- Professor Nina Emery, Department of Philosophy
- Professor Joan Richards, Department of History
- Professor Jim Valles, Department of Physics
- Professor John Johnson, Harvard Department of Astronomy
- Professor Mona Abo-Zena, Department of Education
- Professor Anne Fausto-Sterling, Department of Biology, Gender Studies
- Dean David Targan, Science Center
- Dean Maitrayee Bhattacharyya, Brown–Tougaloo Partnership
- Dr. Kathy Takayama, Sheridan Center
- Dean Liza Cariaga-Lo, Office of Institutional Diversity
As the course wraps up, we would like to take a moment to thank all of the faculty members and administrators who joined us for our discussions
The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University is well loved by all. Dr. Kathy Takayama, Executive Director of the Sheridan Center, joined our class on Dec. 1 for a discussion of effective teaching strategies and how student identity affects interaction with course material. Dr. Takayama started the discussion by dividing the class in half. She read 28 words out loud to the entire class and asked us all to check yes or no based on criteria written at the top of the sheet. We were then asked to write down as many of the 28 words as we could remember. Individuals on the left side of the classroom remembered approximately 19 words while individuals on the right side of the classroom remembered roughly 9 words. Dr. Takayama then revealed to us that the left half of the class had been asked to decide whether the word was ‘pleasant’. The right half had been asked to determine whether the letters E or G were present in the word. The students who were asked whether the word was ‘pleasant’ were forced to process the word in depth, i.e. interact with the word on a personal level by relating the word to personal experiences. Those looking for an E/G were practicing shallow processing. Clearly, deep processing allowed students to remember significantly more words. This simple exercise illustrates Dr. Takayama’s take home message: what matters the most for successful learning is what you are thinking about when you see new information. Processing information by relating it to personal experience allows for a better understanding of the material.
It is important for professors to understand how students learn and that different students will have different experiences regarding the material. For example, a student who had the opportunity to visit natural history museums during their childhood may have an easier time processing a lecture on fossils on a deep level than a student who did not have such opportunities. This is because the student who has sen fossils in a museum will be able to recall this event while the professor is speaking, i.e. they will be able to relate course material to personal experience. Science, in particular, can often be difficult to process on a deep level because in science we are constantly writing the people out. Journal articles focus exclusively on hypotheses, experiments, or theories, and never on the researchers or authors themselves. This is all a part of the myth of objective science that we continue to discuss in this course. Science may feel that by writing the author out we can collectively ignore identity and in doing so provide a fair platform for all participants. However, it is impossible to ignore identity and harmful to pretend that this is possible. The effectiveness of deep processing over shallow processing shows that an individual’s experiences (where identity plays an undeniable role) are indeed integral to the learning, and thus scientific, process. Additionally, as Dr. Jo Handelsman showed in her eye-opening article Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students, the difference between a male or female sounding name can be enough to change hiring decisions. The study sent identical resumes to several potential employers. Some resumes had traditionally female names, while others had traditionally male names. The ‘male’ applicants were offered positions more often and were offered a higher starting salary on average. This shows that identity and bias do matter and we should not try to write it out. Check your own bias with the Implicit Association Test. The only way to combat the effects of bias are to be conscious of our own biases.
Dr. Takyama asked us to think about the following question: How can science bring the individual back in? We collectively decided that this is a process which has to happen over time. The culture must change so that science is a safe space where individuals feel comfortable discussing their identities. One easy way to write the individual back in to science is to have students in introductory classes spend 15 minutes 2-3 times throughout the semester writing about values that are important to them. This values affirmation exercise has been shown to close the ‘gender gap’ in science classrooms. We recommend that all instructors use this exercise in their classrooms. In addition, we recommend that instructors make an active effort to participate in more discussions surrounding the identities of their students and peers.
As Brown University celebrates 250 years of educating students we, as students at Brown, wanted to take some time to learn about the 50 year long partnership between Brown and Tougaloo college, a historically black college near Jackson, Mississippi. Although the Brown University–Tougaloo College Partnership (BTP) take many forms, the most widely known program is the semester exchange, which allows students from Brown and Tougaloo to switch schools for a semester or a year. We were fortunate to be joined in our discussion by Dean Bhattacharyya, the Brown coordinator of this program. Dean Bhattacharyya has found the semester exchange program to be profoundly influential because it allows students to find their place, discover who they are, and learn to establish friendships across differences. One challenge this program continues to face is the differing views on what makes a good education. Brown, with more money and prestige, has had difficulties in deciding where Tougaloo credits fit in to Brown concentration requirements. We postulated that this might be particularly difficult in the sciences where classes build directly on their pre-requisites. We recommended therefore that an effort be made to extend the exchange program to Brown science students. This program is, of course, open to all students now, however strict concentration requirements make it more difficult for science students to spend a semester away from Brown. One way to make the program more accessible to Brown science students would be to create an integrated Brown–Tougaloo course plan. For example, Brown students could take some of their introductory science courses at Tougaloo where the courses are smaller, there is more faculty involvement, and students are less likely to feel lost or invisible. This could be particularly helpful for underrepresented minorities and other group whose members often report feeling invisible in Brown’s classrooms. We have seen that a successful and fulfilling experience in introductory science classes is invaluable, even necessary, in the decision of underrepresented minorities to continue on in science. No two experiences in the Brown–Tougaloo exchange program are the same and experiences cannot be assumed prior to participation, however previous participants give the program overwhelmingly positive reviews. We would like to see more science students taking advantage of the Brown-Tougaloo exchange program.
