Science & Technology

‘Increased representation of women, ethnic groups not enough to overcome biases in STEM’

Down to Earth speaks to Meena Balagopal, educational researcher and ecologist, CSU, on gender bias and racism in STEM disciplines

By Anshika Ravi
Published: Tuesday 14 July 2020

Gender diversity and representation of women have been the long-sought goal across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. But can representation alone improve diversity in science and eliminate gender bias?

A recent study by Colorado State University (CSU) researchers has found that undergraduate women in life and physical sciences continued to experience gender biases from their peers — even when they outnumbered men in these courses.

Despite having a higher average grade point and a statistically higher course grade, both men and women presumed that the men  outperformed the women, according to the study. Both genders were less likely to select a woman as someone they would seek help from in class, the study stated.

Gender and race bias has persisted for long in STEM and continues to gain strength amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Meena Balagopal, educational researcher and ecologist, CSU and co-author of the study, spoke to DTE on the subject. Edited excerpts.

Anshika Ravi: Representation of women has been the most sought-after demand to address gender bias in STEM. But your most recent research overrides that assumption. Comment.

Meena Balagopal: Our study demonstrated that a simple increase in numbers or representation is not enough to combat gender biases, and in some cases, among both men and women.

Even though this was not examined in our study, I would argue that increased representation of ethnic groups alone is not enough to overcome biases that students have about one another and their abilities.

In the United States, the term “under-represented minority” is often used in STEM fields. It is a term that the National Science Foundation also perpetuates. It is a subtle way of excluding Asian-Americans from participating in special programmes or interventions to increase interest or performance in STEM.

All non-white students are considered under “minority”, but “under-represented minority” refers to non-white and non-Asian American because Asian-American students are considered “well-represented” in STEM disciplines.

Again, the question that researchers must ask is whether or not representation alone is sufficient to overcome the hurdles that certain demographic groups experience.

AR: How has the enrolment of women in STEM education evolved over the years? It can be observed that women, particularly in Indian families, are rarely discouraged to pursue a career in STEM. But does anything change when inherent bias continues to persist?  

MB: As the number of women in certain disciplines increase and persist (as in life science courses), so do opportunities for men and women to collaborate and for students and instructors to realise that women are capable and high-performing students.

I would say Indian families do encourage women to pursue STEM careers more than a few decades ago. In some areas, like computer science programmes in the US, there are often 10 per cent or fewer students who are women; In India, there are programmes with up to or more than 40 per cent women students.

I think this is a question that requires a more nuanced understanding of the cultural / family context, economic situation and discipline. However, one thing that is similar across these contexts is the role of academic and professional mentors; the research indicates that mentors (both men and women) can have a powerful influence on girls deciding to pursue studying STEM subjects as young women in college.

AR: In what ways have you seen gender bias playing out in STEM? Have they increased amid the COVID-19 crisis? 

MB: This is a challenging question since gender bias persists and, I believe, is only increasing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is only recently that studies indicating lower publication records for women during the pandemic are being published. This is especially the case for women with young children at home compared to men with young children.

The debate at campuses in the United States whether the tenure clock should be stopped for women (or for anyone requesting it), but then others argue that the expectations are increased for women if they stop their clocks.

Hence, I think gender bias is alive and takes on different forms under different circumstances.

On a positive note, though, in disciplines with greater representation of women, there are more women in administrative and leadership positions who call out the biases. There are, therefore, more opportunities for discussion about the problems and potential solutions.

AR: Several large organisations such as Google LLC and Facebook Inc seem to have started ‘unconscious bias tests’ to allow their employees gain greater awareness about their biases, preferences and beliefs. Is that likely to help?

MB: People love quick-fix solutions. The unconscious bias tests are great for initiating discussions about what is implicit bias. I think training is a great start.

However, one workshop is insufficient to change embedded ways of seeing the world and interacting with people, especially if biased behaviours persist in populations.

Therefore, ensuing dialogue and workshops are needed to really change how people behave. Anything helps, so people should attend these workshops and trainings, but they should remember that one workshop is not enough.

AR: Another part of the subject is racial-cum-gender bias. Recently, cosmetic brand Fair & Lovely was called out for perpetuating racism, and it changed its name to Glow & Lovely. How do these standards impact women in science?

MB: There are disciplinary cultural norms that both men and women follow depending upon a field. For example, if you do a lot of ‘bench’ work, it is expected that you have long pants, closed shoes, hair back, and no hanging fabric on blouses. If you do a lot of field work, it is expected that you are dressed appropriately for the work. Therefore, I don’t think the biases within the discipline are the issue as much as what the ‘public’ expects a scientist to look like.

For example, a long-running activity is to ask school children to draw scientists and the results almost always indicate that they draw white men with lab coats and crazy hair and specs.

In other words, people don’t imagine women, people of colour, or those who do field work to be scientists. Because of the media and teachers’ subtle and perhaps unintentional ways of promoting men as scientists (by discussing the same big names in each field without integrating the names of women scientists in the curricula), children imagine who can be a scientist and who can’t.

AR: There was a one-day #ShutDownSTEM strike in the wake of George Floyd murder. Some black women in STEM, mostly graduates, came out in protest.

MB: There are very few black women relative to white women in STEM fields, so it is great that this issue is gaining momentum and screen time in the US.

However, what is even more powerful is that both men and women of all minority ethnicities are coming together in support of all our colleagues and peers in STEM who have experienced bias.

The term BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, is becoming more powerful. It recognises that black and indigenous people have experienced the most prejudice of all people of colour, whether in STEM or in everyday life.

AR: What, according to you, should be the way forward to address gender imbalance in STEM?

MB: I think we need a multi-pronged approach. No one solution will be enough. Mentors, modified curricula, trainings / workshops and more research are needed.

I suggest double-blind peer review of manuscripts for journals too. This eliminates or decreases the chances that reviewers’ implicit biases affect how they review papers written by women (or by BIPOC or by those from the Global South).

I think that more training for university STEM instructors on how to decrease gender or racial bias is necessary. For example, I have data (unpublished) that I collected with colleagues in engineering classrooms that demonstrated that if there is only one woman in a small work group, her ideas are more likely to be dismissed or adopted by a man who is then given credit.

However, when there were at least two women in a group, even if they disagreed with each other’s ideas, they prevented men from dismissing or ‘stealing’ ideas.

STEM instructors, therefore, need guidance on how to promote classroom experiences that benefit men and women, as well as any minoritised group.

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