Does Research Software Engineering have a diversity issue?

Posted by j.laird on 1 July 2021 - 10:00am

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

By Neil Chue Hong, SSI Director.

How does diversity and inclusion in the research software engineering community compare to similar fields? That’s the question Jeremy Cohen, Caroline Jay and myself wanted to answer in our recent work.

Anecdotally, the RSE community is a welcoming place - participants talk about “finding their clan” and “being with people like me”. But like any good researchers, we were interested in finding out what the underlying numbers showed: spoiler - they could be better.

Although Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, alongside Equity, have been a topic in academia, the IT industry and more generally for many years, recent events and initiatives have thrown a sharp spotlight on what is, or isn’t, being done to address barriers and systematic issues. Research has shown the increased quality and impact of work done by diverse research teams. Particular attention has been given to making events diverse and spaces inclusive through codes of conduct and conscious choices around programme committees and invited speakers. The Carpentries have done a lot to widen participation in computational research, and professional societies like the British Computer Society and Institute of Physics have conducted their own research into the diversity of these traditionally homogeneous fields.

What about research software engineers? 

The 2018 RSE International Survey started collecting demographic information around different protected characteristics, and we used this to compare the RSE community in the UK to academia, the IT industry and the fields of physics and computer science.

 

UK RSEs

UK Academics 

UK Software developers

All UK workers

Gender (female)

14

46

14

48

Ethnicity (BAME/Mixed)

5

15

21

12

Report disability

6

4

10

13

 

As can be seen, the diversity of the UK RSE community falls short of related fields. It identifies a gender diversity gap, which we might expect given the percentage of women working as software developers is also 14%. But this could be better: software is a fundamental part of all research, and 46% of academic staff are female. Many RSEs come from a physics or computer science background, where 24% of physics undergraduates and 17% of computer science undergraduates are female.

The figures for ethnicity are significantly lower than the 28% BAME students studying computer science and 10% of BAME physicists. Although we should not aggregate non-white ethnic categories together, as they will experience different challenges and biases, it is striking that RSEs do not fit the general profile of those working in the IT industry, where there is greater ethnic diversity, and perhaps indicates that the working environment in industry is more inclusive than in academia.

Increasing diversity & inclusion

It’s still not clear why diversity in the UK RSE community is still lagging behind. It may be down to “safety in similarity” which is creating an inviting environment for many, but excluding others. It may be that the community is still maturing, and the initial leaders had already benefited from structural privilege; a topic recently addressed by Rowland Mosbergen. Further research is required to understand some of the reasons, including exploring what influences the career choices that individuals make and trialling additional approaches for increasing diversity and inclusion at events. 

The RSE community has a great opportunity to take the welcoming culture that they have nurtured and ensure that they support efforts for greater diversity and inclusion. Given the breadth of fields that are supported by RSEs, there is scope to recruit from outside of the traditional areas of physics and computer science. The key is to keep raising awareness of the different issues raised, particularly to leaders in the RSE community, and use this as a basis to develop the environment and opportunities to help build equity, diversity and inclusion. We hope that the research software community continues to grow, and become more diverse by sharing and learning from other practitioners.

For more details of this work, please read our paper which was first presented at SE4Science’21 (Proceedings: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-77980-1_30, Preprint: https://arxiv.org/abs/2104.01712) and feel free to contact us.


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