Interview: OSU’s Dr. Ana Spalding on Sexism, Racism in STEMM

When most people picture the sciences as a work place, they think of the sci-fi perfection where everyone is treated as equals and the world is bright and happy – albeit fraught with space evildoers. But look back to that good old standby Star Trek and you might notice that the engineers and captains are generally white men.  

The world of STEMM – the extra M adds Medicine to our traditional Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – has downsides. Assistant Professor of Marine and Coastal Policy for the OSU School of Public Policy, Dr. Ana Spalding, sat down with The Advocate and spoke about a group of women in STEMM who stepped up and said something about inequality in their fields.  

TCA: Hi, I’m Sally Lehman, and I’m with The Advocate. Today, I’m speaking with Oregon State University’s Dr Ana Spalding about her participation in a paper about racial and gender inequality in STEMM environments. Thank you for being here today, Dr. Spalding.  

Spalding : Thanks, Sally, happy to be here.  

TCA: Your research is primarily in maritime policy. What does that entail? 

Spalding : Thank you for the opportunity.  

I study coastal and marine policy in the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University, and primarily it involves an understanding of a combination of policy and what I call the human dimension of ocean environment. It entails understanding the people’s relationship to the environment. So whether it’s economic or social, it’s cultural, right? So how do people relate to the environment? What are their needs or their interests? What’s changing and aligning those changes with policy processes?   

For instance, I’m looking at issues of adaptation and adaptive strategies to changes in the environment like ocean acidification. We’re trying to understand what shellfish farmers along the coast of California are doing to adapt to changes in the ocean environment. And once we know what those changes or what those strategies are to adapt, we’re trying to link those to the existing policy processes and trying to support those adaptive strategies. 

TCA: You’ve done research into the Blue Economy. Can you define that for me? 

Spalding : Yes, well, I can try. The Blue Economy is a contested and vague term that I would say includes industrial, commercial, economic development in the ocean space. It emerged in sort of international conversations about sustainable development.   

So the key difference from sort of ‘business as usual,’ literally, is that there is an expectation that there’s also a sustainable component to that – the development process. For instance, it’s not necessarily oil and gas or seabed mining, but instead it would be things like renewable energies and sustainable tourism and activities that provide both economic development as well as sustainability related to environment and social issues.  

TCA: What led you to study oceans and the policy surrounding them?  

Spalding : They are the best field sites in the world.   

I am originally from Panama, and I did my doctoral dissertation, my research, there at home, as well as a postdoc with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. And gosh, it was 1999, maybe early 2000’s when I was on a boat going to one of my favorite places, an archipelago – a group of islands – on the Atlantic side of the border with Costa Rica. And I just said, “I have to work here!”   

It’s just the most amazing place to be able to work and understand ways of protecting these environments, connecting to people that live in those environments. And so the policy piece is just because I think that that’s where we can make change. That’s where we can actually support a lot of these actions we want to do to support people in the ocean.  

TCA: You were part of a team of 24 researchers, all women, who wrote on the subject of how success within a scientist’s career is measured on the number of times they are cited by other scientists and the number of times they are published, and how that metric is both sexist and racist. How did your research area put you in the position to be a contributor on this paper? 

Spalding : The process of writing this paper was very interesting. It was initially a response to a paper in Nature that stated or suggested that male advisers, male mentors, were a better arrangement in order to secure success. That paper has since been recalled, retracted, but it set a tone in which many of us as women, as mentors, as professors, felt that the role and the activities that we do are not valued or not recognized.   

And the premise of the paper originally – to the original publication – was that those publications are based on metrics of success around impact factor citations and things like that. Those metrics are inherently, systematically biased, and therefore how can we change those metrics.  

So initially a group of women, the leads of the paper, sort of got together as a core group, and then they realized, ‘We’re a group of white women. We can’t really speak to the experiences of other marginalized groups in academia.’  

So one of my colleagues invited me as a woman of color – as a black woman – to participate in that collaboration as well. And I do think that another contribution was the fact that I’m a social scientist. So most of the authors are in the natural sciences – ecology, biology, et cetera. So there was a real interest in bringing in a different perspective within the STEMM fields. 

TCA: You have stated that you prefer to mentor women and people of color, yet less than 2% of the students at Oregon State list their race as Black. In fact, the largest minority represented at the school is Latino or Hispanic, which make up just over 10% of the student body. Is there anything being done to attract more students of color to the sciences at your school?  

Spalding : This is such an important question.   

I’d like to clarify that I don’t know that it fits [that] I prefer to mentor women and people of color. I think it’s just the way it has happened. And I have increasingly recognized the need to do that because of the numbers that you state and sort of representation and how representation matters. So I’ve certainly enjoyed it. And absolutely, it’s been a joy and a pleasure to be able to support this group.   

