Diversity has become a bit of a buzzword and, as a result, comes with baggage. I think some naïvely believe the topic of diversity to be one about asking for favors. That is, asking that some groups be measured more gently than others. In fact, discussions of diversity are just the opposite; they acknowledge that people are measured differently and plea for more equitable environments. Inequitable measurement is a well-documented fact. In one study, scientists evaluated the same resume differently based on the gender of the applicant. A similar study showed a racial bias as well. Even if there is no conscious intention, prejudice can be found everywhere.
Prejudice, of course, is not just limited to race, gender, sexuality, or creed. Individuals are constantly judged by various elements of their identity that have nothing to do with their skills. Furthermore, current systems of education appear to favor select learning styles and methods of thought, with little evidence suggesting that these are the only successful strategies. This creates a selection bias that further promotes homogenous thinking in various academic fields.
The point of talking about diversity is to uproot these damaging hidden biases and create better workplaces. Diversity in this context is broader than the skin-deep notion we typically talk about. Types of diversity include
Diversity of Thought
Diversity of Perception
Diversity of Experience
Diversity of Background/Culture
This list makes obvious the momentous value of diverse academic communities: a diverse environment provides an enriching educational experience. As a result, a great deal of time, effort and money has been invested in fostering diversity in math (and other subjects) through various programs. In fact, the American Mathematical Society has a wonderful resource page that is devoted to showcasing many such projects. It is not surprising either. When diverse minds work together, the potential for solving problems increases.
Addressing Unconscious Bias
I believe that the vast majority of discriminatory behavior is unconscious. I also believe that everyone is biased. Ultimately, prejudice is just the result of inductive reasoning done improperly. Put another way, the brain recognizes patterns and subconsciously makes conclusions, regardless of sample size, selection bias, or the presence of a sensible mechanism (correlation versus causation).
For example, research has shown that people evaluate a stranger's trustworthiness based on their facial features. When "trustworthy" features are exaggerated, we see that this bias stems from whether or not that person's cheekbone structure and eyebrow arc correspond to happy or angry expressions. Therefore, if a person has a more cheerful-looking face, they will be evaluated as more trustworthy by others. This bias probably originates from the experience that people who are upset with you are less likely to sympathize with you. However, the conclusion that trustworthy people have high cheekbones, larger eyes, and an upward inner-brow ridge is preposterous.
No matter how hard we try, we develop biases all the time and they are often reinforced by culture. It takes a concerted effort to overcome them.
Acknowledging that everyone, including yourself, makes discriminatory decisions unconsciously is an important first step to mitigating the negative effects. Here are some other suggestions.
Have constructive conversations about the topic. Talking and reflecting with others is a great way to broaden your perspective. Keep the conversation constructive by framing it in terms of equitability and fairness (for all) rather than discrimination.
Analyze your actions and choices, especially those that affect others. Take time to reflect on how you talk and interact with other people.
Share stories that challenge stereotypes. Don't be afraid to share counterexamples. You don't even need to point out that your story is a counterexample. Simply talking about them erodes stereotypes.
Support diversity boosting programs.
My Personal Activities Related to Diversity
I am currently involved with the Penn State Math Department's Climate and Diversity Committee. I also serve on the Graduate Initiatives Subcommittee for the Climate and Diversity Committee for the Eberly College of Science.
With the sponsorship of the Penn State Math Department and its Climate and Diversity Committee, graduate students now organize an annual Diversity Workshop for our department. On my website is the material for the first year.