Diversity in the ASA

Hi! I’m not sure if this is the proper venue for this observation so please remove it or forward it to the appropriate people. I have been a member of ASA for more than 15 years. I have attended a few local chapter meetings and went to my first national meeting in Waco because of the proximity. I have heard a lot about the national meeting since a friend of mine from graduate school faithfully attends every year.

I have to admit much of the conference was not what I expected. To me the conference evoked images of the late 19th century when white men of privilege had the leisure to discuss theories without end over their cups of tea. There are two problems that I have with this image.

1) I know that ASA over the years has tried to get more women and younger scientists to be involved in the organization. But I was still appalled by the lack of diversity. I did not really see anybody like me (an Asian-American women) and even fewer people like the Black and Hispanic PhD students that I work with everyday. I know that most of my students attend church regularly. I have been to a conference where more than 75% of the 100+ these recent PhD graduates gave thanks got God and/or Jesus when they had the chance to say a few words to the audience. Why are these young scientists of color not included in the discussion of faith and science? Is it because they already have enough obstacles to surmount being minorities that adding faith to the mixture will make it even more difficult. Yet they acknowledge their faith and their faith communities as a primary factor in their success.

2) I have to admit that I am biased towards application and not theory and that I found the conference very theoretical. Even though my PhD is in the Earth Sciences, I am not interested in the past but in the present. And maybe the more seasoned ASAers have this figured out but where are the discussions on how to talk to scientists about your faith? There were plenty of things on how to expose your churches to science but not the other way around. Or how does one deal with prejudice in the workplace because of your faith. I did appreciate the talks (mostly engineering ones) where the speakers talked about how their faith directs the research that they do. Not only so that magnificence of the creator is seen through the complexity of the world but also how are called to be stewards and serve the world. I wonder if the (over)emphasis of theoretical issues is as much a turn-off to other young scientists of color as it is to me.

I still learned things at the conference and enjoyed my few conversations with the attendees (I have to admit that after all these years I still find white men intimidating especially in large groups or if they are over 6′ even if I already now them so I tended to stay to myself or listen from outside in the hallways) but I’m not sure if my experience was a positive enough one to want to go back again.

5 comments to Diversity in the ASA

  • Randy Isaac

    Thank you very much for sharing your observations. The ASA has come a long way in the last few decades but not nearly enough in including the full spectrum of diversity in our society. I’ll let Walter and Susan comment on the annual meetings since they are the program chairs for last year’s and this year’s meetings.
    I’d like to hear more suggestions from you about how we can best engage more of the communities that you mention. What do you think would be effective for us?
    One path that has helped in the past is the formation of ASA chapters which engage people at a local and personal level. Would you be willing to start a chapter with the folks that you encounter? It’s easy to set up and we’ll help you do that. Guidelines are at http://www.asa3.org/~randyisaac/ASAChaptersandSections.pdf
    We’re glad you care and would be happy to work with you to remedy the situation.

  • Christina Chan


    I’m currently in the Houston chapter. I don’t go very often, but I did mention to the organizer ways that the chapter might get engaged in more than just discussion and to add action to thinking. One idea was to volunteer as an ASA group when the local science museum has outreach events and are looking for volunteers. But since I will be moving from Houston to Waco later this year, I think it makes more sense for me to wait until I get there to do more with ASA.

    As far as for trying to get the black and Hispanic students to become involved, I tried to see if I could organize a panel discussion on faith and science for my students, but my steering committee shot it down flat. I think for a large part because the committee members are not believers. I did get that idea from one of the sessions at the last annual meeting on joining with Muslims to explore faith and science issues. I also have a few very devout Muslim students that I mentor. Since I am at secular university and not in a tenure-track position, I am still trying to figure out how to negotiate sharing these ideas with my students in a non one-on-one setting.

  • Christine Smith

    Hi all!

    I’m not especially sensitive to issues of diversity in general (I’m speaking here from the perpsecitve of a young, white female), so I didn’t really notice the fact that the ASA conference was largely older, white men. In general, I dislike the idea of creating diversity simply for diversity’s sake; I tend towards the idea that as long as things are conducted fairly and freely for all people, then people will gravitate towards and become involved in what they want to, and that the demographics of that involvement don’t ultimately matter. In other words, I take Martin Luther King Jr.’s words very literally – that people should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin – and that therefore, who cares if there’s only 1 black person or 500 black people or whatever involved in a given activity? In other words, there is no “black” viewpoint or “Asian” viewpoint or “white” viewpoint – there’s only “John’s” viewpoint, “Christina’s” viewpoint, and “Christine’s” viewpoint, etc. To think otherwise, I feel presumes certain stereotypes – the very prejudice that Dr. King stood against and wanted to eliminate. I am all for encouraging a diversity of viewpoints; I am against the notion that a diverity of viewpoints is necessarily/always tied to a diversity of skin colors, nationalities, gender, etc.

    All that being said, if there are differences in the actual level of involvement between certain groups of people and the expected/hoped for level of involvement, I do think it is important to understand why; both for the sake of understanding and to ensure that all things are being conducted freely and fairly with respect to all people. In the particularly instance of the ASA conference, I could think of a number of possible reasons:

    – the event was advertised in venues that typically don’t include as an audience people of a minority background
    – people from a minority background, for whatever reason, don’t care about the insersection of faith-science issues in general
    – people from a minority background, for whatever reason, didn’t like the agenda/topics for this particular ASA conference
    – people from a minority background were not generally living in close proximity to the event, so fewer people from these backgrounds attended the event
    – peopole from a minority background were not as well-off economically, and therefore tended not to be able to afford the conference/travel to the conference
    – the conference’s timing overlapped with cultural events/activities that people from a minority status are typically involved in; therefore, they could not attend the conference

    These are only a few possible reasons for the differences in attendance, and each of these (as well as others) could be further analyzed for more specific details and information. Generally speaking though, I think ASA’s responsibility is to ensure that the conference is representative of and responsive to the needs of the organization as a whole, and that efforts are made to ensure that outreach is done in as many possible venues as possible so that all people who might be interested will at least be aware of the conference. Beyond this, I don’t feel that ASA has any special obligation or responsibility to create a demographically diverse attendance rate.

    In Christ,

  • Randy Isaac

    Thanks for the observtions, Christine. You make a valid point. I do think we have a responsibility as an organization to ensure that we do contact minority groups to be sure they know about our activity and to do our best to make everyone comfortable in our meetings. But an explicit quota system wouldn’t be appropriate or even appreciated by anyone. Being a Christian and being in science puts all of us in a “minority” position on both of those points, and being a minority in a gender or ethnic group just accentuates that aspect. Part of our perspective should be to be as inclusive as we can.

  • Roger Olson

    Great posts by Christine and Randy. Christina, what would you propose that the ASA do to effect the diversity outreach you desire?

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