• Search
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram

Where are the Black geoscientists?

Black geoscientists exist in the UK – the first #BlackInGeoscienceWeek campaign showed it. Munira Raji and Hendratta Ali ask why Black geoscientists are less visible in the geoscience community and workforce, and discuss grassroots initiatives that aim to confront this invisibility

Dr Munira Raji
Words by Dr Munira Raji
1 March 2021
Dr Hendratta Ali
Dr Hendratta Ali

The world can see that Black geoscientists exist. Invite them into your network and communities, and allow them access to the same opportunities

Published data that document the exact number of Black geoscientists in the UK geoscience workforce are scarce. We therefore have to rely on our own personal experiences, communications and interactions to educate and address the difficulties that Black geoscientists encounter.

The high visibility of a few might wrongly give the impression that numerous Black geoscientists are employed in the discipline. Our experiences suggest otherwise. Of more than 50 UK-based Black geoscience graduates in one network, less than 10% of them are currently employed as geoscientists, two of whom are the only Black geoscience professors in the entire UK. Instead, many UK-trained Black geoscientists are either unemployed or working at jobs unrelated to their geoscience training and professional credentials.

Access to the profession
Low employment numbers begin with and are exacerbated by limited recruitment into the pipeline and a lack of opportunity for trained Black (and other minoritised) geoscientists. Exposure in secondary schools is low, retention at university level is poor, and access to resources during post-graduate research is limited. Highly skilled Black geoscientists are also under-employed in the workforce, leading to involuntary attrition. As a consequence, many Black students and scholars do not see the geosciences as a viable career pathway.

We, Black geoscientists, want this trend to change. To increase visibility and showcase the expertise of Black geoscientists, we organised a grassroots initiative on social media, #BlackInGeoscienceWeek, to connect and celebrate Black geoscientists across the globe. Organised in Summer 2020, this event was inspired by the #BlackInX Weeks online initiative that started after the #BlackBirdersWeek, which highlighted Black nature enthusiasts following the Central Park bird-watching incident in New York City. During this incident, a confrontation between a Black man and white woman walking an unleashed dog led to the woman telling the police an African American man was threatening her life.

Later, during the #BlackInGeoscienceWeek we attracted close to seven million Twitter engagements, with participation from Antarctica to Oceania. During this event, Black geoscientists, including many from the UK, sought to amplify their voices, showcase their work, and create a community network of mentors and collaborators. An important aspiration was to find and connect with other Black geoscientists.

Recent studies confirm that the representation of Black geoscientists, in communities outside the continent of Africa, is low. For example, Bernard and Cooperdock (2018) show that over the past 40 years, there has been little change in the ethnic and racial diversity of people earning geoscience doctorates in the US.

Similarly, a lack of representation exists in the UK. Dowey and colleagues (2020) report that over the past five years only 1.4% of postgraduate geology researchers were Black people, compared to 3.8% of 18-to-24-year olds in the general population. Dowey and colleagues also report poor retention rates of Black geoscientists in postgraduate studies. They indicate that the enrolment of Black, Asian, Mixed or other Ethnicities (BAME) in undergraduate and postgraduate geology was 10.1% and 10.4%, respectively, for the 2018 to 2019 academic year.

Underrepresentation persists, despite promises from institutions and organisations to implement strategies that improve recruitment and retention in all sectors, from education to research and employment. The Black geoscience community has not experienced any substantial change, at least, not for the better. Black geoscientists are still under-employed in academia, industry and other geoscience organisations. They constantly face harassment and discrimination – microaggressions, bullying and racism – and their professional research and technical expertise are often undervalued or dismissed. Many of these harrowing experiences are documented with the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag on Twitter. These negative experiences lead to attrition and further increase underrepresentation. Our geoscience community must pivot in the right direction toward equity and inclusion for all.

The power of inclusion
If inclusion is resolved, diversity will increase. Many geoscience institutions and organisations monitor the diversity of their members and fellows, have diversity committees, and publicly comment about their commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI). This has to translate to something concrete for Black and other marginalised geoscientists, such as improved experiences in the scientific community. Diversity data and public declarations of commitment to DEI are a good start; however, by themselves, they do not solve the underlying problems that lead to underrepresentation in geoscience. Being one of the most exclusive communities suggests a fundamental flaw in our approach to diversity. In addition to public statements, organisations and institutions must actively ensure that their plans are implemented by a leadership and workforce that is truly diverse. We must shift our focus from performing diversity to enacting inclusive change.

