College Biology Textbooks Overwhelmingly Cite White Male Scientists, Study Finds

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Image of students studying a biology textbook
Students reading through a biology textbook

American educational textbooks have long had challenges with upholding systemic racism, from referring to African American slaves as “indentured servants” to omissions of slavery and trivializing complex histories altogether.

The most recent example of racial biases came from a study published in The Royal Society journal that showed mainly White men are referenced and sourced in college biology textbooks.

“If textbook citations from Black/African American scientists continue at the same rate, it will take over 1000 years to reflect the general population in the United States (14 percent), and nearly 500 years to reflect the biology student population (7 percent),” the study states.

For Hispanic/Latinx scientists highlighted in biology textbooks, researchers predict it will take 45 years until they reflect general public representation (16 percent) and 30 years until they reflect student populations (11 percent).

The study looked at scientists cited across seven common contemporary biology textbooks used in the U.S. and reported on the changes in representation of binary gender and racial demographics over time.

Despite the lag in people of color cited, the report found that the proportion of women highlighted in the textbooks has increased, closely matching with the number of women in the field. However, not one single Black woman was represented across any of the textbooks that were analyzed. A mere 6.7 percent of scientists were from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds, the news website Women’s Agenda reports.

“Without regular exposure to diverse, relatable role models, scientist stereotypes have the potential to be particularly harmful for students who identify with underrepresented and/or marginalized groups,” the researchers wrote.

In order to increase representation of diverse scientist role models, the study’s authors recommended universities diversify STEM membership and seek out resources such as Project Biodiversify, a central hub for teaching materials and methods aimed at enhancing human diversity and inclusivity in biology courses.