It Will Be Centuries Before Black Scientists Are Represented in Textbooks

Women scientists who are not white are "woefully underrepresented" in science textbooks, according to a study. Researchers failed to find a single black woman scientist in introductory biology college textbooks, and forecast it will take over 1,000 years for such resources to be representative of the U.S. population if black scientists are featured at current rates.

The study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences showed white men were the group most commonly featured in common biology textbooks, and the scientists highlighted were not representative of the U.S. biology college student population.

But the proportion of women and scientists of color mentioned for their work in contemporary scientific discoveries had improved, the team found. And the proportion of women in textbooks was rising in line with the proportion of those in the field. This may be because of a greater recognition of women scientists, a reflection of the absolute number of scientists who are women has grown over time, or both.

This was in contrast with previous studies on other science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) fields, such as ecology and geology, where women were underrepresented relative to their contributions.

Of the total 1,107 scientists featured in the study, 145 were women (13 percent), 962 were men (86 percent), meaning seven men were mentioned for every woman. Only 6 percent of the scientists were people of color. These proportions don't reflect the demographics of the general U.S. population or biologist students in the U.S., the authors said.

"There is an underrepresentation of relatable role models for students who are women or students of colour," the authors wrote.

Co-author Cissy Ballen, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Auburn University told Newsweek in an email: "While conveying foundational concepts in a given discipline, textbooks highlight the historical work of influential scholars who have shaped the field. 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. In short, representation matters!"

To carry out the study, the team looked for the names of scientists in the indices of the latest editions of the seven most common introductory biology textbooks used in U.S. universities that were available electronically. They noted the demographic information of the resulting 1,107 scientists, including their gender, race and when their work was published.

Next, they compared how many women were represented in textbooks with how many were tenured biologists at the time of publication, reflecting that they were leaders in their field.

Finally, the researchers forecast how long it would take for textbooks to represent women and people of color of the general population of biology undergraduates and the U.S. population as a whole.

Over time, white women and Asian men were better represented, and white men less so. The patterns didn't change for Asian women, black women, and Hispanic men and women.

If black scientists continue to be represented at the same rate, it will take over 1,000 years for books to reflect the general U.S. population and 500 years the biology student population

The authors wrote: "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."

The study was limited because the researchers scraped names from indices rather than the body of the text, so it's not clear to what extent certain scientists were featured or how. The sample also only included texts which were available online.

Ballen said Asian and Hispanic women were "woefully underrepresented" and black women "completely lacked representation."

She said: "We demonstrated a substantial mismatch between aspiring scientists and the role models held up as exemplars in biology textbooks."

Ballen hopes the research will encourage textbook makers to diversify the scientists they depict, with highlighting contemporary research being one approach.

Asked to respond to those who might argue there aren't enough women and scientists of colour for textbooks to be representative, Ballen said: "There are qualified scientists everywhere and from every walk of life. A lot of people have the perception that there aren't many scientists who are from marginalized groups.

"However, it's not because they don't exist, or there aren't many of them, it's because their work and voices are not celebrated like those of scientists from non-marginalized groups. There are many books, groups, and lists of scientists from historical and contemporary underrepresented groups (a few examples include 500 Women Scientists, 500 Queer Scientists, the Scientist Spotlights Initiative, Project Biodiversify)."

scientist, stock, getty,
A stock image shows a woman looking at a test tube. Getty