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.
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.
Underrepresented minorities currently make up 8.1% of Brown University's faculty. Nationally, 12.6% of the U.S. population identifies as African American or Black, and 16.4% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latin@. (Data from the 2010 Census). Even compared to these numbers, which account only for the largest racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S., 8.1% is strikingly small. Faculty of color face an overwhelming number of structural barriers, from bias in the hiring process to unequal demands on time once hired. For a more detailed description of the inequalities faced by faculty of color, read the full Brown Daily Herald article on structural racism at Brown University.
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.