and the USA (https://www.iatlantic.eu/). A key part of this project’s mission is capacity building. This means providing the resources so that others can carry out their own research. After all, much of the ocean is beyond national jurisdiction, so what better setting to build these cross country collaborations? Britannia should no longer rule the waves, but instead we must help people from underrepresented ethnic minorities to have access to their own ocean science. That starts with access to higher education, which should not depend on wealth or racial background. 

There are actions we as a research community can take to embed diversity into our workplace. I’ve had many colleagues frustrated that degree programmes and workplaces expect you to volunteer or work unpaid internship in order to access a career in ecology and conservation. This is tough for anyone, but made even harder if you are not from a wealthy socioeconomic background. In the USA the distribution of wealth amongst different ethnicities is dramatic. In 2016, a median Black family in America has just 2 % of the wealth that a median White family owns 3.These social inequalities are true of the UK as well, where Black and Asian minorities have lower employment rates and wages, and ‘occupational segregation’ in low-paid, poor progression jobs. Specifically there is a 10% employment gap between Black and White people 4. It’s therefore harder for a child from these backgrounds to view conservation as a legitimate career option. We need to pay people fairly for the work that they do, or at least not favour people who have extensive voluntary work over someone who for economic reasons does not have that on their CV.

The wealth of the median White family in the US vs the median Black and Latino family.

We can also use our voices to speak to children about a career in ecology and conservation. Many young people may still see scientists as men in lab coats talking jargon. Yet we know that the research community is a fun, engaged group of people that are approachable and keen to talk to others about their work. Sadly, children from impoverished areas may never get face to face time with researchers in order to see this. I’ve seen first-hand from my time at Chester Zoo just how excited children from all backgrounds are when you talk to them about the ocean. And this doesn’t need to be in person. During lockdown we have proven that we can communicate remotely, so we should use these new skills to talk to students from around the globe. Skype a Scientist is a brilliant place to start (https://www.skypeascientist.com/)

Finally, we should actively encourage diversity by aiding career advancement in underrepresented groups. I attended the Conservation Optimism conference last year in Oxford (https://conservationoptimism.org/), and was thrilled to see a broad range of race and genders being represented in the speakers and workshop leaders. Stipulating that minority groups are represented on committees has been shown to increase the number of diverse speakers at conferences 1. Studies have also shown that boardrooms with more diversity are more innovative and have a better reputation 5. At these high levels where decisions are made it is vital that we have a cross section of society so that people’s needs are catered for.

I hope people reading this will reflect on their own workplace, think about how they could build collaborations and most of all listen to the voices of the people currently in pain. I, like many, have thought hard about my own unconscious bias and it’s important that we keep challenging ourselves for a thriving and more diverse research community.

 

 

1          Smith, N. S. et al. Diversity and Inclusion in Conservation: A Proposal for a Marine Diversity Network. Front. Mar. Sci. 4, doi:10.3389/fmars.2017.00234 (2017).

2          Østergaard, C. R., Timmermans, B. & Kristinsson, K. Does a different view create something new? The effect of employee diversity on innovation. Research Policy 40, 500-509, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2010.11.004 (2011).

3          https://inequality.org/facts/racial-inequality/.

4          Khan, O. Economic inequality and racial inequalities in the UK: Current evidence and the possible effects of systemic economic change (2016).

5          Miller, T. & Del Carmen Triana, M. Demographic Diversity in the Boardroom: Mediators of the Board Diversity–Firm Performance Relationship. Journal of Management Studies 46, 755-786, doi:10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00839.x (2009).

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