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Making invisible work in STEM more visible

People underrepresented in STEM fields take on a disproportionate amount of mentoring and other service commitments. It’s time to acknowledge it

by Linda Wang
June 30, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 26
An illustration of a line of people waiting to get into an office.

Credit: Davide Bonazzi


In brief

Awareness is growing about “invisible work,” such as mentoring students and serving on committees. Many STEM faculty from underrepresented groups, such as people of color, shoulder a heavier burden of this service load, which may put their career advancement at risk. Individuals are starting to speak out on the issue, and some chemistry departments are taking action to incorporate service into tenure and promotion guidelines.

Shawn Hitchcock is used to having a line of students waiting outside his office. He isn’t bothered by it. After all, he was once one of those students seeking mentorship from a faculty member.

As the only black faculty member in the Chemistry Department at Illinois State University, Hitchcock says many students of color seek him out for advice, guidance, and counseling, and he’s happy to help them. “This is one of the ways I can give back for all of the things that were given to me,” Hitchcock says. “I grew up in Detroit and went to Wayne State University. I was a lost soul there, and it was not until I met a faculty member named Kim Albizati, who provided me with guidance and encouragement, that I was able to find a love for research.”

If Hitchcock turns students away, “that could be that one thing that starts a cascade of them feeling like no one cares,” and the field will lose the talent of those potential scientists, he says.

Hitchcock’s commitment to the chemistry profession doesn’t stop there. He also serves on numerous committees and panels, many focused on increasing diversity and inclusion.

By taking on a disproportionate amount of personal mentoring and other service commitments compared with his colleagues, Hitchcock is shouldering the burden of invisible work, or service activities that aren’t necessarily recognized when it comes to earning tenure and promotion. People from underrepresented groups in particular feel a responsibility to give back to their communities, and they say such invisible work is rewarding, but it comes at a cost—sometimes a cost as high as derailing a career.

Photo of Shawn Hitchcock, Fatima Olayemi Obe, and Marian Aba Addo.
Credit: Courtesy of Shawn Hitchcock
Shawn Hitchcock (center) works with graduate students Fatima Olayemi Obe (left) and Marian Aba Addo.

“It’s a catch-22,” says Laura Kiessling, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped moderate a Twitter discussion in May on the topic of invisible work in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), using the hashtag #InvisibleWorkSTEM. “If you don’t join in, you’re penalized. And if you do join in, you’re penalized,” she says.

Awareness about invisible work is growing. Chemists are increasingly talking about the issue, with the recent Twitter chat being one example. Employers are starting to pay more attention to how much service they’re asking of individuals. Some chemistry departments are also changing their tenure and promotion guidelines to recognize service that advances diversity and inclusion. This includes activities such as mentoring students and serving on committees.

It's a catch-22. If you don't join in, you're penalized. And if you do join in, you're penalized.
Laura Kiessling, chemistry professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Twitter discussion, sponsored by ACS Chemical Biology, of which Kiessling is editor in chief, and C&EN, struck a nerve with the chemistry community. “It can be lonely and isolating. You tend to be the only one or one of a few prioritizing the invisible issues,” tweeted Linda Columbus, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Virginia. “Not many people you are around understand.”

“Doing #InvisibleWorkSTEM is a necessary part of any institution. There is value [in] this type of work—it just needs to be fairly assigned, recognized and compensated,” tweeted Christine Le, a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, who will be joining the chemistry and chemical biology faculty at the University of New Mexico in the fall.

Despite the momentum to create change, data on invisible work (also referred to as cultural taxation) in STEM are limited. “One of the biggest barriers to engaging the issue of cultural taxation is that by definition most universities focus on measures of merit or excellence, overlooking how we measure the full range of what people do in universities,” says Howard Ramos, a sociologist at Dalhousie University who has been studying the impact of invisible work in academia. “As a result, it’s difficult to find measures of the unspoken work that people do around mentoring, supervision, explaining a cultural difference to colleagues, and serving on committees.” He worries that all the added pressures on women and other underrepresented faculty are leading to burnout.

