Women And People Of Color “Woefully Underrepresented” In Science Textbooks, Study Finds

“In short, representation matters!” - Dr Cissy Ballen, study author and Assistant Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, Auburn University, Alabama . GaudiLab/Shutterstock

New research has shown that the overwhelming majority of scientists mentioned in biology textbooks are white men, while women and people of color – especially women of color – remain “woefully underrepresented.” In fact, Black women were not represented in any of the textbooks looked at in the study. 

Although the research found there has been notable progress over the past century when it comes to representation, there's still a very long way to go before scientists in textbooks begin to reflect the students who are reading them.

“Textbooks highlight the historical work of influential scholars who have shaped the field while conveying foundational concepts in a given discipline,” Dr Cissy Ballen, study author and Assistant Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Auburn University in Alabama, said in an email to IFLScience.

“From the perspective of students who rely on these textbooks – plenty of work has demonstrated how student perceptions of who can do science influence their sense of belonging in STEM fields, as well as their interest and achievement in STEM,” she added.

“In short, representation matters!”

Reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists at Auburn University studied the representation of different demographics in biology textbooks used in undergraduate science classes across the US and looked at how representation has changed over the past 100 years. The names of mentioned biologists ranged from famous scientists such as Charles Darwin and Carolus Linnaeus to living contemporary scientists like Jane Goodall and Hopi Hoekstra. 

They found that only 13 percent of scientists were depicted as women and less than 7 percent were people of color. There was also a distinct lack of representation of Asian and Hispanic women. As mentioned, the researchers did not find one single mention of a Black woman scientist.

They did, however, find some evidence of progress in terms of representation. They found that citations of women were proportional to the number of women biologists in the scientific workforce at the time of discovery. “So, textbooks are not under-representing women relative to their presence in the science workforce," Dr Ballen explained. "But they are definitely not reflecting the numbers of women in undergraduate classrooms – overall 13 percent of scientists are women in textbooks – approximately 60 percent of students are women."

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The study authors write in the paper: "We do not advocate for an erasure of the history of science, or intend to undermine the enormous contributions of individuals who laid the groundwork for contemporary biology.

"However, equally important in our efforts to communicate history is to show that science is a diverse enterprise and that anyone who is capable and interested in fundamental principles of life belongs in a science career."

Optimistically, the study also found that women and scientists of color were increasingly represented in textbook examples of contemporary scientific discoveries, compared to historic ones. Steps have been made, say the researchers, but it’s been slow progress. 

“Results from our forecasts revealed a grim outlook for some underrepresented scientists," Dr Ballen told IFLScience, giving the example, "if Black authors continue to be featured in biology textbooks at the same rate, it will take nearly 500 years to reflect the biology student population.”

 

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