On Wednesday, we continued to discuss Science Education, this time focusing less on theory and more on practice. We began by reading an article called “Reducing the gender gap in the physics classroom,” written by members of Professor Mazur’s lab at Harvard (note: we are very excited to have Professor Mazur visit our class later in November!). We thought the results were compelling, and discussed whether the reduced gender gap was a result of more inclusive teaching or simply better teaching, and if it is possible to differentiate between the two. We then moved on to talk about a book chapter we read from Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol called “The Savage Inequalities of Public Education in New York.” We found the scenes described by this book chilling, and talked about what it meant for us to be focusing on bias and discrimination among scientists at such an elite level when the racism of our public education system often prevents students from attending and learning in primary school and high school. We know that there is work to be done here at Brown to make the scientific community more inclusive, but agreed that we must always keep the broader context of educational inequality described by Kozol in mind when discussing these topics and designing interventions. We also read some articles about Richard Tapia’s minority scientist program at Rice and single-sex schools’ effect on girls interested in STEM.
On Wednesday we continued our discussion of “well represented minorities”, specifically focusing on Asians and Asian Americans. We read the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE) Report on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in higher education. This report discusses Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in both 2-year and 4-year institutions of higher education. In our discussion we noted that the ‘model minority’ myth silences Asian Americans who do not attend one of the nation’s top 4-year colleges.
We also read Coloring the Academic Landscape: Faculty of Color Breaking the Silence in Predominantly White Colleges and Universities. We found this article to be a very good model for discussing challenges faced by minorities without needing to focus specifically on underrepresented minorities. We also found this article to address well the vital importance of intersectionality, the idea that an individual cannot be broken down into distinct identity groups, but rather that the interplay of multiple disadvantaged identities creates unique perspectives.
“Well represented minorities” present a very interesting perspective. While they are well represented at lower levels, they are still not found in management positions and positions of power. This is true despite the rampant stereotypes that Asian Americans are incredibly intelligent and hard working (in short, the 'model minority' myth). We determined from this that stereotypes do not tell the whole story. It is not true that scientists perform as well as the stereotype predicts they will. If this were true, we would see more Asian Americans in positions of power. We found that the structures in place in academic science do more than disadvantage women and underrepresented minorities. These structures actually privilege white men.
The rest of our discussion focused on the idea that Asian Americans are labeled as ‘perpetual foreigners’ and the xenophobia that produces this stereotype. We also discussed the need for equality beyond representation. Asian Americans have achieved representation in science similar to the proportion of Asian Americans in the American population at large. However we have yet to achieve equality as evidenced by the distinct lack of Asian Americans in positions of power.
On Monday, October 20 we began discussing the experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans in STEM in the United States. Students commented that generalizing the experiences of a wide range of people from dozens of different backgrounds is not only difficult but counterproductive, and even offensive. That, combined with the limited research available on Asian-Americans in STEM specifically and higher ed in general, made this discussion difficult right from the start.
The article Deconstructing the Model Minority Myth lays out well the primary concepts behind the stereotype of the “model minority”, a term often applied to Asian-American populations. There exists a pressure for Asian-Americans to conform to a perfectionist stereotype, meanwhile other stereotypes such as the “Yellow Peril” and “perpetual foreigner” stereotype may cause Asian-Americans to feel less welcome in the United States. Myths and Mirrors, another reading for this class, describes how these stereotypes might affect Asian-American students.
One interesting component of the Myths and Mirrors reading was its chart contrasting typical American values with typical Asian values. One student commented that the American values listed were in fact male American values, including the “promotion of personal accomplishments” and “tough, individualistic, authoritative leadership”. We wondered if these values were inextricable from the way science is conducted or not, and tried to imagine a scientific community which espoused different values, perhaps ones more similar to those in the Asian values column.
The “bamboo ceiling” phenomenon occurs where Asian Americans are absent from leadership roles in the communities and companies in which they otherwise succeed. We struggled to come to a conclusion about to what extent Asian Americans’ differing cultural values might contribute to this phenomenon. On the one hand, it is true that values such as humility and anti-individualism might hamper one’s ability to be seen as a leader in the United States. On the other hand, it may be that non-Asians assume that Asian-Americans possess certain cultural values or attributes even though they may not. The way in which we talk about this particular issue is tricky; we don’t want to impose static cultural values on an entire group of people, or to use reductionist reasoning to explain the differences in achievement and perceptions of different racial or cultural groups. Still, some students thought it very likely that some foreign students genuinely have different values and expectations than domestic students (ex. How permissible do they find it to question authority figures?).
Overall we wondered why there isn’t much talk in general about racial issues and prejudices facing Asian Americans in STEM and at Brown. Perhaps, one student suggested, Asians preferred to be, as they often are, lumped in with Whites and not seen as a racial minority. In this way Asians might be able to more easily access whiteness and make their differences a bit more invisible. Another student suggested that foreign students with very strong ties to their home countries might not have as much stake in changing Americans’ perceptions of Asians while they are here.
