A textbook case: McDaniel professor studies inclusivity in STEMM
Groundbreaking research conducted by biochemist and Associate Professor of Chemistry Melanie Nilsson found gender and race imbalances in surveyed college-level chemistry textbooks, from the photographs to the referenced professionals.
Because they’re re-printed every three to four years, it’s no secret that textbooks are always a little behind the times. But if you ask Melanie Nilsson, they’re really, really behind the times.
Nilsson, biochemist and associate professor of Chemistry, spent 20 years researching the causes and treatments for diabetes. That was plenty of time to become familiar with the landscape of the professional fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM), teach generations of students, and notice that STEMM hasn’t always kept up with efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
Nilsson joined the McDaniel faculty in 2003, and as her former students went into their post-graduation careers, many confided in Nilsson about their negative experiences in the professional world. Nilsson knew that more had to be done.
“My students were starting to come back and tell me about how inequitable it was for them,” Nilsson says. “I realized that the best thing I can do with this phase of my career is to really focus on equity and inclusion in STEMM, because that’s what will help my students the most in the long run.”
Pivoting her scholarship from diabetes to DEI took time, Nilsson says, which involved identifying personal biases and determining where her efforts would bring the most value.
It was while reviewing general chemistry textbooks for curriculum adoption that Nilsson found a focus — one that had limited pre-existing research.
“I had a general chemistry textbook on my desk that was open to a page where there were two Black people in an image, and they were both athletes. And I wondered whether that was the only image of people of color in the book. As I flipped through, I found that there were very few others,” she says. “Then I pulled another textbook off the shelf and just casually flipped through. And I was like, ‘This one’s terrible, too.’”
Textbooks, Nilsson says, define — with a significant amount of authority — a discipline and its related professions for students. They can convey conscious or unconscious biases held by authors and publishers to students considering pathways in those fields and impact their ideas of what is achievable.
Gender Bias in Chemistry Textbooks
So, Nilsson decided to do what all good scientists do: a systematic study. With co-author Mona Becker — a former faculty member and department chair of Environmental Studies and current mayor of Westminster — Nilsson took a quantitative look at the gender inclusivity of chemistry textbooks.
The results of that study, “College Chemistry Textbooks Fail on Gender Representation,” were published in the Journal of Chemical Education in February 2021.
“For the gender study, I expected the books to be kind of bad, but they were far worse than we anticipated. Far worse,” Nilsson says.
When Nilsson and Becker surveyed 10 general chemistry textbooks published between 2016 and 2020, they found that women were in an average of 30% of the images and 3% of named STEMM professionals. To put it another way, a male name appears on average every four pages of text, while a female name only appears every 250 pages of text.
Nilsson and Becker compared their results to a similar study on chemistry textbooks from 1978-87. They determined that, based on female representation in images, current college chemistry textbooks in the U.S. resemble high school textbooks from the late 1970s and early 1980s. A lag time of 40 years.
Nilsson and Becker were also able to determine that “male overrepresentation is not driven by a pedagogical need to include specific individuals, since the textbooks only have eight names in common,” out of an average of 97 names per textbook.
Among the eight names, which include prominent scientists like Linus Pauling and Robert Boyle, many have a record of racist or misogynistic views that typically aren’t acknowledged in the text.
“What does the inclusion of that small group say about our discipline?” Nilsson says.
Putting Research into Action
While the quantitative study provided clear data about an imbalance in representation, Nilsson didn’t want that information to get “lost in the ether.”
“So, I sat down and wrote an email to every single textbook author and every single publisher that had a book in the study,” she says.
She was inspired to do so by the concept of “intellectual activism,” coined by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, which encourages scholars to make actionable change through their research. “It’s about the many ways that we take our scholarship and move it toward social justice,” says Nilsson.
The responses to her outreach, she says, were eye-opening.
Reactions ranged from appreciation to anger. One publisher requested an in-depth review to identify specific weaknesses and ideas for improvement, and Nilsson was more than happy to help.
“The results of that study show how we all have been breathing this culture, and we have to undo it in some way. For scientists, putting numbers on it is a good start, because we’re used to thinking quantitatively,” says Nilsson.
Race Disparity in Chemistry Textbooks
Bolstered by the attention the gender study received, Becker and Nilsson conducted a second study, with support from a focus group, called “College Chemistry Textbooks Aid and Abet Racial Disparity.” The study focused on the representations of race in 10 general chemistry textbooks published between 2016 and 2020 and was published in April 2022 in the Journal of Chemical Education.
Out of a total of 841 human figures that were examined, the researchers found that 12% showed people of color. On average, people of color appear every 320 pages of text, while white figures appear every 24 pages. Within the images of people of color, 26% portray explicitly negative stereotypes like poor or polluted living conditions or hygiene, and only 31% depict STEMM-related activities.
According to the study, the college student population — the presumed target audience for college textbooks — was 46% students of color and 54% female in 2020.
As for why the diversity of names and faces in a textbook matters so deeply, Becker and Nilsson explain that representation in textbooks is vital: “Students are the prospective future practitioners. For them, textbooks provide a glimpse into the scientific community: who is valued, how status is achieved and measured, what are the core values.”
“We hope to dissuade publishers and authors from highlighting people who, if a student were to look into them, they would find someone who doesn’t believe they should have a fulfilling life or even basic human rights,” Nilsson says.
Nilsson has plans for more quantitative research into inclusivity and equity in STEMM, to promote “meaningful, appropriate, and sustainable” change. In the meantime, she’s cultivating an inclusive environment for future STEMM practitioners at McDaniel.