Black and other marginalised geoscientists are as passionate about their discipline as any other group. They too, want to inspire and encourage the next generation of geoscientists and create a vibrant community that is representative. People in marginalised communities bear the brunt of environmental catastrophes, and geoscience expertise is central to resolving many of the problems our planet faces, such as natural hazards, pollution and climate change, including conversations about the nature of research, policies, mitigation plans, best implementation practices, kind of regulation and, importantly, stakeholder buy-in.

To spur action, recent calls such as ‘The Call for a Robust Anti-racism Plan for the Geosciences’ (Ali et al. 2020; change.org) and ‘No Time For Silence’ (notimeforsilence.org), suggest steps that organisations can enact to combat racism and increase the inclusion of marginalised communities in the geosciences. Other calls outline actions to tackle geoscience-related activities specifically, such as safety during fieldwork (e.g., Anadu et al., 2020) and inclusive anti-racist laboratories (Chaudhary & Berhe, 2020).

In addition to these detailed plans, the majority of individuals in the geoscience community can take personal steps to facilitate inclusion in their spaces (see box, below left), from simple actions to more elaborate plans. To be effective, self-reflection, including asking yourself uncomfortable questions, is essential. For example, how many minoritised geoscientists have I interacted with in the last week, month, or term? How many are Black geoscientists? Why, or why not? What have I done to make my community inclusive? Where are my biases? How can I work to minimise them?

Allies, sponsors and accomplices
To implement changes that will lead to improved DEI in the geosciences, more allies, sponsors and accomplices (ASA, see below) need to step up and take action, to work with marginalised scientists in order to facilitate access to resources such as the hidden curriculum, the unwritten rules, and fair compensation. ASA may, for example, advocate that minoritised individuals get appropriate and fair compensation for the time and labour put into helping institutions or organisations achieve their diversity quota, or demand that Black and other minoritised people are allowed the same access to resources and opportunities as their peers from the over-represented group. Whatever the challenge, there is always something an ASA can do.

For example, the reach of #BlackInGeoscienceWeek was amplified by the support and collaboration of individuals and groups of ASA from both the over-represented community and other marginalised groups. Some examples are the Geolatinas, the Earth Science Women’s Network, 500 Women Scientists, the International Association for Geoscience Diversity, the Association for Women Geoscientists and Women in Mining, UK.

These groups, as well as other ASA, supported the #BlackInGeoscienceWeek events in different ways. For example, retweeting to their large groups of followers, thereby amplifying tweets on their platforms, sponsoring and coordinating DEI events for greater reach, or using their skills to design and create event fliers. For example, the Association for Women Geoscientists provided access to their meeting platform for live panels, and the Earth Science Women’s Network and 500 Women Scientists co-sponsored the Blackingeoscience.org website.

Because individuals from Black and other minoritised groups do not typically have the same network reach as their peers in the majority group, the work of ASA is essential to introduce and enact change that can lead to larger networks, greater safety, equity and inclusion of minoritised individuals. Thus, as an ASA, you can support minoritised individuals by being an active bystander, an advocate for equity, and/or a sponsor of opportunities.

A virtual community
Visibility matters. Social media has provided many marginalised individuals, including Black geoscientists, who are otherwise isolated in their physical communities, the opportunity to reach a larger network of peers. Finding an online community means there is less gatekeeping – when used strategically, social media can provide global access to potential mentors, collaborators, and special interest groups.

Sometimes, social media is not only supportive and encouraging, it is vital for members of minoritised groups. The Twitter account of @BlkinGeoscience gained over 8,000 followers within two weeks and is now a frequent tag for geoscience academic recruiters seeking to attract students or staff from minoritised groups.

Virtual communities like Black In Geoscience and others demonstrate that intentional actions, such as organising an online event or creating a website, can have meaningful and significant results. For example, the Blackingeoscience.org website now offers the opportunity for Black geoscientists to upload a professional profile, offering easy access and creating a community. However, we must acknowledge that all #BlackInGeoscienceWeek organisers offered their time and talent for free, to make the week successful. Free labour should not be the norm. Minoritised individuals should be compensated for their time and labour when doing DEI work.