Conversations that do take place about Asian-American racial issues are often unproductive. For instance, Asian-Americans are often pitted against African-Americans in an attempt to show that it is perfectly possible for racial minorities to succeed using the current systems in the United States. Just last week Bill O’Reilly used the performance of Asian Americans to argue that white privilege doesn’t exist in a conversation with Jon Stewart. This rhetoric (presuming all Asian-Americans are the same and all achieve the same level of success with little or no barriers) fails to properly address the experiences of actual people of Asian ancestry in the U.S.
On Friday we discussed the state of women in the sciences today. Several class members expressed the wish that we had been more honest in our description of this day when writing the syllabus. The readings, although ostensibly speaking for all women, pertain to the struggles of white women in the scientific community, but do little to address the struggles of women of color. If we were to repeat this course, many students agree that it would be helpful to keep this week on white women in science, but also to add a week on women of color in science. We read the executive summary of the report from the National Academy of Sciences titled Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering. This report discusses biases faced by women in science. The report contains a table of commonly held beliefs or misconceptions of women in science and evidence refuting these beliefs. One refutation we particularly liked is the following:
"Belief: Academe is a meritocracy
Evidence: Although scientists like to believe that they “choose the best” based on objective criteria, decisions are influenced by factors—including biases about race, sex, geographic location of a university, and age—that have nothing to do with the quality of the person or work being evaluated.”
We also read a study on the impact of implicit bias and stereotypes on women, titled How Stereotypes Impair Women’s Careers in Science. This study asked some participants, ‘employers’, to hire other participants to perform an arithmetic task based on appearance alone. Men were twice as likely as likely as women to be hired. The next task asked ‘employers’ to hire study participants based on appearance and self-reported performance. Men were found to boast about their performance while women tended to undersell their abilities. Discrimination persisted in this task. The study showed that implicit stereotypes can explain much of the observed discrimination, that is ‘employers’ biased against women are initially less likely to hire women on appearance alone and subsequently are less likely to take into account the tendency of men to boast and of women to undersell their performance. From this article, we learned that implicit biases and stereotypes significantly impact perceptions of competence of women. Women interacting with biased individuals of any gender must do more to earn respect than their male peers. Our discussion focused on the difficulties involved in holding individuals accountable for their implicit biases. At the same time, we wondered whether it is more effective to address biased individuals or the system that allows these individuals to be biased. The issues are structural, but the realization of these issues is on an individual level. The very nature of these biases is invisible. Since they are invisible, they are neither discussed, nor perhaps perceived except by the careful observer. One of our goals is to bring these discussions to light. In doing so we hope to make the difficulties of women in science more transparent so that progress can be made.
We also discussed Margaret Rossiter’s book Women Scientists in America: Forging a New World since 1972. This book discussed ‘tokenism’, the practice of hiring small numbers of women and minority faculty members to give the appearance of diversity; ‘Revolving Doors’, the practice of hiring women and minority junior faculty members in tenure track positions an subsequently denying them tenure; the discrimination lawsuits which arose after the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (Title IX); and the difficulties faced by women in graduate school. Many of the students in our course plan to continue their studies in graduate school and were particularly affected by Rossiter’s accounts of sexual harassment in graduate school.
We ended our discussion with a comparison of the articles we have read about women and those we read about underrepresented minorities. We again mentioned that these articles, while ostensibly about the experiences of all women, in reality illustrate the challenges faced by white women much more accurately than those faced by women of color. We also noted that the articles on women are able to make much stronger claims. This might be partly because the majority of the American population identifies as one of two genders, while it is not true that the majority of Americans identify as one of two races. Additionally, gender is often easier to talk about than race. Cisgendered men are typically are happy to self-identify as male, while white people do not readily identify as white in everyday conversations. In addition, there is simply more literature on women in science than on minorities in science. These factors and more complicate discussions of race.
On Wednesday, October 8th we spent a day looking at the history of women in science using two readings: The Mind Has No Sex? Women and the Origins of Modern Science and The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. Right off the bat we recognized that these readings exclusively discussed white women in science. One student commented that this discussion day ought to be renamed in our syllabus to more accurately reflect the topic, and that some of our previous readings about women of color in science ought to comprise their own week. Many of our readings so far this semester have merely glossed over issues of intersectionality, which students have been finding frustrating at best.
The sections we chose from The Mind Has No Sex? by Londa Schiebinger discussed the institutional landscapes from which modern Western science was born during the Renaissance and even earlier. Today the exclusion of all women from then-nascent academies and universities often seems like a forgone conclusion- of course they were excluded, it was the seventeenth century! In fact, the question of whether and how to include women in academic and scientific zones was very much up for debate at the time. Any time a female was nominated for membership to an academy there was an opportunity to discuss “the woman question”. Even though many of these female candidates, it was agreed, possessed sufficient merit to be admitted, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that academies like the Académie Française and the Royal Society accepted women. Unfortunately, little is known about the reasons given at the time for excluding women, as history has quite a selective memory. We do know that when Marie Curie was nominated to join the Académie des Sciences in 1910, the other members voted that no woman should ever be elected to the body. One said they found it “eminently wise to respect the immutable tradition against the election of women,” so as not “to break the unity of this elite body,” (p.11).
