Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

A dynamical systems description of privilege, power and leadership in academia


As the diversity of people in higher education grows, universities are struggling to provide inclusive environments that nurture the spirit of free inquiry in the presence of these differences. Throughout my career as an astronomer, I have witnessed these struggles first-hand. Exclusive cultures result in unfulfilled potential of all members of the institution — students, administrators and faculty alike. This Perspective draws on insights from dynamical systems descriptions of conflict developed in the social and behavioural sciences to present a model that captures the convoluted, interacting challenges that stifle progress on this problem. This description of complexity explains the persistence of exclusive cultures and the inadequacy of simple fixes. It also motivates the necessity of prolonged and multifaceted approaches to solutions. It is incumbent on our faculties to recognize the complexities in both problems and solutions, and persevere in responding to these intractable dynamics, on our administrations to provide the consistent structure that supports these tasks, and on all of our constituents to be cognizant of and responsive to these efforts.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Interacting galaxy pair Arp 87.

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Fig. 2: Schematic representation of in-group and out-group contributions in monocultural, multicultural and polycultural organizations.
Fig. 3: Feedback loops in interactions at individual, unit and organization levels between in-group and out-group cultures in a multicultural organization.
Fig. 4: Destructive dynamics in the unstable, exclusionary multiculture.
Fig. 5: Breaking the destructive cycles in the stable, inclusive polyculture.


  1. Mulvey, P. J. & Nicholson, S. Focus on Trends in Physics PhDs Technical Report (American Institute of Physics, Statistical Research Center, 2014);

  2. McIntosh, P. in The Teacher in American Society: A Critical Anthology (ed. Provenzo, E. F.) 121–134 (Sage, 2010).

  3. Miller, C. W., Zwickl, B. M., Posselt, J. R., Silvestrini, R. T. & Hodapp, T. Typical physics Ph.D. admissions criteria limit access to underrepresented groups but fail to predict doctoral completion. Sci. Adv. 5, eaat7550 (2019).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Phillips, K. W. How diversity works. Sci. Am. 311, 42–47 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Sheridan, J. et al. Write more articles, get more grants: the impact of department climate on faculty research productivity. J. Womens Health 26, 587–596 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Spradlin, D. Are you solving the right problem?. Harv. Bus. Rev. 90, 84–93 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Coleman, P. et al. Promoting constructive multicultural attractors: fostering unity and fairness from diversity and conflict. J. Appl. Behav. Sci. 53, 1–32 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Prescod-Weinstein, C. Curiosity and the end of discrimination. Nat. Astron. 1, 0145 (2017).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Porter, A. M. & Ivie, R. Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2019 Technical Report (American Institute of Physics, Statistical Research Center, 2019);

  10. Goulden, M., Mason, M. A. & Frasch, K. Keeping women in the science pipeline. Ann. Am. Acad. Pol. Soc. Sci. 638, 141–162 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Stewart, A. J. & Valian, V. An Inclusive Academy (MIT Press, 2018).

  12. Wilkins, L. & Kaiser, C. Racial progress as threat to the status hierarchy: implications for perceptions of anti-white bias. Psychol. Sci. 25, 439–446 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Craig, M. & Richeson, J. A. On the precipice of a “majority–minority” America: perceived status threat from the racial demographic shift affects white Americans’ political ideology. Psychol. Sci. 25, 1189–1197 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Sue, D. Race talk: the psychology of racial dialogues. Am. Psychol. 68, 663–672 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Dobbin, F. & Kalev, A. Why diversity training doesn’t work: the challenge for industry and academia. Anthropol. Now. 10, 48–55 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. O’Meara, K., Kuvaeva, A. & Nyunt, G. Constrained choices: a view of campus service inequality from annual faculty reports. J. High. Educ. 88, 672–700 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Hekman, D. R., Johnson, S. K., Foo, M.-D. & Yang, W. Does diversity-valuing behavior result in diminished performance ratings for non-white and female leaders? Acad. Manage. J. 60, (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Johnson, S. K. & Hekman, D. R. Women and minorities penalized for promoting diversity. Harv. Bus. Rev. (2016).

  19. Yen, J. A case study on debiasing a postdoctoral fellowship evaluation process: six strategies for in-person review panels. Nat. Astron. (2019).

  20. Reid, I. Gender-correlated systematics in HST proposal selection. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pac. 126, 923–934 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Strolger, L. & Natarajan, P. Doling out Hubble time with dual-anonymous evaluation. Physics Today (2019).

  22. Levesque, E. M., Bezanson, R. & Tremblay, G. R. Physics GRE scores of prize postdoctoral fellows in astronomy. Preprint at (2015).

  23. Galinsky, A. D. et al. Maximizing the gains and minimizing the pains of diversity: a policy perspective. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 10, 742–748 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Policy and Planning Committee Equity Reports: Natural Sciences, Humanities, Social Science Technical Report (Columbia Univ., 2018);

  25. Belle, D., Smith-Doerr, L. & O’Brien, L. M. in Gender Transformation in the Academy (eds Demos, V. et al.) 153–175 (Emerald Group Publishing, 2014).

  26. Banaji, M. & Greenwald, A. Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte Press, 2013).

  27. Wenneras, C. & Wold, A. Nepotism and sexism in peer review. Nature 387, 341–343 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Trix, F. & Psenka, C. Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse Soc. 14, 191–220 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Budden, A. E. et al. Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors. Trends Ecol. Evol. 33, 4–6 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Neureiter, M. & Traut-Mattausch, E. An inner barrier to career development: preconditions of the impostor phenomenon and consequences for career development. Front. Psychol. 7, 48 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  31. Steele, C. M. & Aronson, J. Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 69, 797–811 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Steele, C. Whistling Vivaldi (W. W. Norton, 2011).

Download references


I acknowledge support from National Science Foundation (NSF) grant AST-1715582. I am grateful for the hospitality of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (supported by NSF grant PHY-1748958) and the University of California at Santa Cruz during my sabbatical. I thank my fellow members of Columbia’s Committee on Equity and Diversity, colleagues in astronomy (S. Hawley, S. Ho, D. Hogg, J. Holbrook, J. Kollmeier, A. Shapley, R. Somerville and D. Spergel) and beyond (P. Coleman, G. Justice, C. Kaiser and D. Kardia), and friends in the PDPG for feedback as the discussion in this paper was being developed. I thank B. Starling for reading and re-writing.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kathryn V. Johnston.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Astronomy thanks Kim Coble and Laura Kramer for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Johnston, K.V. A dynamical systems description of privilege, power and leadership in academia. Nat Astron 3, 1060–1066 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing