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Woods Hole Science Institutions Stung by Diversity Report: 'Preponderance of Overt Racism'

Sarah Mizes-Tan
Onjale Scott Price at her desk at the Marine Biological Laboratories.

One day in late November, a group of scientists and employees gathered at the Marine Biological Laboratory for mandatory mingling. In an exercise laid out by two diversity trainers from the University of Chicago, attendees were encouraged to say hello to people they hadn't spoken with before and taught techniques for engaging with people who may have different perspectives from their own.

This training is part of a greater effort by the six science institutions in Woods Hole to address concerns over diversity and racial bias.

Woods Hole's six major science institutions include the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Sea Education Association, the United States Geological Survey, and the Woods Hole Research Center.

They employ around 2,000 full time, year-round staff, and it’s estimated that in total, about 90 percent of their employees are white and just 10 percent are people of color, a category that includes African Americans, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans.

Onjale Scott Price, a scientist at the MBL, said the current workplace climate can be difficult for people of color. "I do know of at least three people of color who came here, were excited to be here, and they had a horrible experience," Scott Price said.

Woods Hole Diversity and Inclusion Report and Recommendations

Scott Price is a member of a volunteer group looking to improve the environment for people of color in the science institutions. She's African American, and she said she often hears of incidents happening within the workplace that push people of color away.

"Having inappropriate words used in their presence that would obviously make them uncomfortable, being specifically left out of the group when they were qualified for whatever the activity was—those kinds of things," Scott Price said.

I do know of at least three people of color who came here, were excited to be here, and they had a horrible experience. And another person of color, I really encouraged them to come and I felt horrible to find out they had an absolutely horrible experience and would never even come back to visit.

The homogenous demographics are not news to the science institutions. For the past decade they’ve attempted to address these numbers, with programs that bring in students of color to intern or do semesters in Woods Hole.

Back in 2018, the institutions hired an independent researcher from Harvard University to report on the state of diversity and inclusion in the local science community.

The results were blunt. The fifteen-page document detailed what it called a "dearth of diversity," an "absence of cultural competence," and a workplace culture of "overt racism and aggression/micro-aggressions."

"I think when the report came out, it was a big shock to a lot of people, and then also a kind of 'Seriously, people didn't know that?' to a lot of other people," Scott Price said. "I think it's really important that we have it, because it actually brings a lot of things to light. Things that were just whispers in the hallway, or things that people just dismissed, are actually on paper."

George Liles is at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Woods Hole, one of the institutions included in the report. He’s been working on diversity initiatives at his organization for 15 years, but he said the report was a wake-up call.

"As much work as I do on this, I still was stunned by it," he said. "And I have to say, many of the examples [the report] gives, I was there when they happened, and I saw them happen, and like every other person who's not of color I know who reads this report, I had the same reaction. I said, 'Yeah, I sort of knew.' But when you read seven pages of it, incident after incident, it had a bigger impact on me than seeing the things happen myself."

Liles is part of a group of institution administrators pushing for greater diversity. He called the report a turning point, because it showed how much still needs to be done.

"What we're talking about is changing a culture. And if you're going to do culture change, you need to have ten thousand discussions about who we are, and who we want to be. You've just got to work through a process," Liles said.

What we're talking about is changing a culture, and if you're going to do culture change, you need to have ten thousand discussions about who we are, who we want to be, you've just got to work through a process.

Sharla Alegria is an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, and she studies how organizations can make changes to workplace culture. She said that one-off events like diversity trainings typically don't have a great impact, and that sometimes, they can actually make an environment less friendly towards people of color.

"There's really mixed results related to actual diversity trainings, so it's not super clear that they always make a difference in terms of improving diversity-related outcomes in companies," Alegria said. "Actually, sometimes diversity-related outcomes get worse." 

She said meaningful change can be made if organizations can find ways to have accountability for workplace behavior.

"Things that tend to be helpful are things that require people to change their behavior. Recruiting in different places. Setting up mentoring programs and making sure someone's responsible for the success of new hires," Alegria said. "These kinds of things where people's actual behaviors need to change, and there's a way to measure whether or not they've done it." 

Onjale Scott Price says in the year-and-a-half since the report came out, she hasn't seen a lot of change, personally.

"I think there's more talk, which is good," said Onjale Scott Price. "But I don't think there's a lot more actual change, such as, change in hiring practices, or change in recruitment, or change in the environment and the way people deal with each other. I don't think there's a lot of change there. There's a lot more trainings—so hopefully there will be change."