An IDEA for Physics Organizations

The APS Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA) is a new, community-wide effort to work with the physics community to strengthen its efforts to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Funded by the APS Innovation Fund in 2019, APS-IDEA will convene representatives from about 30 physics departments, laboratories, and research collaborations to attend an initial workshop June 12-13, 2020, establish an online learning community, and, more broadly, form a community of practice with the goal of transforming the culture of physics. As in any emerging subfield of physics, progress towards a more inclusive physics community will be accelerated by collaboration, sharing of promising practices, and grounding the work in research. APS-IDEA was created to support the physics community’s efforts to improve EDI.

APS-IDEA is directed by a Steering Committee of seven physicists with expertise spanning physics education research and equity, diversity, and inclusion. Its Advisory Board consists of more than a dozen experts in these areas plus social scientists with expertise in organizational change in higher education.

During the last two years, numerous initiatives (see Related Projects below) have been established or have stepped up their efforts to address challenges of EDI in physics (see Systemic Problems in Physics below). APS-IDEA provides a flexible platform that physics organizations can use to engage with any of these initiatives, or develop their own independent effort, to address their own unique challenges. It is intended to support the interests and plans of participating organizations (see Benefits below).

This document describes how interested physicists can participate in APS-IDEA and summarizes the resulting benefits. It then provides more detail about the goals of and methods used by the project (Basic IDEAs below), and it concludes by summarizing the broader context of efforts to improve EDI in physics.

How Physicists Can Participate

Members of interested physics departments of any size, laboratories employing at least 20 physicists, and collaborations of at least 20 physicists, can take the following steps to learn more leading, perhaps, to an application for the initial cohort of APS-IDEA institutions.

  1. Join the APS-IDEA mailing list.
  2. If your team would like to join a movement with other similar teams engaging with experts on EDI and organizational change in physics and related fields, apply for participation in APS-IDEA. If selected, you will be invited to send 2–3 people to attend an inaugural workshop June 12-13, 2020.
  3. Discuss this project within your organization, including with the leadership, to determine if participation might serve your interests.
  4. Convene a departmental committee or team to begin learning together by reading and discussing together some of the articles and/or reports cited above. The team should include, as applicable, students (undergraduate and graduate), postdocs, staff (non-physicists and physicists), and faculty or senior scientists—with equal time and respect given to each member regardless of their age, gender, race, or educational attainment.
  5. Utilize the expertise of a facilitator outside your department to assist with these discussions. This is essential in a shared leadership model.
  6. Obtain recognition of the team by the organizational leader (e.g., department chair) as a service role with time and meeting space granted by the organization. Ideally, the leader would provide a charge to the team and receive periodic updates from it.
  7. Discuss this document within your team and determine its relevance to the organization.

Benefits

Organizations participating in APS-IDEA will receive some or all of these benefits:

  1. Participate in a community of transformation from which they obtain ideas and support, including access to an online learning community
  2. Receive support and facilitation to accelerate team formation and effectiveness
  3. Prepare a realistic 10-year strategic plan for improving EDI
  4. Develop a sustainable effort that does not rely on lone champions and will survive leadership changes
  5. Improve the climate for inclusion and belonging in your organization
  6. Obtain recognition from others for your program’s efforts and successes

APS-IDEA helps a physics organization to leverage other efforts. For example, if a physics laboratory receives feedback from an APS Climate Site Visit, the lab’s IDEA team will have the background, broad representation, and longevity to guide and monitor the department’s response. If a department wants to focus on increasing African American undergraduate degrees, the change strategies of the TEAM-UP report align very well with APS-IDEA. Or, if a department wants to seek recognition of its efforts through external certification, its IDEA committee can develop a SEA Change application and, more importantly, ensure that sufficient progress is made to result in a renewal every five years.

Basic IDEAs

APS-IDEA was established to support departmental change efforts to enhance EDI utilizing a variety of approaches including education and mentoring reform, climate site visits, outside certification, and/or the recommendations made by a variety of reports (see Related Projects below). APS-IDEA provides a flexible platform that can be used to support one or more of these projects in a given physics program. Here, platform refers to a set of methods and a network of support for change agents doing the work in an organization. Like a software development kit, this foundation will enable users to develop their own apps. However, this platform is based on a kind of software not expressible in code—the people and relationships within the organization that are the key to creating, assessing, and sustaining improvements in EDI.

Why build a platform first? Why not launch immediately into a change effort? An answer was given by education psychologist Seymour Sarason, “[I]f you want to change and improve the climate and outcomes of schooling both for students and teachers, there are features of the school culture that have to be changed, and if they are not changed, your well-intentioned efforts will be defeated.” Although written in the context of K-12 education, this warning applies equally to higher education and to the physics profession itself. Changing departmental practices and outcomes for EDI is difficult work requiring years of sustained effort with leadership that is both top-down and bottom-up. APS-IDEA aims to help departments and other physics organizations develop the capacity for such change with the long term goal of extending impacts across the physics community.

