I remember as a child I was obsessed with documentaries on Ancient Egypt, I would stare at the TV screen as though in a trance.
For years, I spent time feeding my fascination for ancient people and culture, completely unaware of the treasure trove of evolutionary history 20 minutes away from my childhood home. I – now a paleoanthropologist- was completely unaware of the treasure of The Cradle of Humankind. The Cradle of Humankind plays a pivotal role in our understanding of our evolution as a species and I had never been there, not even once until I began my postgraduate degree in this remarkable field. This may seem like an odd confession but the more I read about it the more I realise that my experience (or lack thereof) was not unique.
Recently, a PhD candidate from the University of Edinburgh, Elsa Panciroli wrote an article for The Guardian on the image problem in palaeontology where she highlighted the barriers to diversity and the stereotypes that drive them. If ever you have watched “Jurassic Park”, “Indiana Jones” or even “The Mummy” you would notice that most of the heroes/scientists in these film share one commonality- they are all white males. This image has dominated the science since the early days with many women and people of colour actively excluded from the mainstream narrative.
Could it be that I did not know about palaeontology because I was never actually the targeted candidate, groomed to become one? Could it be a systemic problem that has resulted in a lack of representation, specifically of African researchers? This, in a field that prides itself on our fossil record but too often, disregards the potential of African academics.
We often hear the term “representation matters”, it has even become a popular hashtag on Twitter but it is so much more than just a social media slogan, it is a mindset that should be adapted in every industry. As a young woman of colour in the field of palaeosciences, it was (and still is) important for me to see people like me in this space, and not only in the space but in senior positions.
In 2017, Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane became the curator of Plio-Pleistocene palaeontology at the Ditsong Museums of South Africa (she was also the first Black woman in South Africa to graduate with a Doctorate in palaeoanthropology) and for the very first time, I felt like I belonged. Dr Tawane is a phenomenal researcher and mentor, alongside other trailblazers such as Dr Dipuo Kgotleng and Dr Nonhlanhla Vilakazi of the University of Johannesburg. It still amazes me that in 2019 we are still seeing “firsts” as in “the first Black woman to achieve x.y,z”. But how do we change this? And indeed many will ask, is it even important that we do?
The answer to the latter is a resounding YES, it is important that we actively strive to change the perception of palaeosciences (and STEM careers in general) so that we introduce diverse narratives to an otherwise monotonous story. It is important because there are many South African schoolchildren who enjoy evolution and cherish their experiences at places like The Cradle of Humankind but who will never know that we need them to keep that spark alive and join us in academia.
The answer to the former question is a lot more complicated, how do you change a system? I do not have the answers to that, in my naivety I hope to change the world but practically this has to be a team effort and this team includes the demographic palaeontology was originally catered for, senior white men. Dr Kathleen Grogan so eloquently stated this idea in her recent Nature Ecology & Evolution article discussing gender bias in the workplace when she said, “Water can’t fix the leaks in the pipeline.”
In order to address racial inequality and a lack of diversity in any field, we require an open, honest and uncomfortable conversation with all those who love science. We also need to actively ensure exposure to these fields in primary school, keeping that interest alive well into tertiary education. This means scrutinizing our outreach efforts as researchers in the field, policy makers and educators.
Often, calls for change are misinterpreted as disdain for a system, actually, it is a way of showing you care enough to know it can be better. I criticize my science because I love it, because I believe in its ability to unite people but I truly believe that we need the study of evolution, to actually evolve. How many women, how many Africans and how many people of colour with unique perspectives and a love for the science have we already allowed to seep through the cracks of a dated pipeline? I know I am not willing to lose another, not even one drop.