Around this same time, some Tougaloo students believed that the exchange program should only be open to black students. This certainly shows one way in which the Brown-Tougaloo partnership has developed over the past 50 years. In addition, we were shocked to learn about a former program, the Brown-Tougaloo Joint Engineering Program. One article, “Blacks in Engineering”, shows clear recognition of many of the issues we have spent the semester talking about. This article opens with the following sentence:
Although Blacks constitute approximately 11% of the population of the United State, only 1% of the engineers graduated from accredited colleges and universities at the end of the 1972-1973 academic year were Black.
It is saddening to realize that, despite this recognition, little has changed in the past 40 years. 12.6% of the U.S. population now identifies as African-American or Black while only 3.8% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering were awarded to people identifying as African-American or Black (see figure on the left, note that this figure shows data for underrepresented minorities, which is defined by the NSF for the purposes of this graph to include blacks, hispanics, and American Indians). We hope to do more with this course than simply raise awareness. The rate of progress that we have seen over the past 40 years, less than 1% increase per decade in blacks in science, is massively too slow. At this rate it would take at least another 150 years for there to be an equal representation of blacks in science and the U.S. population at large. We are not willing to wait this long.
Institutional barriers complicate access to academic science for white women and underrepresented minorities. The barriers we have discussed this semester can be broken down into two categories: structural and behavioral. Structural barriers are aspects of a structure, in our case the structure is academic science, which make it difficult for underrepresented minorities and white women to succeed in academic science. Behavioral barriers are actions preformed by individuals which make it difficult for members of underrepresented groups to succeed. We compiled a list of structural and behavioral barriers to success for underrepresented minorities and white women at the undergraduate level.
On November 19 Dean David Targan, Associate Dean of the College for Science at Brown University, talked to our class about the impacts he has made at Brown University. Dean Targan is currently responsibilities through the Dean of the College include New Scientist (NSP) and Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) programming. DeanTargan studied physics as an undergraduate at Brown. After attending UCLA and U. Minnesota, where he earned an M.A. and Ph.D., he returned to Brown as a Physics faculty member. Dean Targan has been interested in the issues of gender in the physics community since his days as an undergraduate. As a faculty member at Brown he was able to attend conference on Women in Physics, sponsored by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). While at this conference many women approached Dean Targan with stories of uncomfortable experiences during job interviews at Brown. The knowledge gained at this conference combined with his longstanding interest in equality led Dean Targanto apply for an NSF grant to start a mentoring program for women which was to support about 20 students. However, at the informational session, the room was overflowing with students. Dean Targan realized that there was a huge amount of interested in and need for a change in Brown’s STEM fields. Dean Targan started the WiSE program, which is still running today. Subsequently, Dean Targan planned a minority program (NSP), which is also currently active although still smaller than WiSE. These programs were not started easily. Dean Targan received several letters criticizing his decision to found WiSE. These letters argued that the money would have been better spent on research. Interestingly, at least one of the authors of these letters wrote a follow up letter about a decade later apologizing and stating that his daughter was currently an undergraduate science student and the author now saw the need for programs like WiSE.
We got the chance to ask Dean Targan several questions. His responses are summarized here.
Q: Have you seen changes in physics over time?
A: Positive changes in the environment have occurred when people retired and were replaced by younger people who were more educated about these topics. Faculty members who have been hired recently are more interested in talking about their students and how to be an effective teacher. In the beginning, WiSE offered undergraduates some financial support to work in research labs at Brown. This gave certain faculty members a chance to see the strength of their students, perhaps students who would otherwise go unnoticed. While this program was running it created a positive change in the culture of Brown science departments.
Q: What is your understanding of what the problems are?
A: The list of problems has stayed more or less constant over the years. There is a lack of role models and a lack of a critical mass of women and minority scientists. Other problems include lack of sufficient financial aid (although Brown’s move to need blind admissions under president Ruth Simmons helped to alleviate this somewhat), stereotype threat, and impostor syndrome. With the move to need blind admission came an increase in the number of students interested in science, particularly 1st generation college students and underrepresented minority students. There is not enough academic support for all of these students. For example, the Catalyst program, a pre-orientation program run by NSP that “prepares incoming first-years for the rigors of a science concentration at Brown”, in the past has had to limit its enrollment in order to do justice to its students. Therefore Catalyst has, unfortunately, not been able to address the needs of a larger cohort of students entering Brown with an interest in science. However, we are looking at ways to address those needs, by expanding Catalyst or by replacing it with a similar program, while increasing support for NSP.
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.