APS-IDEA starts with the recognition that individuals, organizations, the physics profession, and society at large all influence a department’s culture and diversity. Physics is subject to systems of inequity that operate whether or not they are recognized. Addressing the causes and effects of inequities in physics requires an understanding of social systems and culture, for which there is a large body of research. Creating sustainable changes requires developing and understanding theories of change including the cultural, political, and cognitive factors underlying collective behavior. APS-IDEA is deeply informed by research on change in higher education (Kezar 2019), on communities of practice (Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder 2002), and on social movement theory and practice (Pastor and Ortiz 2009 and the Leading Change Network). APS-IDEA will develop a community of transformation (Kezar and Gehrke 2015) utilizing the concepts of sensemaking (Kezar 2013) and shared leadership (Kezar and Holcombe 2017—an example of participatory democracy in which students, postdocs, staff, and faculty share power, obtain multiple perspectives, and provide internal accountability for outcomes). The community will be enhanced through regular webinars, group chats, and an online learning community.

Similar efforts in Mechanical Engineering (TECAID), Computer Science (BRAID), and Geosciences (GOLD) help to inform APS-IDEA which also builds on the existing Departmental Action Teams methodology and research of Quan et al. (2018) and the Access Network.

The vision, mission, and guiding principles of APS-IDEA are:

Vision: As a result of collective efforts, physics and related fields will become more inclusive of all social identities, with a diversity reflective of the nation, and with an equitable distribution of opportunities and resources.

Mission: APS-IDEA seeks to empower and support physics departments, laboratories, and other organizations to identify and enact strategies for improving equity, diversity, and inclusion. It will do so by establishing a community of transformation.

Guiding principles:

  • Center people whose identities are marginalized
  • Utilize sensemaking, including creating brave spaces supporting learning from mistakes
  • Start with research-based change-management methods
  • Shared leadership: departmental teams should span the range of social power from students to faculty

Related Projects
In response to concerns about EDI in physics and related fields, many groups have launched change efforts. These include:

To an individual, department, or laboratory wanting to make positive change, this plethora of reports and activities may appear daunting and feel overwhelming. Information overload can lead to paralysis. In order to be effective, real progress requires an understanding of the context of one’s organization; developing a range of possible strategies for assessment, planning, and action; and building the relationships needed to sustain change. Physicists develop such frameworks all the time in planning research. We can do likewise in planning for and acting towards cultural change to improve EDI.

Systemic Problems in Physics
Physics has multiple diversity problems. African Americans are shockingly underrepresented in undergraduate physics programs compared with other physical sciences and other racial and ethnic groups (TEAM-UP, 2020). Little progress has been made over many years in improving the representation of women in physics (AIP Women in Physics and Astronomy report, 2019). A lack of data means that we do not even know the representation of major groups such as members of the LBGT+ community or underrepresented ethnic groups such as Arab Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Southeast Asians. People with disabilities are also underrepresented, comprising only 9% of employed physical scientists compared to the approximately 20% of undergraduate students in STEM who identify as such (NSF Women, Minorities, and People with Disabilities in STEM report, 2019).

Demographic under-representation is the result of a complex system of interactions and forms of discrimination and oppression including experiences of being either centered or marginalized in science classrooms and science communities. These experiences play out through broad social stereotypes about science throughout individuals’ lives but, critically, are reinforced in specific ways in science classrooms and post-secondary institutions by scientists and others in power. Underrepresented group members are too often targeted because of their identities; they are told they don’t belong in subtle and overt ways, they face sexual or other identity-based harassment, and their presence is not planned for in our community. Almost three-quarters of undergraduate women in physics responding to a survey of the 2017 APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics report experiencing some form of sexual harassment in the last two years (Aycock et al. 2019). African American undergraduates have languished in physics compared with other fields and other racial and ethnic groups in part because of the lack of a supportive environment in their departments (TEAM-UP, 2020). LGBT+ physicists experience high levels of harassment and discrimination (APS LGBT+ report, 2016). People with disabilities also experience significant barriers to studying and working in physics and related fields (NSF Women, Minorities, and People with Disabilities in STEM report, 2019).

The problem is not caused by a lack of information about the low numbers and poor experience of marginalized group members. Rather, there are many reasons why change doesn’t happen, including uncertainty of what to do, fear of disturbing the status quo or an interest in maintaining it, or a lack of sufficient caring or preparation by those in a position to make a difference.

During the last year alone, major professional societies and associations in physics and astronomy have issued many statements and reports on the need to improve equity, build inclusion, and value diversity: AIP Diversity Statement, APS Strategic Plan, AAS Report on Diversity and Inclusion in Astronomy Graduate Education, Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM, AIP TEAM-UP Report, AAS CSWA Eliminating Harassment, AAS CSWA Career Development of Women. APS-IDEA seeks to build a community of transformation so that these reports do not languish but instead are used to guide change efforts throughout the physics community.


1 E. Bertschinger (MIT), E. Brown (APS), M. Lollie (Louisiana State University), J. Pando (DePaul University), M. Plisch (APS), G. Potvin (Florida International University), E. Scanlon (University of Central Florida)

2 S. Sarason (1996), Revisiting the Culture of the School and The Problem of Change (New York: Teachers College Press, p. 340)