Women and minority inclusion: What the sciences can learn from the humanities

By Simon Brown / Columnist

In a decade of declining enrollments in humanities classes with a limited attention to public discourse, the question of how the humanities can learn from the sciences has taken on a particular pertinence. 

It may be a bold claim, then, to assert that historians and literary scholars can teach biologists and physicists anything meaningful about their own fields. When it comes to the inclusion of women and minorities within their academic community, however, scientists can learn a valuable lesson from their tweed-clad colleagues.

The pronounced disparity in opportunities for women and racial minorities attempting to enter academia received public confirmation with a well-publicized study by three business professors. The team measured how 6,548 professors from 259 universities representing the breadth of the disciplinary spectrum responded to emails from students interested in meeting to discuss graduate-level research opportunities. The emails were uniform, with one important difference: The names in the email signatures differed based on senders’ genders and ethnicities.

The response rate from the professors revealed a significant bias, favoring those emails with signatures indicative of white, male students. Professors positively responded to such emails 26 percent more often than they did for their female or minority peers. 

In the midst of this undeniably bad news, one positive note resonates. Not all academic departments responded with the same degree of bias. While business and education professors represented the most significantly discriminatory respondents, some other departments did not respond in any significantly biased way. Specifically, the report cites the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences, as the two fields that did not ignore women or minorities by any significant margin more frequently than they did white men. The natural sciences, including computer science, life science and health science, did discriminate to a statistically significant degree, though less so than business and education professors.

I don’t cite these numbers to indulge in humanistic back-patting. Discrimination still exists in the humanities, and in some disciplines more than others. Philosophy departments, for instance, have recently grappled with several scandals that could reveal gender biases underlying the discipline. When professors at the University of Colorado’s flagship campus brought in an outside review of workplace behavior, it was concluded that “inappropriate, sexualized, unprofessional behavior” was rife within the department. 

I cite these results rather as a cause for hope that entrenched discrimination can subside when scholarly communities take active steps against it. In the past three or four decades, humanities departments have done that admirably by studying women and racial minorities for their prominent place in literature and global history. Natural science and pre-professional departments can and should follow suit in their own ways.

Fifty years ago, English majors still read a literary canon composed entirely of the writings of white, European males — from Homer to Heidegger. Historians overwhelmingly studied the political elites of European nations and consigned the rest of the world to the peripheries of colonial history.   

By the 1980s, however, attention toward underrepresented literatures and historical actors within the humanistic disciplines began to flourish. The feminist and post-colonial schools of humanistic thought decried unrepresentative literary canons for their celebration of white, male imagination at the expense of the rest. The white man was no longer the paragon of intellectual and artistic accomplishment, according to the curricula of many humanities disciplines.

The mere presence of women and minorities within humanities faculties alone cannot account for the limited discrimination in these departments — the study found that female and minority-identifying professors did not, on average, respond more readily or favorably to emails from those within their same demographic. The difference could lie, rather, in the presence of women and minorities in the curricula, not necessarily in the faculty. 

Curricula in most natural sciences, of course, do not address racial and gender distinctions within their lesson plans. Men and women both fall at 9.8 meters per second. These fields do not address social constructs in the same way the humanities do. They do, however, lionize certain “geniuses” in the histories of their fields. This begins at the K-12 level but may not be explicitly contradicted at the university level. The well-known great thinkers of physics, biology and chemistry are overwhelmingly recorded as European men. 

Ada Lovelace is largely remembered as a footnote in the history of computer science, which Charles Babbage dominated. Rosalind Franklin is a sympathetic victim to James Watson and Francis Crick, but her experimental accomplishments never receive the attention of her male competitors. 

No one has encapsulates this general negligence of female and minority accomplishment more explicitly than acclaimed Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker when he opens his article on the humanities’ debt to the natural sciences by arguing that the “great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists.” He proceeds to enumerate the classic pantheon of western philosophy, “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith.” 

This “genius-based” history of science obscures the important place of women as laboratory assistants, organizers of scientific presentations and independent philosophers throughout the Enlightenment. Moreover, it obscures Arab and Chinese influences on the great thinkers of the time.

The discrimination against women and minorities in the natural sciences is inextricably linked to these deep-seated assumptions about the identity and appearance of great thinkers in these fields. The natural sciences can follow in the steps of the humanities by throwing out the great thinkers narrative and adding new names — not just those of white males — to a more inclusive pantheon.

Write Simon at [email protected]