Women Scientists Rarely Highlighted in Biology Textbooks, But Progress Is Being Made

A new study led by researchers at Auburn University in Alabama has found that very few women scientists are referred to in popular biology textbooks. The research team, which included scholars from Michigan State University, the University of South Alabama, and the University of Konstanz in Germany, performed a demographic analysis by extracting hundreds of human names from common biology textbooks and assessing the binary gender and race of featured scientists.

The team discovered that the most common scientists featured in textbooks are White men. They found that while women are 51 percent of the U.S. population and 60 percent of the college students in biology, they were only 13 percent of the scientists featured in biology textbooks. But progress is being made. For research published between 1900 and 1999 women were about 10 percent of all highlighted scientists. For research published from 2000 to 2018, women were 25 percent of highlighted scientists in contemporary textbooks.

Given the importance of role models in science, the authors conclude with a call for publishers to expand upon the scientists they highlight to reflect the diverse population of learners in biology. “We’ve known for a long time that there are huge gaps in diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM,” stated Ash Zemenick, a research associate in the department of plant biology at Michigan State University and a co-author of the study. “Diversifying role models in textbooks and courses is one easy thing we can do among myriad changes needed.”

The full study, “A Scientist Like Me: Demographic Analysis of Biology Textbooks Reveals Both Progress and Long-Term Lags,” was published on the website of Proceedings of the Royal Academy B: Biological Sciences. It may be accessed here.

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