Divergent Trajectories: Devotion, Excellence, and Social Inequality in Academic STEM


Principle Investigator: Mary Blair-Loy (UC San Diego), Erin A. Cech (University of Michigan), and Jeanne Ferrante (UC San Diego)


Funder: National Science Foundation


For the “Divergent Trajectories” project, Blair-Loy and a team of researchers examined the cultural definition of scientific merit and its consequences for inequality in academic STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields.  The research team focused on the case of STEM faculty in a public research university with highly rated STEM departments.  This university, like many public universities in the United States, lauds its fairness in rewarding the best and brightest faculty.  It provides an exemplar case to examine whether and how unequal outcomes for faculty occur alongside the university’s commitments to objectivity and excellence.

The research team collected organizational data and conducted surveys (at two time points) and 85 interviews with STEM faculty who varied by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender.  The team also constructed a data base of the scholarly productivity and impact of each person in the sample.

Drawing on these data, the researchers argue that beliefs about devotion to work and culturally acceptable demonstrations of scientific excellence can create barriers to fairly evaluating faculty who are underrepresented racial minorities, LGBT, and/or women. The project shows how social biases can be built into definitions of scientific merit.  Despite beliefs that the assessment of merit is race- and gender-blind, disciplinary schemas of scientific excellence and work devotion generally give white, heterosexual men more credit, while creating barriers to hiring and fairly evaluating other faculty with the same credentials. As a result, the authors show that cultural beliefs about excellence and worthiness can create and reinforce inequalities.


Cech, Erin A. Mary Blair-Loy and Laura Rogers. 2017. “Recognizing Chilliness: How Schemas of Inequality Shape Views of Culture and Climate in Work Environments.”  American Journal of Cultural Sociology online first. 

Cech, Blair-Loy and Rogers show that the recognition of chilly department and disciplinary climates does not simply emerge from personal experiences of marginalization. Across different demographic groups and different experiences, professors who are aware of systematic disadvantages for women and underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities in STEM are more likely than colleagues without that awareness to recognize chilly climates at work that negatively affect women and underrepresented minorities—even if they do not personally experience marginalization. This research suggests that greater awareness of disadvantage can be a first step toward creating change in departments and disciplines that systematically marginalize women and other underrepresented groups.

Cech, Erin A. and Mary Blair-Loy. 2014. “Consequences of Flexibility Stigma among Academic Scientists and Engineers.” Work and Occupations 41: 86-110.
Cech and Blair-Loy show the persistence and power of the work devotion schema – or cultural value of demonstrating commitment to ones career above all other pursuits – even in departments that provide flexibility. This “flexibility stigma” is one harsh consequence for faculty who are seen to violate the work devotion schema, because even though a departmental policy may permit work flexibility, professors in the sample who reported flexibility stigma in their department were less likely to want to remain at the university and were less satisfied with their work. This was true regardless of their gender and family status. The flexibility stigma thereby affects entire departments, parents and non-parents alike. Learn more in Inside Higher Ed and Work in Progress.
Blair-Loy, Mary and Erin A. Cech. "Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering" (forthcoming)
In this forthcoming work, Blair-Loy and Cech examine the definitions of merit within academic STEM professional culture. They find that aspects of academic STEM culture can be usefully analyzed as cultural schemas.  Cultural schemas are shared, taken-for-granted understandings that inform and justify organizational policies and resource distribution.  The book identifies and analyzes two schemas that shape scientists’ definitions of merit:  the work devotion schema and the schema of scientific excellence.

The work devotion schema is a cultural mandate that defines work as a calling deserving of single-minded commitment.  To be a meritorious STEM faculty member means expressing unwavering dedication to one’s profession above all other life commitments, including family caregiving. The authors find negative consequences for faculty who are seen as not measuring up to the schemas of work devotion.  Mothers of young children are often stigmatized as less devoted to their careers, even though mothers’ actual scholarly productivity is similar to that of other faculty.  Further, we find that mothers are often paid less than other colleagues in the same department and rank with the same scholarly productivity. 
The schema of scientific excellence defines certain characteristics as markers of excellence within academic STEM disciplines.  The highest valuation goes to faculty who seem to have creative brilliance and assertive self-promotion.  Interpersonal skills are also valued.  The least valued characteristics are caring about improving society and promoting diversity. Although these are subjective, cultural beliefs—and therefore not objective judgments of performance—the authors find negative consequences for faculty who are not seen as measuring up to the creative brilliance and assertive self-promotion standards of the schema of scientific excellence. In fact, the authors find that professors who regard themselves as assertive and self-promoting are not more productive than similar colleagues with less assertive self-conceptions.  Broader social biases that assume that heterosexual white men are the most likely be creatively brilliant and assertive translate into higher rewards for these men, on average, compared to other colleagues.  In contrast, women, especially women of color, are penalized for assertiveness.  Finally, the authors find subtle barriers for LGBT faculty, who report being less respected and less included compared to heterosexual colleagues with similar productivity, in part because their colleagues see LGBT identity as politicizing the goals of objective research.