The underrepresentation of ethnic minorities throughout the geosciences is well documented and just as true at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. A 2019 report from the university noted that although admission of students from racial and ethnic minoritized backgrounds was disproportionally low university-wide, the Department of Earth Sciences admitted the lowest proportion of Black and non-Asian ethnic minorities—half as many as the next lowest department.
Many frameworks for addressing representation issues shift a disproportionate amount of responsibility onto members of these groups by expecting them to both identify and solve the issues they raise. This minority tax can unintentionally exacerbate the problems that these initiatives seek to address.
Shifting the Burden of Developing Solutions
In response to this admissions report and widening attention being paid to issues of diversity in higher education, a group of graduate students from the Department of Earth Sciences at Oxford decided to initiate a student-led diversity audit.
Our aim in executing this audit was to empower students in our community to raise issues that they saw or experienced at the university that burdened ethnic minority students, without the expectation that those students would be required to enact these solutions themselves. Instead, our team would assess the responses and offer suggestions to the faculty with some direction for how they could implement each solution. Key to this plan was engaging white students to assist with brainstorming and developing ideas and in making an extra effort to encourage fellow allies to attend.
We approached this effort from the point of view of concerned graduate students, rather than experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion. As such, we offer this as an example of an experimental project, which has sparked progress from our department so far.
Organizing the Audit Through Focus Groups
Early on, we made the decision to rely upon qualitative rather than quantitative methods for identifying issues. In a community with so few BAME (U.K. terminology for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) students, anonymization of responses is impossible. We also thought it might be harder to reach conclusive actions strictly from the data provided by surveys; instead, we organized focus groups, which would allow for more nuanced discussion and immediate feedback.
Our main focus group, which took place over part of an afternoon, was open to all students and faculty within our department. Around 20 people attended, from undergraduates to professors. The first half of the session was spent on identifying problems; the second half was dedicated to identifying solutions. We followed this session up with some small-group or one-on-one discussions to develop specific ideas or address problems related to a particular incident that the participant did not want to air in a bigger group.
From these discussions, we identified 42 specific recommendations for addressing the lack of representation of minoritized students within the Department of Earth Sciences at Oxford. Each recommendation included a description of the rationale for the action, our suggestion on each action’s priority, and a recommended timeline. Finally, we presented our report to department faculty and invited them to respond.
Key Themes from the Audit
In June 2020, around 200 geoscience students and faculty from Oxford and the U.K. community attended our announcement and discussion of the report and its findings. The event was held virtually and included the head of our Department of Earth Sciences, as well as representatives from the Geological Society of London and the Royal Astronomical Society.
After presenting our results, an attendee asked us to identify three key messages. Although our key messages are well known to those pursuing better diversity in the geosciences, our audit was able to provide specific supporting examples that helped lead us toward solutions at our university.
The first key message is that the geosciences’ ethnic minority student populations are not homogeneous—as a result, neither are the challenges they face or the solutions. For example, the underrepresentation of Black British students at Oxford can traced to a disproportionately low percentage of Black applicants, compared to the U.K. population. British students of Indian heritage, however, apply roughly in the same percentage as exists in the national population but are admitted at lower rates than white or even Black applicants with equal qualifications.
Addressing low admissions, then, requires targeted solutions. For Black students, that might mean focusing on outreach and community engagement strategies that acknowledge underlying discrimination in the schooling system [Joseph-Salisbury, 2020]. For British Indian students, it likely means thoroughly examining the admissions process for biases.
The second message is that inclusion efforts help everyone. Although our work focused on students from ethnic minorities, we were able to identify the commonalities that different minoritized groups face.
Finally, the idea that diversity is important to recruitment while inclusion is important to retention is partially true but overly simplistic. The separation here neglects many of the crossovers between these concerns. For example, a student who feels excluded while obtaining their undergraduate degree will be more challenging to recruit to postgraduate education.
These broader themes led us to our 42 recommendations—including the following two that are focused on adaptations of recruitment and fieldwork.
Recruitment Should Take into Account Cultural Context
Many of us are guilty of assuming that the only significant barrier to increased university submissions by minoritized groups in geoscience majors is a lack of awareness of the field. It’s reassuring to think that simply more dedicated outreach and engagement will be enough to boost the diversity of future classes.
The reality is more complex. Some families—particularly first-generation immigrant families that want a more financially secure future for their children—may not see the geosciences as offering as much job security as more traditional careers in medicine or law. Furthermore, they may see Earth sciences as requiring skills that are niche, rather than broadly transferable.
In our report, we suggest the university address these concerns in several ways, including holding separate parents-only and student-only sessions to encourage questions on unfamiliar subjects with less fear of embarrassment. We also recommend producing an application guide for parents that directly addresses some of these concerns—such as emphasizing the technology and coding skills required of many geoscience careers.
Universities should also be cognizant of students applying from communities that have a politically or historically fraught relationship with geological industry, such as England’s Black Country or Indigenous communities in the United States. These students may reject or at least be discouraged from pursuing the geosciences as a topic of study. We recommend that schools seek more input from these communities and find ways to showcase geoscience careers on the other end of the spectrum from natural resource extraction.
Fieldwork Shouldn’t Always Require a Field
The challenges and risks of fieldwork are many when it comes to minoritized students—whether racial or ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ+ folks, or those with disabilities. Reduced familiarity with the outdoors has been discussed as one—though certainly not the only—reason for reduced participation in the geosciences by ethnic minorities, who are much more likely to be urban based in the United Kingdom [Giles et al., 2020]. This is an underlying problem that universities are not realistically in a position to address.
What universities can do, however, is put more effort into highlighting the relevance of the geosciences to urban populations. This effort might be done through discussions of the geoscience contributions to climate change solutions and United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. But it can also be done more practically, for example, by highlighting work in urban geology or the applications of civil geophysics and urging the development of urban fieldwork in university courses.
Although faculty were invited to our working groups, our group of students sequestered to write the report. Our suggestion for students looking to replicate this process at their own schools is to lay some more groundwork with faculty, such as requesting a private meeting with university leadership before presenting the report publicly. This interaction can help ensure that the report launch is seen as an opportunity to develop new collaborations, rather than a time to criticize existing efforts.
In our discussions with faculty about the report, we were quickly able to find many places to work together on the 42 actions we suggested. The department wrote a point-by-point reply just 2 weeks after our report was released, publishing it on the school’s website alongside our original report. They highlighted a number of items that as of last July, they initiated or indicated were already underway. For those that the department considered unfeasible, they offered detailed explanations.
These are just first steps, of course. We were able to propel these discussions into a dedicated town hall at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2020 to discuss the report and its methodology. Overall, we are encouraged by the responses to our diversity audit at Oxford and optimistic that we have begun a fruitful collaboration with the faculty to continue to address these issues.
The author is first and foremost grateful for Gwen Antell’s partnership in developing this audit and invaluable advice in conducting the focus groups and writing the text of the report. The efforts of University of Oxford’s Chris Ballentine, Isobel Walker, and Conall MacNiocaill in preparing the department’s response are also deeply appreciated, as are the inputs of all those who participated in our focus groups. I am also grateful to Rebecca Colquhoun for her support in synthesizing ideas for this article.