Where the Overrepresented are Underrepresented

Hi everyone! I’m excited to be back at Tenure, She Wrote. I’ve spent my time away from the site using a lot of the advice written here and am very excited to be able to come back to the blog as a new Assistant Professor!

Over the course of my first year in my new job, there have been a lot of opportunities for me to learn more about pedagogy and evidence-based techniques for teaching students in STEM. I went to quite a few of these, since the thought of teaching had me feeling like I’ve been thrown to the wolves. I understand that’s a common experience, especially since many of us spend most of the previous ~decade doing research first as a grad student then as a post doc without learning terribly much on how to effectively teach students.

chairs classroom college desks

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From the very first one I attended, what really stood out to me was how not-alone I was. In my field, men outnumber women by about 10:1, and I’ve been on experiments where I’m the only woman on the team. The statistics are even worse for minority and marginalized groups, and being a queer and trans woman meant I was it for most of my entire career. But a quick head count at all of these events for new professors revealed the same thing over and over: There’s a far higher percentage of women, people of color, and LGBT people who attend STEM education workshops and conferences than any place within the rest of my field.

Being a scientist, I started with counting the obvious. Using names of attendees to attempt to estimate gender percentages is a very imperfect method, but I started seeing ratios that were 3x, 4x, and higher at these STEM education events than the general population in my field, and even just within my own department. At the most recent event, I was even one of three (!!!) trans professors who attended.

I never thought I’d ask this about something science related, but the question that has been on my mind as I go to each of these is: Where are all the straight white men?

On the one hand, it’s fantastic to finally have a place where I don’t feel completely isolated, but on the other I have never seen more discussions in STEM (that I didn’t start or help organize) around issues of inclusion, addressing racism and sexism, and what it means to be a professor in the USA on stolen indigenous land than I have at any other type of conference.

Why are there so few straight white men there to hear?

Is it related to arrogance and devaluation of teaching for those of us in research universities? Do men think that they’re just great at teaching despite having just as few lessons in effective teaching as I’ve had?

Where are all the straight white men?

Why aren’t they at these events where we learn about effective strategies to not only raise to grades of students, but strategies that have been shown to increase retention and grades of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups? What is it about education events that lead to discussions about diversity and inclusion for an audience who has a much higher percentage of having already bought in to creating change than for those who could really use this research to make our fields better for everyone?

At this point, I don’t really have much in the way of answers, but as with all research and social change, starting with the question seems like a good start. As the next batch of new faculty members starts to come in, I can make sure to really emphasize to the men in the group that they need to go and listen and learn. I can bring up with my Chair and Dean what I was able to get out of these meetings, and make the case for why I think it’s extremely important to change at least our departmental and college culture to value education events to levels closer to valuing research.

It’s a long road, and we’ll see how far it goes, but I really hope that the demographics at these education events starts better matching the current demographics of our field, because I think that is essential for getting the demographics of my field to better match the demographics of the general population.


16 thoughts on “Where the Overrepresented are Underrepresented

  1. Preach! Obviously it’s largely self-selecting, but I wish that your post could be required reading for department chairs and P&T committees. I was encouraged by my dept chair to attend my field’s new faculty teaching workshop, which I happily did. I suspect the encouragement was similar for my older (white, male) colleagues, but they didn’t follow up. If dept chairs could communicate (accurately) that this sort of activity is valued by P&T committees, we might start to see more interest/commitment from the straight, white men, which I agree is sorely needed to encourage the health of our undergrad programs.

  2. As a woman of color professor in STEM, I agree with your observation. What I also find is that the men in my department in general, and white men in particular, also get much higher teaching reviews on an average with lower effort put in. Our students somehow believe that a white man is magically an expert and knows what he is talking about, and it’s not just our department — this is well-documented fact.

    I wonder if this is the reason — white men know they will get good teaching reviews and so they don’t bother to make an effort. Women and people of color need to put in their blood sweat and tears, and they show up and take advantage of these resources. I can’t say I blame either party; unless the incentive structure changes, this will not change.

    • Related, it was at these sorts of events where I’ve learned about the research demonstrating that student evaluations are a terrible mechanism for evaluating teaching, especially for professors from marginalized populations. It seems like this really negative self-feedback loop where all of this research on how to make STEM more equitable is largely limited to undervalued conferences and workshops on education.

      • True! Poor teaching evals can reveal some basic problems with the class — such as difficulty of homeworks and exams and such things — but they mostly measure likability. Questions like “Was the professor proficient in the material?” are quite useless, especially when they apply to women and minorities.
        The good news though is that an increasing number of P&T committees are becoming aware of these issues, and taking them into consideration in P&T decisions.