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Ramos and Rochelle Wijesingha, a graduate student in sociology at McMaster University, are continuing to study this issue. They conducted a survey of faculty at eight Canadian universities to determine the extent to which factors such as invisible work account for differences in tenure and promotion among female and racialized faculty compared with nonfemale and nonracialized faculty (Can. J. Higher Educ. 2017, DOI: 10.7202/1043238ar).

Although they did not find a direct correlation between cultural taxation and disparities in tenure and promotion, they point out that their study looked at only faculty’s perceptions of the amount of work they do. More data need to be collected to quantify the amount of invisible work that faculty are actually doing, they say.

“What you can quantify is how many people you mentor, how many committees you sit on, what’s your teaching load, what’s your community service load in terms of doing outreach to government or to NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], doing interviews with the media. Those are all things you can quantify,” Ramos says. “What’s very difficult to quantify is how you feel at the end of the day.”

“I think what the institutions’ academic departments and even individual faculty members need to do first and foremost is that they need to acknowledge that cultural taxation is occurring,” Wijesingha says. “Once you acknowledge that it’s occurring, then university departments need to incorporate it into the reward process.”

What's very difficult to quantify is how you feel at the end of the day.
Howard Ramos, sociology professor, Dalhousie University

In another study, conducted by the Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group at the University of Oregon, researchers asked 26 male and female faculty members across five departments at that school to record their daily tasks during 2 weeks in a 10-week period. Their analysis of women faculty yielded mixed results, but their analysis of faculty of color, faculty with a minority gender identity or sexual orientation, and faculty from working-class backgrounds showed that these groups spent a disproportionate amount of their time on invisible work, leaving them less time for the work that matters for tenure and promotion (Humboldt J. Soc. Relat. 2017, 39, 228).

In a study published on June 3 in Nature Ecology and Evolution (2019, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-0911-5), researchers from Colorado State University also found that faculty from underrepresented groups disproportionately engage in activities to promote diversity and inclusion activities compared with their peers.

Hitchcock acknowledges that the invisible work takes time away from other priorities. “What I end up having to do is either extend my hours for the day or make sacrifices in one area or another,” he says. “There might be some service item I cannot get to, or there may be some body of work in research that I may have to delay.” Despite the additional work, he went on to receive tenure.

For some faculty, the price of invisible work is losing their opportunity to earn tenure.

When Gloria Thomas was an assistant professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, she thought she was doing all the right things to earn tenure. But when the time came, she was denied both tenure and promotion on the basis of research productivity.

Photo of Gloria Thomas talking with two students.
Credit: Paul Nguyen
Gloria Thomas (left) mentored many students while she was at Xavier University of Louisiana.

“I think we all would agree that for the purpose of receiving promotion to associate professor, I did more service than was good for me,” Thomas says. But when offered service and leadership roles, she found it difficult to suppress her passion for diversity and inclusion, never expecting she would pay such a high price in also not receiving tenure. “I thought that my work was of value to the institution”—a small, liberal arts, historically black school that generally prides itself on serving its community, she says.

Thomas subsequently had to do some soul-searching and moved to roles focused more on student development. Ultimately, she found a position as director of the Center for Academic Success at Louisiana State University. Her job is devoted primarily to students, and she says the difference between her job now and her job at Xavier is that her work now is recognized, appreciated, and supported. “They all expect me to do very student-centric work, and that’s what’s valued, and our metrics are built that way,” Thomas says.

Her advice for others who realize that their passion is helping students and doing service within the profession or an institution is to find a role and an environment that supports that. “Be very thoughtful about the choices you’re making,” she says. “If you choose to pursue a tenure-track position at a large research institution, or even some smaller institutions, make that choice very thoughtfully and very deliberately. Have lots of conversations with people to know what that entails and what’s going to be required.”

University of York chemistry professor David Smith is an outspoken champion for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and questioning) scientists in STEM, and he has gained an impressive following on Twitter. Because of his increased visibility, he gets asked to serve on numerous diversity and inclusion committees. “I do serve on lots of committees, but I try and choose things where I can have a direct impact,” he says. “If I’m asked to sit around a table contributing nothing or on a committee that is not actually going to achieve anything, then I won’t do it.

