Myth: Science is becoming more diverse over time.
Truth: Although we want to believe that society is becoming more progressive and an increasing number of members of underrepresented groups (women, underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ+ etc.) are entering science, this is simply not the case. The percentage of women and underrepresented minorities entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) is not increasing at any appreciable rate. Unfortunately not enough data is available to make any such claim about LGBTQ+ scientists. This is a problem in itself.
We are a group of students who organized a GISP on Race and Gender in the Scientific Community. We are working closely with University Administrators on institutional solutions, and would like to give students the chance to support and critique our efforts. Many university programs only support survival mechanisms, which are necessary but temporary for addressing underrepresentation in STEM. Below are transformative strategies we would like the University to prioritize and implement, focusing on the University’s goal to support underrepresented minorities in STEM. This is what we came up with as a result of our study--we would love to hear your input on what other strategies are necessary to create meaningful change. If you support the strategies listed below and have a Brown University email address, please sign this form.
Google is celebrating Annie Jump Cannon's 151st birthday and so are we! Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) was an American astronomer who was extremely influential in classifying stars and in developing the current classification scheme. In her lifetime she classified around 350,000 stars, a number which has yet to be topped by another astronomer. Read her full biography here, or listen to it here.
Annie Jump Cannon is a testament to the success of (white) women in scientific careers despite the fact that science was dominated by white men. She is one of multitudes of successful non-white-men in science. Unfortunately, many of these other stories have been silenced or forgotten in favor of a more consistent white male narrative. This narrative is not only dishonest, it is also harmful to future scientists who are not given the opportunity to see themselves in the pictures of traditionally successful scientists. We can and should work to tell diverse histories in science classrooms. How we tell stories about the history of science says as much about us as about the history itself. Presenting a white-male-only view of science history is a choice.
The lists of female/black/hispanic scientists are endless. A quick google search will bring up as many results as one could desire. Yet why are these narratives not making it into our classrooms? Here are a few of our favorite lists of female/black/hispanic scientists:
Finding a qualified female professor for the physics department is “as rare as a fang in an owl’s mouth,” said Michael Kosterlitz, professor of physics and chair of the Committee for Faculty Equity and Diversity.
The recent Brown Daily Herald series on institutionalized racism prompted us to look for older Herald articles. We found an interesting article from 2011, Faculty remains mostly male, white, documenting the faculty demographics then. Included in the article are several quotes from faculty members which fail to show a strong commitment to diversity. We are glad that the more recent Herald articles provide a more researched description of the issue.
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.
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 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.