  3. I’ve noticed exactly the same thing about demographics at education events. Good on you for making trying to raise the profile of this! One tangible thing we can all do is to talk up these events and use them when we are on P&T committees to contribute to people’s evaluations.

  4. Agree in the main. At one conference I attended, one of the esteemed speakers got up and said “I am the nice little elderly lady who teaches first-year biology”. (Applause and laughter from the audience. Particularly from me, who was at the time the nice little elderly lady who taught first-year chem). Just to add some optimism – she has since gone on to push pedagogical research in science as a valuable and worthwhile academic study, and to become a full professor in the area of education; and I won a promotion using my publications in pedagogy as part of my research record.

    I learnt a phrase from these conferences, “don’t teach the way we were taught”. If we don’t bother to look to change and improve our own strategies, this is the only model we have. It seems to me that many of the SWM (straight white males) that I worked with in the Department relied only on teaching the way they were taught – it worked for them thus far as they had progressed in their careers, so they saw no need to change. Some of them were excellent teachers in their own way; others were notoriously NOT but thought it was the students problem. (For example, heard in the corridor one day, “but I don’t know why they can’t work it out, I have told them and told them and told them how to do it”).

    I used to organise professional educators to give seminars to my TA’s before the beginning of semester (and any others in the Department were welcome to attend). At some of these, there were only women attending – about 10 or 12. This was useful in one instance where the discussion turned to prejudice and harassment by men – by both students and staff. But it does emphasise the point made here by Dualita about the ratios of the genders at these events.

    There is also this point. Research into pedagogy is not considered “real research” in many science departments. Although I have seen this attitude change over the past 30 years, the recognition of this valuable area depends on the attitude of those in authority in any particular department. This is something else that may influence whether or not people, particularly SWM keen on promotions and recognition in “more important” areas of science, “bother” to take any interest in teaching methodologies.

    However, let us honour the men who do take an interest. I feel I must put a word in for the few valuable and committed colleagues who happen to be SWM, some of whom I met at these conferences and workshops, and some of whom I have worked with and published with in the area of science pedagogy since then. So lets not stereotype “all” of them as we don’t like to be stereotyped either.

    • p.s. Just to clarify that I had no money to pay TA’s for the teaching seminars mentioned above, as they were paid per hour only for lab supervision and some marking. So attendance was voluntary. These were based on real teaching philosophy and concepts, unlike some of the orientation seminars I have observed in other places where they concentrated on what was in the lab manual, and what answers to expect from the students.

  5. “Is it related to arrogance and devaluation of teaching for those of us in research universities? Do men think that they’re just great at teaching despite having just as few lessons in effective teaching as I’ve had?”
    As a white male that has attended numerous STEM teaching/mentoring workshops and events I can say part of it for the younger cohort is not feeling welcome and it’s because of statements like this. Negatively labeling a group you wish to engage is not going to increase participation and I have experienced that multiple times at these events. There have been many wonderful and useful workshops I have attended but there have been a handful of interactions that could easily chase away white male faculty from these event.

    One of the more egregious examples is being asked by my peers why do *I* want to work with K-12 students as if I could be a potential predator.

        • Admin here — please read our comment policy. Your comments were disrespectful and patronizing, and we’ve chosen not to publish them here. This is a feminist space, and we all blog here as volunteers. Some of us may decide, at our own discretion, to engage with straw arguments, logical fallacies, #notallmen responses, or other unhelpful comments, but we’re under no obligation to. This isn’t a public forum, and we’re not the federal government, so we’re not violating your free speech rights. We’re under no obligation to “allow for an exchange of ideas” with someone who is disrespectful and displacing blame on women for men’s behavior.

          This is not a space to debate whether men have privilege, or sexism exists. This is an intersectional feminist blog. Sometimes, it’s possible to read, think, and sit quietly with your uncomfortable feelings, rather than get defensive. I hope you take the time to do that.

          • In my original post I share my harassment experience in pedagogy. I am requesting you delete my original post as I do not wish for my harassment to be shared on this site as the replies are unsupportive and not productive. If this is a feminist blog that respects victims of harassment you will delete my initial post; otherwise, I expect this post to be deleted with the snarky replies maintained.

          • This is an intersectional feminist blog, which means your ill-informed pedantry is both invalid and has no place here. You also did not describe anything other than your own discomfort at being held accountable for institutionalized sexism. If you wanted a soothing maternal figure to coddle your ego, you came to the wrong place and with zero facts to prove your fallacious argument. You earn nothing. You lose.

    • Dualitea is writing about her observations of who is and is not in attendance. They didn’t say they made any comments about any group at such a meeting. So your comment about it being their responsibility or fault to make another person welcome (or attend) is out of place. Please reflect on those differences.

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