And gosh, is there anything being done to attract more students of color to the sciences? I mean, there are lots of initiatives, I think OSU has certainly increased its efforts at raising the profile of the institution as a place that’s welcoming to people of color, students of color, first gen students – all sorts of students and groups that have typically not participated in academia.   

I can’t speak across all colleges. I can speak for our school in particular. Our graduate program actually is one of the most diverse programs. I can’t speak to the exact numbers right now. I apologize, but we intentionally recruit, our graduate director intentionally sends out opportunities and recruits from a broad range of demographics around the country with the recognition that recruiting students is not simply saying, ‘well, we’re here, why don’t they come?’   

Oregon doesn’t have a diverse population – the state doesn’t have a diverse population. I tried, but that approach doesn’t work. So there is an intentionality in seeking out existing listservs, groups like SACNAS [the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science] and other existing organizations that provide the services needed for certain groups.  

Another example of an activity that we’re doing, or that had been done last year, was the formation of a President’s Commission on the Status of Black Faculty and Staff Affairs. And through that, as a place of not just recruiting – and I know you asked about students, but I mean through enhancing the number of faculty – then that’s another way of recruiting because of representation. So instead of students thinking, ‘well, she’s in this position, I can do it as well.’  

We’re thinking it’s not just recruitment, but it’s also retention. So how do we keep them on. 

TCA: Staying with the idea of mentoring? Do you feel that it’s more conducive to a positive experience for a female student to be mentored by a female faculty member?  

Spalding : I don’t like making deterministic statements. I had male mentors throughout my career, some of which continue to be my closest allies and colleagues and supporters.  

That said, had I known or had I had the vision at the time – I think that the new generation is way ahead of us in terms of understanding their needs and articulating their needs. I guess I didn’t even realize I could have asked for something different or could have looked for someone more like me. And certainly at the time when I had my first daughter, which was during graduate school, I could have certainly benefited from having a female mentor who was also a mother. To specify, I fully acknowledge that not all female mentors either are or want to be mothers, and that’s perfectly fine. But in my case, that particular characteristic would have been extremely helpful. 

TCA: So you believe in the inequities in the STEMM programs are worsened when a female scientist chooses to have a child?  

Spalding : Absolutely. So much of what academic work is revolves around after hours meetings or social gatherings. People feel ‘the best idea I ever had was around a bar having a beer.’ And you can’t do that when you have children. And both of my children have been to academic conferences strapped to my chest. I had a friend staying in the city in which the conference was and they would watch the kids in the hotel room. Yes, that kind of labor typically falls on the mother, especially during those breastfeeding early years. 

TCA: Have many of your male contemporaries chose to stay home to care for their kids?  

Spalding : I don’t think I know a male in academia, who has sort of taken a break fully. I know colleagues who have taken parental leave, equal to women of course. Many of my colleagues co-parent and share time 50-50. So, I see a lot of changes. I think just having children in academia is difficult.   

I think of those early moments – we’re the ones carrying the child and we’re the ones breastfeeding, if that is what happens, those particular conditions certainly are difficult. And I’d say even more so in terms of how we present. If students will see you differently, people will treat you differently.   

And I had a unique experience in that I was in Panama during both my child bearing years. The culture there is very different as they relate to pregnant women. It’s very open. You have lots of benefits. There’s a special line for you at the bank… I felt very, very welcome. It’s a very much of a caring community for children and young children. So I just carried on as normal.  

TCA: Coming back to the article that you were part of the co-writing on. It stated that women are cited 30% less often and that papers written by diverse groups of people have a 5% lower rate of publication. Can the environment in which you work be modified to change those facts?  

Spalding : You can try. We can certainly try. And I think that’s part of the role of this paper, the first point really is awareness.   

I think many times, as I said earlier about my early days, there’s always a sense that something’s wrong, but you’re not quite sure what it is. So I think awareness of the fact that there are numbers to back up the fact that your male colleagues are getting invited to collaborations more than you are, awareness to the fact that – going back to having children – if I’m not at the table at the moment or at the bar at the moment when a conversation comes about an idea for a paper that I’m not invited to that paper. So awareness is the first step, I would say.   

And then, other ways of changing it. I’ll give you an example, I was part of the formation of a group called BWEEMS, which is Black Women in Ecology, Evolution and Marine Science. One of the first things that we did in the group before it was formally established was create a list of publications, so all the members just put into a Google doc all their publications and said find each other, let’s cite ourselves. Which is why… women are cited less because men tend to cite themselves. More men tend to publish or present what they call self promotion.  

Recently in a conference, somebody was asking a question, and the male presenter said, “You really should read my paper,” which is an answer that I would never have given. I would never think to do that. And I agree, I probably should have read or we probably should all read the paper, but maybe it behooves us to be more active about promoting our own work and sharing it with people.   

