We suggest that an uneven, vicious or hostile obstacle course5 (Fig. 1) better reflects the experiences of minority and marginalized scholars in geosciences. A growing body of research documents hostile work environments for many academics, including, but not limited to: BIPOC, white women, those who identify as transgender, genderqueer or non-conforming, religious minorities, academics with disabilities and foreign-born or international academics8,25,26,27,28,29. The obstacle course metaphor allows us to recognize that cultural and structural barriers to participation are not experienced equally; each is on its own unique path. Unlike a leaky pipeline, obstacles are not the inevitable consequence of poorly maintained infrastructure; rather, they are barriers that have often been deliberately – or at least unconsciously – put in place and maintained. Obstacles selectively slow researchers from historically excluded groups, increasing the time and energy required to progress, and meaning they must be much better than their peers to be seen as performing “equally”30.31.
BIPOC scientists face additional obstacles. Their path through the academy obstacle course is more difficult due to racial discrimination which can manifest as contempt, harassment or exclusion from formal and informal professional opportunities., affecting long-term professional success as well as health and well-being31.32. At a minimum, the experience of these behaviors slows down advancement; at worst, these traumatic experiences derail careers, pushing BIPOC academics out of teaching and research institutions and further contributing to their persistent under-representation in academic workplaces.33.
The obstacle course is even more difficult for people who belong to more than one oppressed group. For example, women of color report feeling unsafe at work because of both their gender and race31. The gender and racial homogeneity of STEMM environments contributes to the professional isolation of BIPOC researchers and white women, who experience heightened vulnerability due to discriminatory and hostile behavior, including racism and sexual harassment. While these behaviors can affect anyone, overt and subtle forms of discrimination based on gender and race play a critical role in the decisions of women in general, and women of color in particular, to leave science and the academy.8.12.13.
Compared to the leaky pipeline, a hostile obstacle course better reflects a number of variables that cause the persistent lack of diversity in the geosciences as documented in the United States and other countries.1,2,3,4. Starting early in their education, minority academics often face increased resistance and are held back by a lack of resources and barriers, which prevent many even from reaching the starting line.
During their careers, minority academics often lack role models, mentors and sponsors. This is easily seen in the advice and guidance given to members of the majority but not offered to the marginalized. The inherent knowledge of the unwritten rules of academia is rarely available to minority academics, and efforts must be made to question and illuminate the hidden curriculum and cultural norms of academia.33.
Hidden landmines represent the repeated discrimination that lies beneath the surface, waiting to be activated when minority scholars take a specific path. They come in many different forms such as micro- and macro-aggressions; bullying and professional isolation; and biases in how applications are assessed for admission to graduate programs, research opportunities, recruitments, funding and awards, as well as biases in the peer review process; and they can cause actual injury and damage. As landmines are not visible, the need for constant vigilance to avoid their damage is exhausting, and those in power must actively remove them out of the way of others in order to ease the burden. If discrimination is allowed to persist, it will affect multiple cohorts of academics, with ramifications for overall occupational health.
Those who survive the obstacle course often do so with bruises and burns, and they bear the scars for the rest of their lives. Their survival does not provide immunity to bias8.13; Regardless of their position, survivors are not exempt from the stereotypes that underlie the belief that BIPOC scientists are not smart or capable enough; not have the behavior expected of a scientist; and have only been able to reach the heights of academic achievement because of their identity as a member of a minority group.
Importantly, the imagery of an obstacle course also explains the burnout experienced by academics working not only to be successful in the system, but also to change it. Sadly, the debilitated state caused by burnout, trauma and burnout all too often means that other challenges in day to day life can quickly escalate into a career estrangement or even an involuntary exit. of STEMM.