We are members of a group of early-career researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, which meets every four to six weeks to discuss inequalities in science and society. Four years ago, two of us founded the group to discuss the issues we faced as women in academia, such as battling against pay gaps and dysfunctional research environments. We have since broadened our scope beyond gender issues to include other dimensions that affect equity in academia, including race and socio-economic status.
We call ourselves SPEAK: Scientists Promoting Equity and Knowledge. Our mission is to promote a more inclusive and equitable environment in academia, starting with our own beliefs and actions. We feel that our model — part discussion group, part support group — can be adapted by researchers at other institutions as a first step to sparking grass-roots change.
SPEAK meetings adopt a journal-club format in which we discuss a book, set of articles, podcast or movie (often a documentary). But unlike journal clubs, which often focus on critiquing the work being discussed, we use the materials to launch examinations of ourselves, each other, our departments and our institution at large. Recent readings include learning about the psychological science of racial biases in Jennifer Eberhardt’s Biased (2019), how our data-driven world often fails to account for gender in Invisible Women (2019) by Caroline Criado Perez and articles about civil-rights leaders who made changes in their communities, such as Pauli Murray and Douglas Moore.
We discuss crucial but difficult issues — such as racism in academia, effective communication from low-power positions and negotiations in the workplace, such as those over inequities in salary. We share experiences as well as offer advice, support and mentorship. Our group enables us to network and form relationships across laboratories, departments and positions.We also practise career-development skills that apply both in and outside academia. For example, we held a workshop after reading Never Split the Difference (2016) by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz to practise implementing its recommended negotiation strategies. Reading Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor (2019), an exploration of about the challenges faced by low-income students in higher education, motivated us to draft inclusive syllabus language that has since been distributed to and adopted by colleagues in our departments and at other institutions. We include SPEAK on our job applications and CVs. For example, when writing diversity statements as part of faculty applications, our engagement with SPEAK equips us with a richer understanding of what contributes to inequities in academia. Our readings and conversations help us to write more specifically and powerfully about our role in disrupting those systems through our research, service, mentorship and teaching.
SPEAK members have turned their challenges in academia into something productive by pressing our institutions for real change. For example, our founders partnered with one of SPEAK’s funders to establish an Inclusion & Power Dynamics Initiative, which runs workshops on allyship and scientific talks about evidence-based inequity interventions. These have been attended by more than 500 individuals across all levels of academia at Duke.
Here, we reflect on what’s contributed to the success and longevity of our group, and provide guidelines on how you can start a similar organization at your institution.
Define your community
Decide on clear rules on who your community is open to, given that discussions might divulge sensitive and personal information about members. These deep but difficult conversations are possible only if each individual feels psychologically safe, without fear of personal or professional repercussions. Consequently, our membership is designed to limit the potential for uneven power dynamics between members. In practise, this means restricting our membership to trainees, although two of us have remained in the group after promotion to non-supervisory junior faculty positions.
Nurture and enforce an inclusive space
Our organizational structure is flat, but we take turns volunteering to moderate meetings. Discussion leaders sow conversation and prevent individual members from dominating conversations. Rotating the leader for each meeting means the burden is distributed across the group, and soliciting volunteers ensures that people moderate only the topics they are comfortable with. Being intentional about the design of our discussions provides all members — especially those from historically marginalized backgrounds — an inclusive space to share their lived experiences.
We have kept our group relatively small to maintain a sense of community. More than 50 individuals have attended our meetings over the past 4 years, but each meeting generally draws around 15 people. Our online meetings during the pandemic have drawn similar numbers to our pre-pandemic in-person meetings, which we attribute to the supportive and collegial atmosphere that we have fostered over the years.
Secure funding — or not
A SPEAK-style discussion group could run at no cost by making use of many freely available articles, podcasts, documentaries (see our website for suggestions) and library books. Our group receives institutional funding through our home departments, which allows us to buy books for each member, removing potential barriers to participation. Your institution or department might have funds earmarked for professional development or diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
Check in with your community and be agile
As it grew in size and diversity, SPEAK’s goals have grown from our initial focus on gender issues to include broader issues of equity and privilege. Our membership reflects this change: for the first six months our group members were all women, but we have evolved to include more men and people of colour in recent years. Checking in with your group members and responding to their needs is important for maintaining community enthusiasm and relevance, and ensuring the longevity of the group.
Although this group has helped us personally and professionally as individuals, we also hope it serves a broader purpose. A group such as SPEAK is one way to move towards the goal of academic equity, which requires first that we acknowledge and understand the systems that generate inequities in our institutions. It serves as both a space for scientists to support each other and one that helps to spur essential reflection of ourselves and the systems that we participate in. Ideally, engaging with a group such as SPEAK is the first step of many. Making science accessible to all, especially those belonging to groups that have been historically excluded, is not only serves justice, but is crucial for the success of the scientific endeavour itself.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.