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Sociologist Studies Gender and Race in Science Education

Professor Sandra Hanson and sociology major Vivian McCall.

When Professor of Sociology Sandra Hanson was reviewing survey responses of African-American girls regarding their opinions about science, she was struck by their excitement for the subject.

At the same time, many of the teenaged girls were frustrated with their classroom experience. “I love science but sometimes it feels like I’m swimming against the tide,” one girl wrote.

This statement gave rise to the title of Hanson’s new book, Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education, due out at the end of 2008 from Temple University Press. The book examines the attitudes of African-American women toward science, and the racism and sexism they face in pursuing studies and careers in the field.

As many white male scientists reach retirement age, Hanson says it is important to study the attitudes of women of all races toward science, since they could be tapped to fill positions as they become vacant.

Hanson is also studying the results of a survey she conducted on Asian-American women’s views about science and hopes to look at Hispanics in science in the future. She developed an interest in gender and science while writing Lost Talent: Women in the Sciences, published in 1996 with the assistance of a National Science Foundation grant.

Hanson is “certainly one of the top five scholars looking at the intersection of gender, race and class in science,” says Willie Pearson, a sociology professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and an advisory committee member for NSF. “Her sophisticated and systematic research allows her to make nuanced conclusions.”

After surveying 1,000 black and white women between the ages of 13 and 20 for Swimming Against the Tide, Hanson concludes that African-American girls are interested in science, and she gives many instances of their being encouraged in the subject by their parents from an early age.

Once black girls begin studying the topic in school, however, many receive less encouragement from educators. Teachers tend not to call on them and textbooks are full of images of white male scientists. When asked if they felt welcome in science, 66 percent of African-American girls responded “yes,” as compared to 80 percent of white girls. Hanson quotes one survey respondent as saying, “The teacher looks at us like we’re not supposed to be scientists.”

Minority students are also more likely to attend schools where resources are lacking. So, rather than doing hands-on lab experiments, they end up memorizing formulas. As a result, African-American girls are more likely to feel turned off by the subject of science.

African-American women have traditionally looked to education as a means for upward mobility. Black girls also see science as a way to give back to their community, according to Hanson. However, they are also more likely to have friends who think it is not important to finish high school, a peer influence which has a negative impact on the girls’ science experiences.

A key part of Hanson’s computerized survey consisted of photos of individual girls of different races, presented along with audio statements regarding each girl’s troubles in science class. Through a series of questions that measure specific experiences, feelings and sources of encouragement and discouragement in science, each respondent gave her ideas about women’s roles in science by reacting to the individual vignettes.

According to responses to the vignettes, black women see race, more than gender, as holding them back in science. But black women see gender as more of a barrier than white women do, according to their vignette responses. Since they already perceive racial discrimination, they’re more sensitive to gender discrimination as well, Hanson says.

To Hanson, losing these women hurts not just them, but the future of science in the United States.

“Talent is being lost all along the pipeline because of biases against those who we don’t normally think have that talent,” she says.

“Diversity creates dynamic ideas. ­­Science would benefit from such diverse groups creating ideas that would make the United States more economically competitive with other countries.” — L.C.

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Revised: November 2008

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