Opinion: Post-election Perspectives on Diversity

steve-mcmullin-squareBy Steve L. McMullin, AFS President-Elect

My colleague and eventual successor as president of the American Fisheries Society, Jesse Trushenski, offered a perspective on the recent U.S. election that echoed many of the concerns I have read or heard from my colleagues, friends and family, both female and male. The tenor, language and indeed, the result of the 2016 campaign, clearly demonstrate that we still are far from achieving the goal of a society that welcomes and celebrates diversity. We have in fact, taken a step back compared to 2008, when that goal seemed closer to reality. Nevertheless, we should respect the democratic process, regardless of how we feel about the election results. More to the point, the AFS must continue to serve in the professional capacity of sharing excellent science with its members and policy makers, regardless of which political party is in power. My purpose in writing this response to Jesse’s perspective is to reassure AFS members that we will work with the new administration to help them make science-informed policy decisions and that our focus on increasing diversity in the Society and welcoming the fresh perspectives that diverse members bring to the Society will be a central theme of my presidential term.

Our progress in becoming more diverse is evident to long-term members. Our membership is now 25% female, still only half way to being truly representative, but far better than it was when I joined the society in 1978. We celebrate exceptional efforts on behalf of diversity with the Emmeline Moore Prize, named after the first woman to serve as president of AFS in 1927-1928. Nevertheless, as Jesse described, women still face biases in the workplace, both overt and unintentional, that most men do not. I don’t have numbers on the ethnic and racial diversity in AFS, but clearly, we have much work to do in becoming more representative of society as a whole and in addressing the biases and challenges that women, people of color and the LGBTQ community face on a daily basis.

So, what can we do in AFS? We can start by increasing the financial and human resources needed to recruit and mentor many more Hutton Scholars, the program that emphasizes diversity while introducing high school students to fisheries science. Unfortunately, increasing the supply of potential, future fisheries professionals entering the pipeline will have minimal effect on increasing diversity unless we address the valves in the pipeline that are currently shut or barely open, resulting in a trickle of diverse candidates coming out of the other end of the pipeline (diverse and qualified new hires by fisheries employers). The first barely-open valve in the pipeline is the need to increase diversity of students in university fisheries (or related) programs.  Many Hutton Scholars come from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and need substantial financial support to attend university. Opening this valve will require significant financial resources to fund scholarships. Programs such as that of the Doris Duke Foundation are a good start, but not enough to “move the needle.” Even after students from underrepresented groups are admitted to university programs, experience has shown that other forms of support will be needed to retain diverse students who find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. If diverse candidates manage to squeeze through the first valve in the pipeline, they will encounter another barely-open valve in the form of limited employment opportunities. This valve may prove tough to open in the new administration and Congress, as leaner budgets and hiring freezes seem likely in the near future. Nevertheless, I believe that employers and universities have an opportunity to work together to open these valves.  Federal agency programs that historically offered experiential learning and job opportunity, such as SCEP and STEP, no longer exist and more recent programs (Pathways) have not been effective recruitment tools. We need effective new programs that have political and budgetary support if they are to succeed. If used in partnership with universities, such programs could be used to recruit diverse candidates into university programs, provide them with the experiential learning they will need to become qualified fisheries professionals, and open the pipeline to professional employment and greater diversity in the agencies and companies that employ fisheries professionals.

We will face numerous challenges over the next four years in addition to diversity and inclusion, including challenges to the use of science-informed decision making in environmental policy (see President-elect Trump’s comments on climate change). We hope that the new administration will make science-informed policy decisions, but that is a topic for more discussion in another forum. With regard to increasing diversity and inclusion in the fisheries profession, I believe that AFS can play an important role in facilitating collaboration among potential students, universities, and employers to open wider those valves that are restricting outflow from the pipeline. I welcome the challenge of “moving the needle” on diversity in the fisheries profession. Furthermore, I welcome your ideas on how we can help to make that needle move. Please contact me at mcmullintraining@gmail.com if you have ideas or want to help in making our society more diverse and welcoming.

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