Events of the last few months have shined an intense light on the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice in our world. It is likewise important to consider how these topics intersect with other aspects of our society and culture, including the realm of science, our academic institutions, our professional societies, and even scholarly publishing. More than a year ago, I was struck by the fact that Optometry and Vision Science had a diversity and inclusion problem. What follows is one story of discovery, reactions, and actions to address this issue.
One of the great hazards of scientific exploration is bias in any form. Great scientists (e.g., Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Ada Lovelace, and Rosalind Franklin) all had notable respect for the power of one's bias to deceive, to influence thinking, and to cloud one's perceptions of truth. In his 1974 address to Cal-Tech graduates, Feynman put it this way: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.” To approach a problem freely and with an open mind—to observe without bias—is truly difficult. We are conditioned by our environment and our social institutions to see through our own lens and personal experiences.
Despite a fundamental philosophical sensitivity to the hazards of bias, the scientific community is no less challenged by a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Black scientists, women, and others remain underrepresented. It is common for there to be more male faculty members who receive higher pay than their female colleagues. Moreover, women are far less likely to hold positions of leadership in academic institutions and serve as directors, department chairs, or chief academic officers. The data we have do not support unbiased practices in the selection, promotion, or our appointment of leaders (Wright C, et al. IOVS 2018;59:ARVO E-Abstract 6169).1
THE ROLE OF EDITORIAL BOARDS
Editorial boards have significant influence on the culture and expectations within scientific and professional societies. It is fair to say that they are a reflection of the principles and values of a community. Those who hold these visible positions of leadership hold the power and responsibility to influence what scientific ideas are published and thereby shape the very thought and dialog within the community. Editors influence appointments to their editorial board and therefore must consider not only their responsibility to scientific principles but also their broader obligation to build boards that are inclusive and reflective of the diversity in their community.
Over the past decade, the demographics of the profession of optometry have changed dramatically. In practices and in our schools and colleges of optometry, women are now the majority. Nevertheless, the editorial board of Optometry and Vision Science has not changed to reflect that evolving demographic. It has had too few women and very little minority representation, but we are making intentional commitments to address this and become a more diverse and inclusive editorial board.
The first step toward inclusion and diversity was to recognize the fact that there was a lack of equity and diversity and to admit that this was a problem. After some consideration and analysis of our current practices, the bias of our current system was easily recognizable as unacceptable. When discussing the problem with others, comments and reactions ranged widely. Some were surprised; some were not. Others reacted angrily. There was no practice or policy to encourage or enforce equity. There was no guidance on this point at all, and in the absence of explicit rules or intentional effort, implicit bias can be a powerful force that is difficult to avoid.
The vetting and selection process for editorial board members was not intentionally excluding anyone, but it was also not intentionally inclusive of everyone either. There was no goal or plan to address diversity. The system was designed to select participants based on skills, experience, and an expressed willingness to serve. Those who distinguished themselves through exemplary work were recognized and rewarded, but how does someone gain entry to a community where they have limited experience with the language, customs, practices, and expectations? It can be easy to miss opportunities or to be overlooked. This is where leadership is crucial.
One of the ongoing challenges faced by optometry, ophthalmology, and related research disciplines is the lack of underrepresented minorities, and this is true at every level: students, practitioners, and faculty. To highlight this pipeline problem, in 2017, there were numerous fields of study (mostly science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) where there were no Black students who earned a PhD degree.2 The journey toward greater diversity and representation on editorial boards and editorships is a long one, and it begins with student recruitment and mentoring. Increasing the supply of candidates who can increase program diversity is not a quick solution. To have more Black and minority students who become authors, reviewers, and editors, they must first be admitted to professional and graduate programs. These students should then be mentored toward becoming successful first authors of peer-reviewed articles. This pool of authors becomes the subject-matter experts who serve as peer reviewers. Those who distinguish themselves as reviewers then become candidates for the editorial board. This is the conventional pathway that leads to editorial board appointments. Taking this route requires a long-term commitment at every stage of development, and this is not a solution that will resolve our diversity problem for years.
A PLAN FOR CHANGE
As an editor who is in a position to influence future appointments, I have developed plans to increase diversity among the editorial board. The first step is to set goals, and because we are a scholarly society, we will take data. We will make comparisons to benchmark our diversity performance over time and with other similar organizations. This will help promote transparency and accountability. We will also engage our community in conversations to help promote awareness and act on recommendations that can help develop an inclusive environment.
Over the past several years, I have actively cultivated candidates with mixed success. For example, it is not uncommon for qualified candidates to decline service. Serving on an editorial board is a time-consuming commitment with goals and rewards that are often intangible. When candidates who could have enhanced the board's diversity decline to serve, the setbacks can have a significant impact. The community of vision science, optometry, and ophthalmology is not currently diverse or representative of broader community demographics. Nevertheless, by recognizing that diversity and inclusion are desirable objectives, by setting attainable goals, and by developing specific plans on how to achieve program diversity, there is hope and an opportunity to succeed.
1. Yashadhana A, Zhang JH, Yasmin S, et al. Action Needed to Improve Equity and Diversity in Global Eye Health Leadership. Eye (Lond) 2020;34:1051–4.
2. Kang K. Science and Engineering Doctorates: Data Tables. National Science Foundation. Last updated December 4, 2018. Available at: https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19301/data
. Accessed June 25, 2020.