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A Conversation to Celebrate Pride Month

1 June 2020 1,631 views No Comment

Wendy MartinezPhoto courtesy of Barbi Barnum, Studio B Photography

I dedicated the February President’s Corner to the ASA 2020 initiatives, one of which addresses our strategic theme, Enhancing the Diversity and Breadth of Our Association. While past ASA initiatives also addressed this theme, I thought it was important to focus on supporting and learning from our LGBTQ+ colleagues in 2020. I am fortunate to be joined in this work by a group of incredibly talented and generous individals.

In celebration of Pride Month, I spoke with two colleagues, Jack Miller, who is the current chair of the ASA LGBTQ+ Advocacy Committee, and Suzanne Thornton, who is chairing the presidential initiative LGBTQ+ Working Group. What follows is our conversation.

Wendy (she/her): I have always embraced diversity and inclusion in my daily life, but I’ve become even more aware of its importance since being elected as ASA president. Thank you for being a part of this conversation! Would you please introduce yourselves to our readers?

Jack Miller

Jack Miller

I’m Jack Miller (they/them). I am a statistics educator and hold the position of lecturer IV in the department of statistics at the University of Michigan. I came to Michigan in 2013 after being at The Ohio State University for 10 years. Prior to Ohio State, I was at Drury University for three years.

My PhD is a one-of-a-kind PhD in statistics education (combine two-thirds of a doctorate in statistics with two-thirds of a doctorate in education to get one degree!) from The Ohio State University. I teach both a calculus-based probability and statistics course for engineers and scientists and an algebra-based introductory statistics course aimed at social and behavioral sciences.

My interests are in leveraging technology for teaching and learning, and I have been teaching with a HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) model for 10 years now. Fortunately, the model I was already using made adapting to remote instruction due to COVID-19 easier than it would have been otherwise.

I enjoy being involved with the ASA in several positions and look forward to continuing my leadership growth within the ASA. In addition to being an academic, my wonderful spouse, our perfect(?) dog, and I live on an acre that abuts a forested area. I enjoy mysteries and suspense (both books and TV shows). I am excited to be getting back into working out. And I love building with LEGOs.

Suzanne Thornton

Suzanne Thornton

I’m Suzanne Thornton (she/her), a 2019 doctoral graduate from the department of statistics at Rutgers University. As a graduate student, I worked with Minge Xie on developing likelihood-free frequentist inferential methods for both large and small data. I started working at Swarthmore College as a visiting assistant professor in the fall of 2019 and will be continuing on as an assistant professor this fall. As faculty at Swarthmore, I will be designing an undergraduate course on various ethical considerations for statistical inference.

My work with LGBTQ+ advocacy in statistics (and STEM in general) is largely motivated by my own experience coming out as a queer woman in graduate school. I quickly realized how important it was for me to have a professional community that understood the nuances of realizing and communicating my identity. I didn’t have any communities around me that could offer the support I needed for this. This was true until I heard Emma Benn of the Icahn School at Mount Sinai speak about her experiences as a lesbian of color at a JSM panel session in 2017. I immediately reached out to Emma and she supported me with her guidance and hard work, which has accumulated in the creation of a steadily growing network of LGBTQ+ statisticians and data scientists.

Wendy: Jack, you are the chair of the ASA LGBTQ+ Advocacy Committee. I understand the name of the committee just changed. Why was it important to change the name?

Jack: I am the current chair of the ASA LGBTQ+ Advocacy Committee. Wendy, you’re correct about the name change—that was just approved by the ASA Board of Directors in November 2019. When I joined the ASA in 1997, the name was the ASA Gay and Lesbian Concerns Committee. A few years ago, the name was changed to the ASA LGBT Concerns Committee. It was important for us to update the name to be more inclusive (LGBTQ+, but we aim to include all members of sexual and gender minorities). It was also important for the committee name to be reflective of our charges:

  • To support research on statistical issues associated with sexual orientation and gender identity
  • To work to promote equal opportunity in employment and education for all statisticians, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity

These charges are framed in a positive light, so “advocacy” fits much better than “concerns.” (And thanks to our vice chair Jiashen You, who suggested the word “advocacy”!)