“My advice would be to choose to do things where you can personally make a difference, that match your skills, and then try and make that difference,” Smith says. “I think carefully about each thing I agree to do, and I also try to know my strengths and weaknesses.”

Invisible work doesn’t affect just academic scientists. Donna Huryn, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, says that when she worked in industry at Roche, she would routinely get asked to stand in photos to showcase the company’s diversity. “I always was in the picture,” she says.

I know that if I turn them away, that could be that one thing that starts a cascade of them feeling like no one cares.
Shawn Hitchcock, chemistry professor, Illinois State University

At Merck & Co.’s Process Research and Development group, managers are making a conscious effort to spread the invisible work out more evenly, Executive Director Rebecca T. Ruck says. “The biggest change is that we actually talk about these things, and we think about them while we’re making assignments. It’s not just someone throwing out a name and that’s the end of it. We have discussions around whom this could actually benefit, what other types of assignments individuals have on their plates, and ultimately, who is right for this opportunity,” she says.

In the long run, the best way to solve the issue of invisible work is to make it more visible. “I think that bringing things to light is the first step in making the change,” says MIT’s Kiessling, who has done invisible work herself throughout her career. “Be an advocate for yourself, and let people know what you are doing. If we aren’t doing that, then how are people supposed to realize that you’re running on empty?”

And organizations must change their metrics for promotion. Kenyon College, for example, has revised its tenure and promotion guidelines to include diversity efforts, such as mentoring students and promoting an inclusive classroom environment. The new guidelines will take effect on July 1.

A photo of a group of people in a circle at a retreat for Kenyon College faculty.
Credit: Courtesy of John Hofferberth
Faculty at Kenyon College participate in a retreat to advance diversity and inclusion.

“One of the things that this new set of criteria do is they actually call out some of those activities that a faculty member can include in their dossier for review, and they count for teaching excellence or service to the college,” says John Hofferberth, who is chair of the Chemistry Department at Kenyon and heads inclusive-excellence initiatives for the university’s Natural Sciences Division. “You get recognized for doing that work.”


In fact, engaging in service to promote an inclusive environment is required for tenure and promotion, Hofferberth says. “We’re a teaching institution. If inclusive practices are part of teaching excellence, and you’re not using them, then you will not be promoted. I think it sends a really powerful message.”

Kenyon also gives faculty engaged in diversity and inclusion service stickers to put on their office doors. “When students and prospective faculty members walk through the hallways, they see how many people are engaged. That is important. The culture is changing, and one of the beautiful things is that we’ve made invisible work more visible,” Hofferberth says.

Cornell College also counts service as part of its tenure and promotion requirements, and faculty at any stage of their careers can define what percentage of their work goes toward service. “While teaching excellence is the single largest component of the tenure decision, faculty at Cornell College are empowered to decide how to balance the remaining components, including service,” says Jai Shanata, an associate professor of chemistry at the school, adding that those percentages can change throughout faculty members’ careers, depending on how they want to prioritize their time.

Photo of Jai Shanata.
Credit: Cornell College
Jai Shanata (left) works with students at Cornell College.

Like others interviewed by C&EN, Shanata recommends finding a position that matches one’s career goals. When he was interviewing for faculty positions, he explicitly said to prospective departments, “Here’s how I’m planning to spend my time. Is that what you’re looking for?”

Learning how to navigate the world of invisible work should start early in one’s training. University of Toronto graduate student Farah Qaiser says the May Twitter chat validated many of the things she was experiencing as a graduate student of color. She says the invisible work she’s had to take on quickly led to burnout. She’s developing better strategies for managing her time, including learning how to say no. “By talking about it, you’re acknowledging that this is an issue, and maybe slowly there will be change,” she says.

And change is coming, Ramos says. “One of the hardest things about invisible work is that people aren’t seeing it, and it’s very hard to allow people to understand what’s going on if they can’t see it. The first step is to acknowledge it. The second step is to begin to collect information on it and to monitor it. The third step is to do something with that information to see whether or not, as institutions, we’re living up to the principles we say we believe in.”


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