The #BlackInGeoscienceWeek also highlighted the importance, existence and intersection of geoscientists from other marginalised groups in minoritised communities, for example, LGBTQ+ and disabled communities.

The world can see that Black geoscientists exist. Invite them into your network and communities, and allow them access to the same opportunities

Role models and mentors
Diverse role models and mentors must exist to attract a diverse talent pool into the geosciences, and to guide aspiring geoscientists to attainment. This is salient because geology is not taught in most primary and secondary schools.

Appointing Black and other minoritised geoscientists in leadership and decision-making roles can help define more appropriate procedures that are adaptable to minoritised communities. This will lead to better collaboration between the broader UK geoscience community and the Black or other minoritised communities. Such collaboration could take the form of geoscience outreach programmes that are targeted at schools with predominantly Black and other minoritised pupils, then incentivise and compensate Black or other minoritised geoscientists to conduct these outreach programmes.

For example, in December 2020, Black in Geoscience also piloted a successful secondary school outreach event, to introduce students at the Sacred Heart Catholic School, Camberwell, London to professional and active Black geoscientists. This model of Black geoscience ambassadors could be used to recruit, sponsor and actively promote geoscience in communities with underrepresentation. For many in the Black community, it is important for their professional careers that they have visible role models and mentors with similar cultural and ethnic backgrounds from whom they can seek general life and career advice. Ambassadors can engage in science communication with the general public and schools to help foster a sense of inclusion and belonging in the communities, thereby inspiring the next generation of Black geoscientists in the UK.

Looking ahead
We want #BlackInGeoscience to offer a meaningful increase in representation for aspiring geoscientists. The world can see that Black geoscientists exist. Invite them into your network and communities, and allow them access to the same opportunities.

Institutions insist that diversity and representation is important and has value. Yet, the message has not translated into actions, opportunities and adequate compensation for equal work.

Know that Black scientists are capable. Capable of keynotes, seminars, lectures, panel discussions, fieldwork or research. We can serve on committees, councils, and editorial boards. Black geoscientists demand space to contribute their talents to help create a more diverse geoscience workforce.

Allies, sponsors and accomplices
• An ally is someone who uses their privilege to centre the less-privileged.
• A sponsor is someone who has a platform and access to opportunities that they make accessible to the less-privileged.
• An accomplice is a person who may not publicly use their privilege, but privately advocates and facilitates the inclusion of others.

Tips for engaging with Black geoscientists and other marginalised communities
• Empathise more.
• Do your homework to research frequently asked questions about DEI.
• Recognise that minoritised individuals have flaws just like every human.
• Know that Black or minoritised individuals have different opinions and experiences (that is, we are not a monolith).
• Engage first with their science – these minoritised individuals are primarily trained geoscientists, not DEI-professionals.
• Acknowledge and understand that Black or minoritised people get overwhelmed by the same difficult and emotionally challenging questions about DEI (also known as ‘subjects that directly impact our everyday lives’).

• Dr Munira Raji is a Consultant and Visiting Researcher at the University of Portsmouth, UK muniraraji@faramadeuk.com @TheDroneLady
• Dr Hendratta Ali is Associate Professor of Geosciences at Fort Hays State University, USA hnali@fhsu.edu @HendrattaAli

We thank all the organisers and supporters of #BlackInGeoscienceWeek for making it a success. A sincere thanks to our anonymous colleagues for proofreading the article.

Further reading
• Ali, H. et.al. (2020) Call for a Robust Anti-Racism Plan for the Geosciences.
• Anadu, J., Ali, M. & Jackson, C. (2020) Ten steps to protect BIPOC scholars in the field. Eos 101; https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO150525 (Published on 10 November 2020)
• Bernard, R.E. & Cooperdock, E.H.G. (2018) No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nat. Geosci. 11, 292–295; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0116-6
• Chaudhary, V.B. & Berhe, A.A. (2020) Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab. PLoS Comput. Biol. 16(10), e1008210;https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1008210
• Dowey et al. (preprint 2020) Diversity Crisis in UK Geoscience Research Training. Earth Arxiv; https://doi.org/10.31223/osf.io/z4cju (Published on 17 August 2020)

Related articles