Schiebinger argues that the place of women in science at the time of its origins depended on their social standing in the environment from which it formed. Monasteries, universities, salons, and royal courts were all centers of learning which treated women differently. In royal courts, where nobility and prestige outranked gender in the seventeenth century, noble women participated actively in intellectual discourse. As science became more legitimized as a profession and as the prestige of the nobility waned however, women’s participation in sciences declined dramatically. Over the next two centuries women worked on the periphery of the scientific community as “assistants” or “amateurs”, and were largely confined to “women’s sciences” such as botany and midwifery.
Another interesting point that Schiebinger raises is that seventeenth and eighteenth century artwork virtually always personifies science, reason, and logic as women. When scientists published their work in book form, they often included a frontispiece which depicted astronomy, mathematics, or whatever topic the work addressed. Unfailingly, these abstract concepts were represented as women in long, flowing gowns. In our discussion we speculated that this image was tied directly to the image of nature as female, and therefore something for men and specifically male scientists to dominate. Schiebinger mentions one depiction of astronomy exposing her breasts to clothed male scientists, which seemed to support this argument.
Finally, Schiebinger discussed how science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became preoccupied with searching for sex differences that validated the discrimination against and exclusion of women, all the while claiming absolute neutrality to the topic. As she put it, “Though anatomists proclaimed their neutrality, the evidence they used was not itself free from the imprint of social concerns… though flawed, this evidence served as the basis for the continued exclusion of women from science. At the same time, the elimination of dissenting voices insulated the scientific profession against immediate correction of these misreadings of female nature,” (p.268). Even today we often are exposed to the argument that the underrepresentation of women in STEM is due to innate biological differences because of this type of misguided research.
Our second reading for this day, The Madame Curie Complex by Julie Des Jardins, took us from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1970s and into today. Before the 1940s most white women could only work as “amateurs” and “technicians” for male scientists in their fields. Notable in this area were female astronomers such as Annie Cannon and Henrietta Levitt, who received virtually no credit at the time for her discovery of Cepheid variable stars (a very important type of star which pulsates and can be used to measure distances to celestial objects).
In the 1940s and 1950s World War II created temporary openings for white women in scientific fields, according to des Jardins, but wartime science came with an enormous cost. Scientists, particularly physicists, were rebranded as heroes and even soldiers during the war. The image of the heroic scientist was decidedly male and nondomestic- he was a loner with a one-track mind and an innate brilliance, according to social scientists of the day. At the same time the development of quantum mechanics and the atomic bomb drastically increased the prestige of physics in America, simultaneously causing the rejection of women from the field. Perhaps these are the reasons why physics still lags behind other sciences in its representation of women.
After the war there was a push for women to return to the domestic sphere, but second-wave feminists fought for women’s place in science as well as other professions. In the 1970s laws such as Title IX and others attempted to secure equal rights for women in the workplace. Women academics could now sue their universities for discrimination, as many experienced a “revolving door” phenomenon in which tenure was often promised and then denied when the time came. Prejudice was still rampant against women scientists, des Jardins explains, citing many misogynistic reactions to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as examples. Furthermore, the model of scientific success was (and often still is) predicated on the idea of separate spheres: a scientist must devote himself entirely to his work and leave all domestic issues to a wife at home. Female scientists in the twentieth century were expected to subscribe to this model as well as take care of their own domestic lives as well, one reason why it seems only relatively wealthy women who could afford child caretakers and house workers were successful in science.
The “Madame Curie complex” is the idea that women must perform much better than men in order to “earn” their places in science. They must be superwomen. It is true that today there excellent women in science, but not very many average or mediocre ones. Des Jardins ends her book on a bit of a somber note, stating that the pressure to outperform men in order to prove oneself is very much still felt by women in science today. Overall our class agreed with this statement- we found it chilling that many issues described by des Jardins in her work were still very relevant to today’s women in STEM.
On Monday October 6, we were fortunate enough to engage in a lunchtime discussion with Dr. John Johnson, professor of astrophysics at Harvard. Dr. Johnson is the first tenured black professor at Harvard in the physical sciences. He was invited to give a talk at Brown as a part of Brown's Thinking Out Loud speaker series. Watch Dr. Johnson's riveting talk, Searching for Life Basking in the Warmth of Other Suns below. Our discussion was focused not on astrophysics, but rather on Dr. Johnson's lived experiences and his insight into the issues we are discussing in this course. Our discussion ranged from the ineffectiveness of the GRE to the necessity of attacking actions, and not people. Dr. Johnson has spent a lot of time reading up on and thinking about the issues we are discussing in this course. We really enjoyed hearing his thoughts and reading his blog.