Fraser Lab DEIJ Journal Club - Examining the STEM Pipeline Metaphor

A group of scientists within the Fraser lab have begun a journal club centered around issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice within academia, specifically in the biological sciences.

Our goal is to provide an environment for continued learning, critical discussion, and brainstorming action items that individuals and labs can implement. Our discussions and proposed interventions reflect our own opinions based on our personal identities and lived experiences, and may differ from the identities and experiences of others. We will recap our discussions and proposed action items through a series of blog posts, and encourage readers to directly engage with DEIJ practitioners and their scholarship to improve your environment.

June 10th, 2022 – The STEM Pipeline

Discussion Leader: Chris Macdonald


  • Problematizing the STEM Pipeline Metaphor: Is the STEM Pipeline Metaphor Serving Our Students and the STEM Workforce? Cannady MA, Greenwald E, and Harris KN. DOI: 10.1002/sce.21108
  • Reimagining the Pipeline: Advancing STEM Diversity, Persistence, and Success. Allen-Ramdial SAA, and Campbell AG. DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biu076
  • Improving Underrepresented Minority Student Persistence in STEM. Estrada et al. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.16-01-0038

Bonus Article: Planting Equity: Using What We Know to Cultivate Growth as a Plant Biology Community. Montgomery BL. DOI: 10.1105/tpc.20.00589

Summary STEM graduates require extensive education, and progressively demand more specialized and advanced training. This has some implications for DEI work. One important one is that each educational level has compounding effects on the following ones. The common metaphor of a “STEM pipeline” has been used to capture this idea, where learners who move away from a STEM career trajectory are the leaks. In a DEI context, this means differential leakiness would be important to consider. Metaphors can be useful by simplifying complex systems and helping us reason about them. That assumes they accurately capture the important dynamics of the system, however. If they don’t they can hinder our thinking. Some have claimed that the pipeline metaphor is such a case, challenging both its accuracy and the helpfulness of the interventions it suggests.

I picked these three papers because they critically evaluate the value and accuracy of the metaphor and suggest policies to achieve the outcomes we want (a diverse and equitable environment) but that might not come directly from thinking about leaks.

-[Cannady et al.] uses longitudinal data on students in the US to see if the metaphor is accurate, and claims it is not. -[Allen-Ramdial et al.] builds off the inaccuracy of the metaphor and suggests policies that the “pipeline” might not suggest -[Estrada et al.] is a product of the Joint Working Group on Improving Underrepresented Minorities (URMs) Persistence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), which was convened by NIGMS and HHMI. It is an example of how a large working group can adapt the criticisms of the previous two papers and propose policies to achieve an equitable environment.

As I was picking the papers for our discussion, I also thought about alternative metaphors we might use and whether they would help us think differently. I discovered the article by [Beronda L. Montgomery], which offered a wonderful example of a very different way of thinking about education that would lead us to do different things as a result.

Key Points:

  • The metaphor may not be accurate: similar numbers of underrepresented minority students and non-underrepresented minority students enter STEM majors, and similar proportions remain through undergraduate education.
  • The metaphor leads us to think that trajectories are strictly one way (you can’t unleak), while in fact there is much more fluidity in practice.
  • The metaphor focuses our attention on individual failures (the leaks) rather than institutional ones (the pipes).
  • There is an important distinction between an institution’s culture, which is essentially the beliefs, policies, and values that guide behavior, and its climate, which is the result of the actual implementation of them. An institution may have an unwelcoming or harmful climate while still having a healthy culture, but the pipeline metaphor focuses our attention on policy rather than implementation.

Open Questions:

  • Is “STEM” a useful category, or is it too broad?
  • What sorts of trajectories do “typical” successful scientists follow? What is the definition of “success” in STEM?
  • What differentiates “leaky” institutions from others?
  • How can we take the useful features of the pipeline metaphor and avoid the harmful ones?
  • How does the overall educational landscape influence DEI efforts at the post-secondary levels and beyond?

Proposed Action Items: We broadly agree with the policies suggested by [Allen-Ramdial et al.] and [Estrada et al.], although they are larger-scale interventions. In particular:

  • Engage across institutions. Faculty at minority-serving institutions play essential but often ignored roles in diversifying STEM, and DEI initiatives at research-intensive institutions sometimes only engage with other research-intensive institutions. Programs that connect faculty across institutional boundaries can contribute to diversifying trainee access to career opportunities.
  • Focus on aligning culture and climate. Ask how students and trainees feel, and listen to them. A failure of good intentions may be a result of both culture and climate.
  • Take faculty involvement in DEI seriously. Effective and long-term DEI efforts are much more useful than broad but shallow activities. Institutions can encourage deep engagement by evaluating faculty DEI work on par with teaching and research.
  • At an individual level, we found rethinking our metaphors can be a useful exercise. Ask yourself: what sort of environments would I like to create? Are the concepts I deploy sufficient to get there? Are they accurate? Are there alternatives?