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How a Twitter discussion on #InvisibleWorkSTEM catalyzed institutional change

by Safia Z. Jilani, special to C&EN
July 6, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 26


Credit: Shutterstock
A string of lights sparked an idea for Georgetown University graduate student Safia Jilani.

This is a guest editorial by Safia Z. Jilani, a PhD candidate at Georgetown University.

Growing up, I remember hearing, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Words can intimidate, but they are powerless compared to actions.

In May 2019, I saw a Twitter conversation about #InvisibleWorkSTEM, a hashtag referring to work done to improve student learning that goes unrecognized. This includes mentorship, advising, supporting students from minoritized groups, improving institutional policies in equity and inclusion, and other types of service. While essential to making progress in the academic and scientific communities, this work is unrecognized on CVs and is often disregarded during career advancement. Moreover, individuals from minoritized groups primarily and disproportionately perform this work, which perpetuates institutionalized biases and promotion gaps. In this Twitter discussion, people shared ideas on how to incentivize invisible work—be it through awards, relief from other service/teaching duties, or financial remuneration.

These conversations echoed in my mind for days. I am just a graduate student doing my research, teaching my classes—what can my words, or any words, do to make invisible work more visible and valued? One night that June, I stood outside and saw a string of lights unhook and dangle from another balcony of my apartment complex. Each bulb of warm white light was connected to another by a thick wire full of electricity—and at 2 a.m., an idea struck! What if we make invisible work more visible by celebrating it? One little light bulb might be hard to see in the distance, but a long string of them cannot be missed. I quickly pulled out my laptop and began to write a proposal for a new award at Georgetown University that would recognize mentorship and leadership by faculty who promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within our academic community.

Over the next few months, I reached out to several university colleagues, but I could not find anyone willing to advocate for this award at an institutional level. I realized that there is no instruction manual for paradigm shifts. I had to chart my own course. It then dawned on me that Georgetown has graduate student awards that recognize achievements in scholarship, teaching, and leadership. What if my award went to support a graduate student who advocates for change through DEI efforts, making this invisible work visible? This was proposed to the graduate school board and within months, Georgetown established the new award, and it was presented in spring 2020.

Less than a year from the #InvisibleWorkSTEM Twitter discussion, the Outstanding Student Leader in DEI and Service Award honored its first recipient. Previously invisible to me, her award made visible to the whole Georgetown community her work to support and build up her colleagues. Importantly, she can now tangibly list her DEI work on her CV.

While the creation of this award does not catalyze immediate change, it provides a mechanism to recognize previously invisible work as a career achievement and brings this work into the current reward structure of academia. It also makes invisible work more visible and therefore more valued in our academic and scientific communities. As we work to improve retention of scientists from minoritized groups, we need to recognize the disproportionate load of invisible work that they carry and find ways to highlight this work on a professional level for both graduate students and faculty. The Georgetown award, started by a graduate student standing at her balcony at 2 a.m., is just a start.

We can change the culture of science academia. Regardless of the culture we inherit, we can decide how we want to shape it. Leaders, scientists, and faculty: recognize invisible work in your communities through awards, financial bonuses, public sharing of accomplishments, and in evaluation for long-term contracts. Graduate students: propose and advocate for these awards, share this work through various media, and encourage faculty to advocate with us. When we value mentorship, support, and advocacy for future generations of scientists, we change the culture of academia and advance scientific progress. After this experience, I want to change that saying to, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words, followed by actions, can lead to paradigm shifts.”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS or C&EN.



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Jen Heemstra (July 6, 2020 12:35 PM)
Thank you Safia for being a leader in our scientific community by advocating for this award and sharing your experience as a model for others - you are taking powerful steps to change our culture for the better!

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