Wendy: Suzanne, you are the chair of the working group related to LGBTQ+ concerns that is now focused on my 2020 presidential initiative. How has this group evolved, and where is the group going? What do you hope to accomplish?

Suzanne: I am leading the LGTBQ Inclusion and Diversity (LID) Working Group at the ASA. This group grew after Emma, Wendy, I, and others presented on LGBTQ inclusivity at consecutive WSDS conferences. With each presentation, we received supportive feedback from attendees who were eager to help us further the outreach of our work. This support has grown into what is now the LID Working Group and a steadily expanding network of LGBTQ+ statisticians and allies. (If you would like to get in touch with us and/or be added to our mailing list (maximum one email per month), please reach out to me or Donna LaLonde.

We are organized into three overlapping subcommittees. The first is focused on fostering supportive and inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ and other minority groups within statistics; the second focuses on creating opportunities for success and leadership for LGBTQ+ statisticians, specifically; and the third increases LGBTQ+ representation within our field. We have a modest but dedicated group of people working on these tasks, but always welcome more, so please contact Donna or me if any of these topics are of interest to you.

Cooperating with Jack and the rest of the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Committee, LID is working toward developing ally training, bridging connections with other minority-focused statistical groups, creating scholarship opportunities, and developing a virtual network with an accessible online presence, among other things.

Wendy: Has working with these groups informed your teaching and/or research? If so, please share with us how.

Suzanne: Most certainly! I tend to observe the world around me with a skeptic’s eye (perhaps that’s part of what drew me to statistics in the first place). This habit, together with my personal experience exploring my sexual identity, has made me a passionate student and educator—not just of the power of statistical methods, but of the limitations of these methods and awareness of common misconceptions.

In my teaching experience thus far, I’ve noticed that my students don’t need to be convinced of the range of influence the subject has across the board, but they instead seem to perceive statistical analysis as the “holy grail” of objective science. Thus, I strive to illuminate the many stages at which arbitrary or subjective judgment comes into play when analyzing (and collecting) data. Like many of my previous instructors, I hope to establish the ability of my students to contrast the simplicity of mathematics and statistics with the complexity of reality.

While I am still early in my statistical career, my research interests thus far have been motivated by computational inference and the foundations of statistical inference. My LID Working Group and related work has helped me begin to realize a new passion for better understanding and improving upon various ethical considerations in applied statistical methodology. I am particularly interested in bringing these topics together, for example, in the development of small-sample computational inference with applications to studying under-represented groups.

Wendy: Since working with LGBTQ+ colleagues, I’ve come to appreciate the difference between diversity and inclusion. In your opinion, what is the difference between diversity and inclusion? Is one more important than the other?

Jack: Yes. (And I will expand later.) Diversity is ensuring there are different voices and experiences at the table, regardless of the differences (race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, color, immigration status, social and economic class, educational level, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, age, size, family status, political belief, religion, and mental and physical ability).

Another aspect of diversity is intersectionality (the combination of minority statuses), and we must be cognizant of how multiple minority statuses impact individuals. It is also important to recognize that there is a “minority tax” (the burden of additional responsibilities that comes with being the only [insert minority status here] in the room). Being in a minority can be exhausting, and we need to find ways to increase diversity and allow others to be involved so we don’t overtax a few individuals.

Inclusion means that we are not only increasing our numbers and balancing our membership in terms of the aspects I mentioned above. Inclusion means that those who belong to one or more minority groups are heard and respected and consulted in the larger group. We cannot have inclusion until we have diversity. And the ASA (and other organizations) needs to foster both diversity and inclusion.

