Racial diversity in geosciences – A shared responsibility

Wooden figures representing racial diversity

When Dr Kuheli Dutt first published her article ‘Race and Racism in the Geosciences’ with Nature Geoscience in December 2019, no one could have predicted the degree to which it would resonate with readers at the time. The journal elected to remove its paywall as the article proved to be so popular. 

Dr Dutt’s article raised questions around the lack of diversity within geosciences education.  

Emphasising that systemic change is needed, she wrote: 

A lack of diversity and inclusion is the single largest cultural problem facing geosciences today…We need a systematic cultural change that can only happen when people are not only willing to acknowledge the problem, but also to take individual responsibility for it. The only way we can change the geoscience culture is by a massive shift in individual mindsets, with the aim of moving the field from passively non-racist to actively anti-racist.[1]

Critically, her article argues that ‘progress in diversification can only come with a concerted shift in mindsets and a deeper understanding of the complexities of race.’[2]

These messages and themes gained greater currency in 2020 with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and its essential questioning of engrained racial relationships.

Diversity and Mining

Over the past months, the world has witnessed what appears to be a welcome turning point in how race, inequality, history, stereotypes and the future of those from diverse backgrounds are considered. 

This re-examination will – it is to be hoped – engender long-overdue changes across all aspects of society. All industries will be affected, including the geosciences and affiliated industries such as mining, which have historically lacked diversity in education and senior positions alike. 

Gender diversity in mining, while far from resolved, has at least been acknowledged and discussed, and some improvements are being made. [3]  

In contrast, racial diversity still has a long way to go. 

Studies and articles that detail racial representation in the geosciences and related industries are few and far between – emblematic of the problem at large. 

However, as an example, a 2018 article shows that there is little ethnic or racial diversity among US citizens and permanent residents receiving doctorates in earth, atmospheric and oceanic sciences – there has also been little improvement in these numbers over the last 40 years.[4]   

In 2016, only six per cent of US citizens or permanent residents awarded geoscience doctorates came from underrepresented minorities – the lowest proportion of any STEM field. 

The lack of diversity in geoscience education is significant for the mining industry, which not only misses out on the new ideas and approaches that come from a diverse workforce but also faces an impending deficit in skilled workers. 

The industry can’t afford to consciously or unconsciously exclude talent and must work to make both education and the sector a satisfying, comfortable and productive place for people from all backgrounds.

Where do we go from here?

This dearth of diversity in the geosciences calls for a deeper understanding of racial complexities. But it is not something that can be adequately addressed overnight or by just one company. 

Fostering such an understanding will take time, grit, and the concerted efforts of everyone involved.

As I write this, I am conscious that I am applying my own limited perspective that does not reflect the views, experiences and needs of those who live with the consequences of everyday racism and exclusion.   

As Dr Dutt poignantly explained when speaking to the New York Times about her Nature Geoscience article, ‘I wanted to write a piece to address the disconnect between the way white people and people of colour view topics of racism’.[5]

In the article, she draws attention to ‘colour-blind racism’ and the fact that although it ‘is not intentional, disregarding race in a setting with a strong imbalance in power – as is the case in many US geoscience departments – reinforces race being viewed by default from a perspective of being White.’[6]

So, what can we achieve? And how can we disrupt long-established behaviours and perspectives? 

As individuals and employers, there are actions we can take now to help move forward. These may include:

  • Lobbying for increased funding or for provision of bursaries for people from minority backgrounds wishing to study geosciences and other mining-related degrees
  • Adapting recruitment processes to engage with people our industry has previously been mediocre at reaching
  • Promoting role models of different races to provide visible examples of those who have succeeded
  • Building support networks for employees and students, where they can raise concerns and issues
  • Recognising and verbalising the problem so that we can start to have key discussions within our organisation

These suggestions can only contribute to the discussion. To make any sustainable progress, our industry needs a fundamental change at a societal, organisational and individual level. Real change will require a collective dialogue that involves employers, public bodies and education aimed at a greater understanding of the range of challenges in order to start shifting mindsets and changing patterns of behaviour. 

Diverse voices must be at the heart of that conversation.  

Dr Emily Goetsch, Senior Associate – Research 

Image (c) Shutterstock | Vitalii Vodolazskyi

[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0519-z?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_content=organic&utm_campaign=NGMT_2_JNC_NRJournals

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0519-z?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_content=organic&utm_campaign=NGMT_2_JNC_NRJournals

[3] https://www.forbes.com/sites/woodmackenzie/2019/05/24/why-the-mining-industry-needs-more-women/https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0116-6

[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-018-0116-6

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/23/science/earth-science-diversity-education.html

[6] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0519-z?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_content=organic&utm_campaign=NGMT_2_JNC_NRJournals