That to me was brilliant, right? Let’s just put all our papers in an article, and instead of going to Google Scholar or the library first to see whose is the most cited paper, because it’s a self-perpetuating system right from the beginning. If the biggest cited paper has a male first author, then by default, that is what we’re going to find.   

So I guess the intentionality of awareness and the intentionality of seeking other authors and other examples are in classes. Instead of assigning the book that everybody uses in a sociology class, for instance, maybe let’s put together a reader with perspectives from different scholars, scholars from different backgrounds, indigenous scholars, black scholars, Latinx scholars, different identities to represent the field.  

TCA: In another OSU press release, it was mentioned that you were writing a textbook. Have you found any issues with trying to get that published?  

Spalding : I have not actually. It is under contract, so I already have a contract with Routledge Taylor & Francis. It’s an edited volume.   

And I don’t know if this is just personal experience or other women in academia feel this or what people of color who perhaps don’t see themselves represented – when you do something and you don’t know that there could be a limitation, you’re just like, ‘oh, I’m just going to do it.’ And that was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. So I did. And it was actually really interesting because there was a managing editor at the publisher who I mentioned this to, he had invited me to review a book and I mentioned it to him. And then as he was retiring or leaving that post, he said, ‘hey, I remember this conversation, I’m retiring now, but I want to pass it on to the next person who’s filling in my shoes.’   

So it was almost like this is a sign, I must do it. So the short answer is no. And gratefully, I have not received rejection in connection to the book.  

TCA: In the fall, you will be the fourth black woman to become a tenured professor at Oregon State University. So looking forward, what would you like to see happen in the school in regards to the different STEMM fields? 

Spalding : I would like to see more Black tenured or tenure-track women in the field. I would like to see more Indigenous women and men in the field. I would love to see a more diverse faculty body for my own personal, selfish reasons in terms of stepping into a room and feeling that I’m not the only one.  

Also for our student body as it becomes more diverse, I have noticed good and bad reactions I’ve had from students stepping into a room. Bad in the sense that are people questioning authority, people feel that they can say things to you that they probably wouldn’t say to somebody else. But also, I speak Spanish – it’s my native language, so being able to speak Spanish to Spanish-speaking students [makes them seem to think] ‘OK, we can do this.’ And that makes all the difference, these little bits of representation. So I would love to see that.   

I would love to see more. The students that I see now in grad school have access to tenure track positions because they’re fantastic students, amazing thinkers and movers and shakers in this world.  

TCA: You have also said that when the university is looking for a Black woman to sit on a committee, that they have to tap the same two people for the extra work. What kind of impact does that have on your personal life?  

Spalding : It keeps me busy.   

It’s not just the university. I think that since the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent racial reckoning in the country overall, there has been an interest in diversifying panels, diversifying speakers, all things that have brought a lot of attention to those of us who are not more marginalized groups, smaller, less representative groups in academia. It could be – I mean, I’m willing to consider – that as I progress in my career, then I get more recognition, et cetera, et cetera. But the correlation between my inbox exploding with invitations and all of these things happening is sort of hard to ignore. So it is very difficult.   

It’s been a really interesting set of conversations I’ve had with other black female colleagues in terms of how do you say ‘no,’ when do you say ‘yes’? Do you request or ask for compensation? How do we ask for compensation? Should we ask for compensation? How much is enough? And all of these sorts of questions, we ask how to say no. I mean, within that group, BWEEMS, there was a big conversation about how do we respectfully say our time is tapped. I will do this, I will prioritize this if there’s a certain amount of compensation or just different kinds of conversations.   

The important thing about that, I think, has been the difference between speaking about my field or our fields and speaking about our experiences where oftentimes the expectation that an academic talk about the research is perfectly fine. The difference being that if you’re expected to talk about your personal experiences and challenges and potential traumas and all kinds of things, then that’s where it becomes really, really difficult. So I think it’s not just the extended list, but the expectations that I [would] even know about some of the things that I wasn’t trained in necessarily – they only come from personal experience. I think that’s where it has become really difficult. [Also] more requests means more work, but it also often means reliving some of the experiences and negative experiences that we have potentially had.  

TCA: Is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers or viewers?  

Spalding : Let me thank you for reading. I think the interest in this topic is really important. I think it’s important for us all, including myself, to keep doing the work and keep trying to educate ourselves about the implications of some of our actions. Some of these are very explicit, systematic biases, others are unconscious biases that we carry. So the more awareness we have about those biases, the better people we can be – regardless of what the goal of that is.   

I think the unique character of Oregon and Corvallis in particular – it’s a small town, predominantly white – so I think to just keep motivating people to learn and experience difference and diversity and inclusion and see how we can work, if not on ourselves, at least the next generation. It’s really important. 

TCA: Thank you for being here. I’ve enjoyed very much hearing what you have to say.  

Spalding : Thank you. Thank you so much for the opportunity.  

By Sally K Lehman