Suzanne: I think of diversity and inclusion as two sides of the same coin; one is incomplete without the other, though there are distinctions between the two. The way I understand it, diversity has to do with embracing the scope of the variability in the human experience; inclusion, on the other hand, is the work we must do to ensure that these different human experiences are respected and celebrated.

Wendy: What would you issue as a call to action? For example, I recently added my pronouns to my signature lines as a way to indicate I am gender aware. The ASA is now including pronoun stickers and ribbons at ASA-sponsored conferences. Based on discussions with LGBTQ+ colleagues, the ASA office now has all-gender bathrooms. In what ways can individuals be involved in promoting inclusion, especially with the LGBTQ+ communities?

Jack: All-gender bathrooms are good to have, but they need to be in main traffic areas (like they are at the ASA office) and not far away (like they were at WSDS 2019). Adding pronouns to name badges has been quite nice. I suggest that all people add pronouns to their email signatures. (Find out about sharing your pronouns and read more about Jack’s pronouns.)

Individuals can promote inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community by having a rainbow sticker like the True Colors United sticker.

We need to recognize, too, that each of us needs to be an ally and advocate for others, whether for LGBTQ+ diversity and inclusion or for other aspects of our individuality. I don’t know what it is like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States, so I need to allow a Muslim member of my group to speak up about issues that impact them (e.g., afternoon exams during Ramadan). And if there are no Muslim members of my group, I need to speak up for them, to remind others that the dominant paradigm is not the only story (e.g., that an afternoon exam may sound ideal for many, but it will be difficult for a practicing Muslim student to take an exam in the afternoon during Ramadan).

Bottom line: My call to action is that we be aware diversity exists and our lives are made richer by a diverse group of individuals contributing to our shared goals. And once we achieve better diversity, we need to make sure to be inclusive (hear others’ voices) and be the ally/advocate when we are the members of the dominant paradigm.

Suzanne: I completely agree with Jack’s call to action. It’s not possible to advocate for diversity and inclusion of gender and sexual identities without also advocating for people of color, people with disabilities, first-generation students, etc., as there is overlap among all these groups. Any small thing you can do to normalize the radical inclusivity of marginalized peoples (e.g., displaying a pride sticker, introducing yourself with your pronouns, encouraging the use of a microphone at public talks for hearing impaired listeners) is a helpful step toward a more inclusive field.

Regarding statisticians and data scientists in particular, it’s important for us to acknowledge the limitations of discretizing continuous, socially defined, qualitative variables such as race and gender. For example, we need to be careful we do not simplify the data so much that we end up excluding entire subgroups of the population. Collecting data on human beings is not an easy task, we are complicated and ever-changing creatures. Our treatment of these types of variables will need to evolve with our scientific understanding of these qualities.

Finally, it is crucial for any data analyst to respect the identities of the individuals under study. In doing so, we not only contribute to the practice of ethical statistical analysis, but we also offer implicit support to our peers, colleagues, and/or students.

Jack: Many thanks to Wendy for helping our voices be heard.

Suzanne: Seconded—most emphatically! Wendy has been a key accomplice, and her dedication to working with us underscores the vital role allies play in supporting the voices of under-represented and oft-overlooked groups.

Wendy: We are committed to sustaining a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive community at the ASA and for our profession, and we hope you will join us.

Better Data Collection for LGBTQ+ Community

A group of statisticians led by Stephen Parry and including Suzanne Thornton, Dooti Roy, Donna LaLonde, and Wendy Martinez is working to improve the standards of collecting data on LGBTQ+ individuals. It is important to recognize that collecting data in a noninclusive way can create sources of bias from a statistical perspective. When gender nonconforming participants are forced to identify between a binary gender (M/F), response bias will ensue and cause the signal to be muddied. Similarly, members from the LGBTQ+ community may not answer survey questions if they feel excluded, resulting in nonresponse bias. The work of this group is currently focused on writing guidelines and recommendations for collecting gender and sex data in a more intentional and inclusive manner.

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