Mid Semester Essay — Racial and Gender Inequalities in Science
Racial and gender inequality is prevalent in every sense around us. These inequalities play a significant role in representation and work environments in the scientific world. It’s not a secret that the field of science is white male dominated field but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Being able to identify ways to improve the lack representation of all races in gender within the science community will be scientific progress within itself (in my opinion).
When you were in elementary or middle school were you ever asked to draw a scientist? Who did you draw? Did you draw a male or female? When students were asked to do this activity, 99.4% of the drawings were males. (Terada, 2019) Science is not represented by all races and genders; in this case gender, I’ll talk about race later. According to the study 50 Years of the Draw-a-Scientist, “stereotypes linking science with men might limit girls’ interests in science-related activities and careers…”. (Terada, 2019) In this 50 year study, during the years of 1966 to 1977, out of the 5,000 submitted drawings only 28 of them depicted females. When young girls don’t see women in science, also women who don’t look like them, then they’re more likely to not have interest in science-related topics. This, along with other reasons, leads to the lack of representation of women in science. Teachers play a key role in encouraging children, specifically girls, to participate and/or have interest in science. Teachers can do their parts by hanging more diverse posters and decorations inside the classroom, promote books that highlight women, invite female speakers to come talk to the students (e.g. career day). (Terada, 2019) Simply encouraging and exposing the female students to science can change the representation of women in science in the later generations.
Racial and gender inequalities can also produce unfit working environments. In the movie, Hidden Figures, there was an enormous amount of white supremacy and racial incidents that were displayed during this time. While all the women in the movie are important roles as far as what they stand for, I want to focus on Katherine Johnson for now, who was played by Taraji P. Penson. All of the women experienced unfit working environments but Katherine in particular, was forced to walk half a mile just to use the restroom due to the use of segregated restrooms within her department. Throughout the movie, the men were skeptical of her and other women’s mathematics abilities. Now take a second to reflect; how would you feel if someone was doubting your abilities that you feel so confidently about but in reality they’re only doubting you because of your race or gender? How would you feel if you had to travel to a different building to use the restroom because of your race and gender? Would you want to work in an environment that exhibits those characteristics? It’s not an ideal working environment for anyone. While this movie does exaggerate some aspects of the history it is based on, it is necessary in order to ensure the issues are addressed.
Now, let’s address the situation that all the women in the movie, and during this time, were experiencing; the idea of heroism. Author of Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science, Naomi Oreskes, describes heroism as the idea that males are more likely to be deemed as heroic and therefore get all the credit and recognition. In Hidden Figures, Katherine’s name was also forced to be removed from the official reports and was credited to a white male counterpart. Oreskes talks about a similar case with Eleanor Lamson, who was responsible for all the math behind the measurement of gravity at sea but wasn’t allowed to go on the voyage. “Only the men’s work could be cast as a heroic voyage to “conquer the earth’s secrets”.” (Oreskes, 100) Because of this idea, only men were able to appear in the public eye.
Let’s recall the segregated restroom issue. In the movie, Katherine’s white boss knocks down the restroom sign and stands up for removal of segregated restrooms but in reality, Katherine was the one who barged in and used the ‘whites only’ restroom and claims that moment of empowerment herself. The idea of heroism completely changes the scene and robs the women of their recognition and their efforts which leads to the lack of representation and undervaluing of women in science.
In Tema Okun’s article, white supremacy, he identifies traits and characteristics of companies that exhibit the white supremacy culture, unknowingly or knowingly, and provides antidotes for each characteristic. The white supremacy that was displayed in Hidden Figures was prevalent and very easy to identify with Okun’s help. The main characteristic I was able to identify is power hoarding which Okun describes as those in power are not willing to share that power and if they were to, that power is very limited. These power hoarders don’t see themselves as power hoarders and believe they have the best interest of the company/organization as a whole. In the movie, Dorothy Vaughan was appointed unofficial acting supervisor of the colored group and later on was told that the boss had no intention of making her the official supervisor giving her the impression that she had some type of power. Another showcase of this characteristic is the fact that only the men were on the frontline of the rocket launch forcing the women to do the behind the scenes work. Okun proposes an antidote saying that challenging leadership could in fact be healthy for the organization and discussing what good leadership looks like. Being able to step aside and give the women an actual responsibility within the frontlines would be a great way to extinguish power hoarding.
Race and gender are huge barriers that have been a problem in the scientific community for decades now and could be a reason that scientific advancement is not, well, advancing much. Being able to identify these issues is a start and the next step is to act upon these same issues in an effective way to improve the scientific community as a whole. Maybe this generation or the next is capable of doing that.
Okun, T. (n.d.). White Supremacy Culture. https://www.dismantlingracism.org/ uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf
Oreskes, N. (1996). Objectivity or Heroism? On the Invisibility of Women in Science. Osiris, 11, 87–113.
Terada, Y. (2019). 50 Years of Children Drawing Scientists. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/50-years-children-drawing-scientists
Watch Melfi, T. (2017, January 6). Hidden Figures [Biography, Drama, History]. Fox
2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films.