Published 27 June 2019 by Niamh Kavanagh

What Can We Do to Improve Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in STEM?

I have worked in many different equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. So, in this blogpost, I want to share some tips that I have found helpful over time. We’re all busy, so I have divided these into three sets of three points to make it quick and easy to take away what is relevant to you. The first set is for people who would like to advocate for groups that they are a part of, and the second set is for people who would like to advocate for groups that they are outside of. In my experience, the tactics for those two approaches (from an insider or outsider perspective) can be quite different. Finally, I share some action items on how to be a good ally because we can all stand in solidarity with other groups in some way

1. As an Insider

If you identify as part of a marginalised group and you would like to advocate for your community, what are some things that you can do?


To being with, take some time to clarify your situation. Consider questions like “What do I want to achieve? Why am I doing this? Will I be safe if I do this?” It is important to know your motivators; they are the things that will keep you going if you suffer doubts or setbacks. However, it is also important to take some time to consider your own safety, be that mentally, economically and/or physically. Especially if you are coming from a marginalised group, make sure to look after yourself both personally and professionally.


The next step is to connect with other people within your community or people that may support you. I have found social media very helpful in this context. As a queer woman in Physics, I did not know any other people like me in my institution but I am very active on Twitter and I found people like me there; people who face the same struggles and share the same goals. Then, with the support of those people, I learned how to identify allies within my own institution. These allies helped me to connect with others, and I started to build a strong support network.


Everything else, in my experience, is an exercise in convincing people. The same approach can be used here:

  1. Clarify what research exists for your topic (numbers, statistics and costs).
  2. Connect with people on their level (What do they care about? Is it the bottom line? Is it talent attraction and retention? Is it the greater good?).
  3. Then, convince them using an approach that is tailored to them.

These ‘three C’s’ of clarify, connect and convince are the things that I have found myself coming back to again and again when advocating for equality and inclusion.


WiSTEM society, University College Cork. Photo credit: WiSTEM

2. As an Outsider

What can you do if you are a person who wants to advocate for a marginalised group that you may not be a part of (for example, a man wants to support more women in STEM)?


The first thing is to address individual accountability. Unconscious bias training is becoming common in many workplaces, but this needs to go together with privilege awareness. Everyone has privilege, in different ways, in different spaces, and each of us should be aware of how we can use that privilege for good.


The next thing is to push for real systematic change, for example on a departmental and institutional level. Consider questions like “Are our decision-makers diverse? Are our recruitment and promotional procedures attracting and retaining people with diverse identities and experiences? Do we have pay transparency and other self-checks in place to prevent our biases contributing to systematic oppression?”


There needs to be a real commitment to changing the culture of your organisation to be more diverse, equal and inclusive. Bottom line, you need to think about if marginalised people are truly safe in your organisation. You cannot keep bringing fish into shark-infested waters and be surprised when they disappear. The culture of your organisation needs to change, for example, through ensuring the use of inclusive language, honouring a variety of holidays/traditions, and really examining the types of behaviour that are encouraged within your culture. This needs to be an ongoing commitment to ensure that all people are truly safe, included and valued, not pushed out over time.


Niamh Kavanagh presenting at the 2019 LGBT STEMinar. Photo credit: Piers MacDonald

3. As an Ally

Regardless of our identity, we can all be an ally to other groups of people, so here are a few tips on how to be a good ally.


  1. Stay silent. Please speak up! For example, do not laugh along to bad jokes and then apologise afterwards, say something there and then.
  2. Play devil’s advocate. The devil has enough advocates! It gets so tiring if your allies are echoing the words of your opponents at every turn, even if it comes from a place of good intentions.
  3. Get defensive. If someone tells you something you have done has caused them hurt in some way, try not to jump to the defensive “but I’m an ally” position. We all make mistakes and that person is showing you how to be a better ally to them.


  1. Listen, believe and learn. If someone’s experience is different to yours, listen to them, believe them and take some time to learn about why their experience might be different to your own. It is your responsibility as an ally to educate yourself; it is not the responsibility of people from marginalised groups to educate you.
  2. Lift up the overlooked. Find ways to use your privilege for good by shining a light on those who are less often in the spotlight. If you notice someone is being silenced, help them be heard. If you notice someone is being sidelined, bring them back in. If you notice someone is missing from the decision-making table, pull up a chair for that person, or give them your seat.
  3. Break the mould! Everyone is different in their own way. Very few people fit into the strict confines of stereotypes. If each of us keeps breaking the mould in our own unique way, we can make the concept of what is accepted, expected and celebrated broader over time so that more people feel like they can truly be fit in, feel included and be valued as their authentic selves.

Being a volunteer for diversity initiatives has enabled me to widen my professional network, feel more at home in STEM and learn how to be more confident in advocating for myself in my own career also; so please get involved! Let’s work together to make the world of STEM better.

Niamh Kavanagh

#LINO19 young scientist Niamh Kavanagh is a PhD candidate and science communicator based at Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork where her research focuses on future internet systems. She has been named as one of “The Community Builders: 13 women helping women in STEM” by Silicon Republic (Ireland’s leading technology news service). Niamh is co-chair of House of STEM (Ireland’s first network for LGBTQ+ people working in STEM) and has driven several gender equality initiatives. She is the student representative for the IEEE Photonics Society Diversity Oversight committee and an award-winning mentor for her work with disadvantaged youth.