Behavior Analysis and the Diversity Issue

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By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Let’s face it. The field of behavior analysis in America is predominantly composed of people of European decent. In other words, we’re a pretty white field. I have no data to back this up, despite efforts to find them. The observation is purely anecdotal and from my narrow experience in the field.

I have wanted to approach the topic of diversity, or lack thereof, in the field of behavior analysis for a long time. The first behavior analysis conference I visited was the 2007 international conference in Sydney, Australia. At the time, I worked at a television station in a diverse, mixed-use neighborhood in Fresno, California.  I was not attending the conference (I was on vacation with my mother, a long-time behavior analyst, who was attending), but I stayed in the conference hotel and attended many of the non-structured social events.  The contrast between the people of varied backgrounds I encountered in my profession as a journalist and the relative uniformity of the people attending the behavior analysis conference was at first simply interesting. As I shifted careers and contacted more behavior analysts, my recognition of the field’s lack of diversity grew into concern and finally, I am embarrassed to say, indifference. National events over the past 18 months, however, have reignited my interest our field’s diversity issue.

As I began researching for this article, I discovered a number of things, some of which pleasantly surprised me. One, I am not the only person to recognize we are mostly white. Two, we are more diverse in some areas than I had noticed before. And three, people have mixed feelings regarding how to go about increasing the diversity within behavior analysis.

First, let us tackle the lack-of-ethnic-diversity issue.

“I think that some change has happened over years and years,” says twice past-president of Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) Linda J. Parrott-Hayes. “I think the numbers of Hispanics and Asians to some extent is increasing.  I don’t see much happening with African Americans. I don’t see it at the conference. I don’t really know why that is.”

I talked to former student representative to the ABAI board Antonio Harrison to learn about his experience as a Behavior Analyst in a predominantly white field.

“Most of the time, when people see me, they aren’t sure what race I am, but they know I’m not white,” Harrison explained. “The only people who know, can pinpoint that I’m black are other black people… It’s a very interesting position you’re put in when nobody else looks like you.”

Harrison compares being a member of the behavior analysis community to being in an exclusive club or prep school. “I spent half of my education before college in public education and half in private.  [Being at ABAI conferences] reminds me a lot of being in private school.”

Sometimes, being an ethnic minority can be beneficial. Rocio Dietz, an MA and BCBA, is the Behavior Analyst for the Central Valley Regional Center in California.

“I haven’t had any negative experiences within in the field because I’m Mexican or non-White,” Dietz says. “I feel appreciated, actually, because I speak Spanish.” California’s Central Valley is a large agricultural region and has a long history of a large of Spanish-speaking population. “It makes it obvious that we need more Spanish speakers in this field. Maybe it’s because I am where I am.”

When working as a service provider, a shared identity (ethnic, socio-economic status (SES) or other) can be advantageous to creating a positive and effective working relationship. Harrison, who works as an instructor and podcast host/producer now but used to work in the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) service industry, says he only had one experience providing ABA services to an African American family.

“It made them feel more comfortable,” he replied when I asked if the shared ethnicity made a difference. Dietz had similar experiences when she worked in the field, and is acutely aware that there is a shortage of ethnic minority Behavior Analysts.

“If anything, it makes me a little sad that I can’t do more,” she says. “I ask myself, ‘Should I be out there in the field?  …because there aren’t enough of us.’”

And it is not just African American and Hispanic behavior analysts who are needed.

“We have Spanish-speaking staff,” Dietz says of her experience at the Regional Center, “but when we get a Punjabi-speaking family, I look around the office and ask, ‘Who speaks Punjabi? Nobody.’”

The problems are different when discussing international diversity. Parrott-Hayes, a Canadian, has been actively encouraging international diversity in behavior analysis for decades. Her role in this area began when she was a graduate student at Western Michigan University. The International Development Committee, of which she was a member, was made wholly of students.

“What we talked about was engaging students from other cultures,” she recalls. “We were just a group that had something in common.”

Parrott-Hayes explains that when Masaya Sato of Japan was elected as the first president of ABAI from outside the United States, he argued there should be an international representative on the council. The position was created and the council has had an international representative ever since. This was important considering behavior analysis was spreading to academic groups not just in Japan but England, France, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Italy.

In the years since, Parrott-Hayes has continued the push for international expansion, flying from her home in Reno, Nevada to countries around the world every few months in an effort to set up training programs in other countries. Her goal is to establish complete and comprehensive behavior analysis training programs, not simply BCBA-only programs. In recent years, Parrott-Hayes has organized various training programs in the Middle East, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The Jordan training program lasted through three cohorts, but there were drawbacks. “There was no infrastructure for these students to get jobs. After three cohorts – and we were doing it at the absolutely cheapest way we could – it couldn’t be sustained that way. They couldn’t make it last.” Leaders in Saudi Arabia then invited Parrott-Hayes to start a comprehensive program there.

