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Navigating the Pitfalls: Unraveling the Negative Impacts of Code-Switching in STEM 

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  • Navigating the Pitfalls: Unraveling the Negative Impacts of Code-Switching in STEM 

By CRYSTAL HARDEN, EdD

CHAPEL HILL, NC (May 15, 2024)—In the ever-evolving landscape of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), the pursuit of knowledge is often accompanied by a unique set of challenges, which I have experienced all too well as a science practitioner. One such challenge that casts a shadow over the quest for inclusion and belonging is the practice of code-switching. These linguistic gymnastics, while sometimes seen as a survival tactic, can have detrimental effects on individuals and the community as a whole.  

Code-switching, the act of altering one’s communication style to fit into different social or professional environments, has become a common coping mechanism in STEM fields. While adapting to the norms of a predominantly technical and formal discourse is expected, the constant need to code-switch to blend in can lead to losing one’s authentic self. The pressure to assimilate can hinder creativity and innovation, as individuals may suppress their unique perspectives and ideas to conform to the established norms. Code-switching can create an exclusive group within STEM, where only those who can seamlessly navigate the intricacies of the dominant discourse are deemed worthy of acceptance. This exclusivity perpetuates a lack of representation and inclusion, as individuals unable or unwilling to conform may feel discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM. The true essence of diversity and inclusion lies in embracing and celebrating differences, not in a forced homogenization that stifles the richness of varied experiences and voices. 

A line of microscopes in a empty laboratory.
(Ousa Chea/Unsplash)

To address the negative impacts of code-switching, fostering an inclusive STEM community that values authenticity and diverse perspectives is imperative. This involves actively dismantling the barriers that force individuals to code-switch. We must establish environments where diverse linguistic and cultural expressions are not just tolerated but celebrated. We must emphasize the importance of authenticity and encourage individuals to bring their whole selves to the table. We must have role models who have succeeded without sacrificing their authenticity for those facing the pressure to conform. We must educate professionals and institutions on the importance of embracing linguistic and cultural diversity to drive innovation and progress. Embracing diversity in all its forms is not just a moral imperative but a catalyst for the advancement of STEM fields and the betterment of society as a whole.

Science is for all. 

Crystal Harden, EdD, is the director of program and access initiatives at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and an adjunct professor at the UNC School of Education.