Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Does Visibility of Women in Science Matter?

Apparently so. According to a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Damschen et al. 2005), how women are presented in ecology textbooks and what is taught about women’s contributions to ecology can influence student’s awareness and possibly their long-term interests and abilities in science.

Obama’s speech this week to the NAS reminded me of this paper, which I had read some time ago. So, I thought I would reread it and summarize some of the key findings.

Scholars of women’s studies have repeatedly stated that the absence of women in science course materials leads to “an invisible curriculum”, with the effect of discouraging women from pursuing science careers. Of course, there are many reasons why female students drop out of science curricula or why female scientists do not advance into higher-level positions (see previous posts). But exposure to materials that illustrate the participation of women in science (and particularly their successful integration of professional and personal lives) encourages female students to view science as an attractive career choice.

In a review of introductory ecology textbooks, Damschen and coauthors found that women were depicted less often than men in various categories (authors, founders and innovators, working scientists, photographs and drawings, scientific reviewers, editors and publishers and names in indices). Most jarring was their finding that the proportion of women founders and innovators (5%) almost matched the percentage of women who were first authors on publications in the 1970s. The only category in which women exceeded men was as editors and publishers.

Note that this finding is contrary to the general perception that there is equality between the genders in the field of ecology (prevalent among female ecology students).

They conducted an additional study in which half of the students were given material enriched with examples of women’s contributions to ecology. Those given the enriched materials were able to list more female or minority scientist’s names than the student controls.

My own personal experience is that female students are almost totally unaware of women’s contributions to science. A routine comprehensive exam question that I ask of female students is to name five well-known female scientists in different fields and what their contributions were. Rarely do any of them name more than one person (usually Marie Curie). I find, though, that this sparks their interest and many of them later tell me that they’ve gotten a book or looked up articles about women scientists.

The paper by Damschen et al. ends with several recommendations for improving the visibility of women in ecology (applicable to any field of science):

-Ensure visibility of women as contributors to the production of ecological knowledge.
-Women founders and innovators should not only be documented in traditional accounts of history, but a repository should be established to collect such materials for inclusion in textbooks and courses.
-Women currently working as scientists should be included in textbooks and their gender identified.
-Textbooks should include discussions of social and cultural impacts of gender on research questions, language, and methodologies.
-Scientific organizations and societies should engage in regular assessment of female representation (and develop benchmarks).

I would add to this that women can take an active role in promoting their contributions to science by developing interesting websites in which they highlight their activities and accomplishments, provide information and advice to students and the public, and write about their professional and personal experiences.

The Internet is a great equalizer—it’s up to us to take advantage of it.

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