“It didn’t happen,” Parrott-Hayes laments, “so we decided to get some BCBA training programs… But you know what that means; it means behavior analysis is applied behavior analysis and doesn’t attract research funding.”

Despite the limitations of running programs overseas, Parrott-Hayes is looking forward to upcoming opportunities in India and points to others’ activities in Asia as evidence that behavior analysis continues spreading globally.

“A lot has been going on in China and Taiwan more recently,” Parrott-Hayes says, smiling.

Parrott-Hayes is an example of a prominent, successful woman in science. Behavior analysis, unlike other some other sciences and technologies, has done well with integrating women (e.g., see Poling et al., 1983; Nosik & Grow, 2015), although arguments can be made that women have not made enough strides into leadership roles (e.g., see Myers, 1993). Perhaps because much of what behavior analysts do is teaching and nurturing or care-taking – traditionally feminine professions – there is a logical attraction for women, but that is simple speculation. One must acknowledge, though, behavior analysis is a field in which women are welcomed, are well-received, and succeed.

What, if anything, should be done to address our diversity problems and further encourage our diversity successes? I posed that question Harrison, Parrott-Hayes, and Dietz. Their answers varied.

“That’s when we get to the Catch 22,” Harrison said when I asked if he thinks we should make a conscience effort to solicit diversity. “I want to say yes because I want to see more people who look like me, but I also want to say no because this is a professional field and we want the people who are passionate about it and are good scientists.”

Parrott-Hayes also wants to see people who are passionate about behavior analysis. “If we recruit students of different ethnic diversity, they will then represent our field in communities where behavior analysis is not strong. That would be good.”

Dietz’ outlook is optimistic. “I hope it’s starting to be addressed more because of the recognition of ABA in autism. Autism doesn’t discriminate. I do feel like there are going to be more family members interested in ABA.” Dietz also thinks we can take advantage of our current name recognition.

“People are starting to be more aware of ABA and what it does… but I think we need to be more proactive in recruiting, going to Psych 101 classes and promoting it. By being out in the community more and being on social media and recruiting in other areas, I think we can get more diversity.”

And as Parrott-Hayes says, “There’s plenty of room in our field for everyone.”

I asked the professional organizations, ABAI, the Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB), and the Association for Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA) about the demographics information they collect. I have included summaries of their responses below.

ABAI

ABAI does collect some demographics information in membership applications, as any member can tell you. ABAI, however, did not respond to requests for more information about the demographics they collect or their uses for them.

BACB

The BACB also collects some demographics data, including gender, but, as the BACB’s Melissa Nosik notes, “Much of it is optional” (personal communication, August 5, 2015). Furthermore, Nosik says, “BACB is in the process of reassessing what kinds of demographics data they collect” (personal communication, October 31, 2015).

APBA

In its application forms, the APBA collects data on education (e.g., degrees, certifications), profession (e.g., occupation, title, service recipients, organization membership), and background information, including date of birth, ethnicity, and gender (although the only options are male and female). Some of this information is required, but much of it is voluntary. Gina Green reports the ABPA also uses convention registrations and anonymous surveys to collect demographics data. Green says the data are used for “internal purposes only, such as budgeting, planning membership recruitment and advertising activities, and developing the convention program” (personal communication, August 11, 2015).

All three organizations have privacy statements that indicate they maintain confidentiality of personal information.

What are your thoughts on diversity in behavior analysis?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

References

Poling, A., Grossett, D., Fulton, B., Roy, S., Beechler, S., & Wittkopp, C. J. (1983). Participation by women in behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst,6(2), 145–152.

Myers, D. L. (1993). Participation by women in behavior analysis. II: 1992. The Behavior Analyst16(1), 75–86.

Neef, N. A. (1993). Response to Myers on participation of women in behavior analysis: Right problem, wrong source. The Behavior Analyst16(2), 357–359.

Nosik, M. R. & Grow, L. L. (2015). Prominent women in behavior analysis: An introduction. The Behavior Analyst, 38, 225-227. doi: 10.1007/s40614-015-0032-7

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A. chelsea.wilhite@gmail.com

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters. You can contact her at chelsea.wilhite@gmail.com.

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13 Comments

  1. Behavior analysis is so obscure and tied to university environments that we can’t help but reach an almost exclusively affluent middle upper class white audience of students. Even within psychology programs, most students graduate with full degrees never hearing about behavior analysis coursework. Even if minorities like myself stumble into behavior analysis and get interested, what does the field have to offer in the modern landscape outside of autism treatment?

    The diversity problem in behavior analysis isn’t about ethnicity or race. It’s about our collective patterns of behavior. We have nothing to offer (in terms of community or work experience) outside of autism.

