Many young people are introduced to professions like Chemistry in high school and textbooks play a major role in informing students about the discipline and the people who work within it. An article in Chemistry World shines a light on what happens when textbooks are biased in their representation. A study of four widely used Chemistry texts in the UK and Ireland found that of 105 historic figures named in the books, only 4 were women, all Nobel Prize winners. Men mentioned in the books include non-scientists such as Julius Caesar, Barack Obama, Kofi Annan, and artist David Hockney. Two of the four textbooks did not mention a single woman. Of 131 images, only 16 were of women alone. Only one of those was a known woman, Dorothy Hodgkin – one of the Nobel winners, compared with 52 identifiable men. The textbooks included many images of women doing domestic work such as shopping or laundry.
This study reinforces a pattern observed in a study of US college Chemistry textbooks which found that male names appeared every 4 pages while female names appeared every 250 pages. As college educators, we can redress this in part by being particularly mindful of avoiding books with these kinds of inequities when we choose college textbooks for our classes. As Dr. Claire Murphy, lead researcher on the UK study stated, “The biases we have observed are not unique to a single publisher, textbook or curriculum. They are also not unique to chemistry.”
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