Whose Faces do we See in Geology Textbooks?

Author’s Note: The last few weeks have left us grappling with the profound effects of systemic racism, as seen in the wake of the recent protests and violence all over the USA and the world, as well as the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Black communities. This week’s post is dedicated to exploring the impact of another effect of systemic racism: lack of representation in educational spaces, made apparent in geology textbooks. 

Paper: How gender and race of geoscientists are portrayed in physical geology textbooks 

Authors: Paige Bush and Stephen Mattox

Featured Image by https://unsplash.com/@rbmadaci

Geology is facing a projected shortfall of thousands of scientists in the near future, calling for a critical scrutiny of the composition of the geology workforce and especially the participation of under-represented minorities (URMs) in this field. Like many other STEM fields, geology has a low URM participation rate (below 14%). A primary reason that excludes URMs from participating and thriving in geology and many other STEM fields is the lack of a sense of belonging, i.e. the feeling of being accepted by their peers and supervisors.

The authors revisited a previous study from 2008 that looked at how race and gender were represented using photographs in 15 introductory geology textbooks. At the time, male scientists were 3.5 times more likely to be shown as geologists than their female counterparts, and white geologists were 15 times more likely to be represented in images than their non-white peers. 

The present study revisited 6 textbooks which have been updated since 2009 to ask the same questions. Although a decade has passed, white and male images are still dominant. White men featured in 88.7% of the images of male scientists and white women made up 90% of all female scientists pictured. Both male and female African-American scientists appear in only around 3% of all photos. While most groups were marginally better represented, the overall proportion of Asian and Latinx women featured in textbook images was lower, with zero Latinx women seen in the latest editions. 

This last finding is especially important, since intersectionality plays a key role in both representation and belonging. For example, female African-American or Asian scientists are rarely portrayed (<1% of all female scientists) in geology textbooks. Even though the percentage of minority male and female scientists increased slightly, the absolute numbers are still small; 30 out of 567 photos. The authors make a number of suggestions to improve representation in textbooks, including bringing awareness of biases to authors and publishers of textbooks, increasing collaborations with science illustrators, and including information on organizations that serve minority geoscientists in textbooks.

While not representative of the population of the United States, the textbook photos seem to draw an accurate portrait of the lack of racial and gender diversity in the geosciences. Our sense of identity and belonging can be closely tied to the faces we see around us in the classroom and the lab, and so it is worth reflecting on how our educational materials are impacting students’ perceptions of themselves as geologists.

Additional resources for education: If you’re curious and looking to learn more on the topic of social inequity, particularly in STEM fields, we recommend the book Black Faces, White Spaces, this Decolonising Science Reading List and a list of action items and resources curated by 500 Women Scientists.

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Whose Faces do we See in Geology Textbooks? by Janani Hariharan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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