    • I think you absolutely have a valid point about the lack of ethnic diversity being, at least in part, the result of cultural practices surrounding university environments. That is part of a larger problem that we see in many specialty and/or affluent areas of interest. While the autism service industry is certainly our (ABA’s) most prominent field right now, it is by no means the only employment area behavior analysis has to offer. As Todd said, OBM is an example of another, rapidly growing area. And like you, I, too, would love to find out if there is a marked difference in demographics between autism and OMB. Another part of the issue might be behavior analysis’ lack of acceptance in other fields (e.g., education). For a list of areas in which behavior analysts are finding jobs, check out this (link below) article from earlier this year! Thank you so much for reading and commenting!! https://www.bsci21.org/why-payscale-inc-is-wrong-about-behavior-analysts/

  2. Excellent article, Chelsea. Among my students in FIT’s master’s program in professional behavior analysis, at least a quarter are non-white. When I lecture for friends’ classes at CSUN and Cal State LA, I notice almost half the students are non-white. Those are good numbers, but my guess is that many of these students do not attend national conferences. We are doing good work making BCaBA and BCBA coursework available and attractive to non-whites. A next step is to explicitly reinforce publishing and presenting. And then we’ll need to increase quality PhD training opportunities and jobs for doctoral graduates.

  3. I’m not sure why racial diversity or the lack thereof is a problem? Science is science, right? Black people don’t do “different” science to white people do they?

    If there is a diversity problem it is to be found in the obsession with Autism, not in the racial make up of the practitioners.

    • You’re not sure why racial diversity is a problem because you are most likely white. It’s hard to see the lack of diversity when everyone looks like you. Ok, science is science but there are NO training programs in science
      in any HBCU’s. There are few BA’s of color leading university programs. WMU entered their first African American doctoral student… that was a huge deal. Why? Once you leave the masters level… #ABAsoWhite
      There is a diversity problem because we’re not really targeting diversity at all levels.

  4. I have had the opportunity to work in 3 very different parts of the country and have to say that in all of these areas the percentage of Hispanic BCBAs has seemed proportional to the population. Here in El Paso we are a majority, which again is reflective of the population. As a Hispanic, however, I do feel that we struggle with having enough Spanish-speaking behavior analysts to be able to help children in Latin countries access services, but that is a different topic, as it involves international dissemination.

    Anecdotally, the number of Black BCBAs does not appear to be proportional to the general population. I agree with several of the other comments pointing at some potential factors affecting these numbers (cultural practices, lack of diversity within the field).

    I do regard the lack of racial diversity as a problem, specifically as it relates to the Black community. Yes, BCBAs, regardless or race, practice the same science and are ethically bound to not discriminate in rendering services to individuals. Still, for dissemination purposes and to reach more people in need, it is always great to have BCBAs in as many communities as possible.

  5. I am an African American and a BCBA. My experience in the field has been less than disirable. It doesn’t matter about my education. The field of ABA is a white girls club. If they don’t want you in, you have a hard time receiving the knowledge and experience needed to be successful in the ABA field.

    I have gone on several job interviews where my color was an issue. The question is, there will be families who will not want a person who looks like me in their home. So, the assumption is if you are white, you are welcome wherever you go. If you are other, you are welcome in your own communities. Those of us in the field of ABA need to work harder to bring diversity to the forefront.

    The last ABA convention I attended had about 5 African Americans out of 700 people.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience! We do accept guest articles if you are interested in submitting something for consideration on our site.

    • M.T.,
      Thank you for your experience. I am African American female and wanted to know the issue with racial disparities in this field. I am currently working on my BCBA and will finish in May 2018. My biggest fear is what you mentioned about not being able to obtain a job that I would be qualified for, but my skin color will deter me from getting it. I am sorry that you had to endure such blatant disrespect.

      I am trying to get my hours needed for the certification and being met with decline after decline. It made me realize that I made the wrong choice although my passion is working with children and their families.
      I also found that when applying for positions they would ask me to apply for the assistant or lower positions and not the positions applied for.

      Please offer some suggestions in moving forward. Can anyone also open the way for minorities in this field without feeling displace or uncomfortable while working in it?

  6. As a male School Psychologist and soon to be BCBA I most definitely feel to be a minority in the field. Not sure how PC it is to say this, but I experienced outright gender discrimination in both my training program and workplace, and feel grateful that the discrimination was squarely addressed in my training program. In the workplace, i feel it’s just so embedded and rampant that it’s scoffed at if ever brought up.

    • Bill,
      Thank you for sharing. This is so unfortunate. I have done lots of research and have not seen any organizations, groups of support for minorities yet. This is a bit scary just coming into the field after obtaining a MS in Psychology and working on BCBA in PA.

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