STEM faculty: Teach herstory in courses

A student argues Temple professors should be inclusive of women’s history in lesson plans.


Because March is Women’s History Month, I read about Patricia Beth, the first Black woman appointed to be chair of an ophthalmology program in the United States. 

Despite her contributions to the field of science, it was my first time hearing of her. This was an eye-opening experience, as I never learned about Black scientists in high school or college.  

Women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have broken the glass ceiling repeatedly by making groundbreaking discoveries. But oftentimes, their achievements go unnoticed, and they are left out of the patriarchal narrative of history books. Not only should STEM faculty at Temple University teach accurate “herstory,” or women’s history, in their syllabi, but female faculty members should tell it.

The lack of female representation in roles traditionally filled by men can discourage women from pursuing them, said Jennifer Johnson, a policy, organizational and leadership studies professor who researched STEM students at historically Black colleges and universities.  

“As someone who was a scientist, opportunities to learn about women and women of color in science was not something that was emphasized or highlighted at all,” Johnson said. “I think one of the reasons why I was interested in science was because I didn’t see those kinds of role models.”

In a June 2020 analysis of seven college biology textbooks, no women were mentioned in STEM history between the years 1600 and 1900, the Washington Post reported. 

Between 2000 and 2018, women and people of color were only mentioned in 25 percent and eight percent of published scientific research, respectively, Science News reported.  

The STEM discipline is predominantly white and male, said Laura Pendergast, the associate dean of assessment and data-informed planning in the College of Education.

“If we want women of color to go into sciences and be astronauts, then we should be exposing them to Mae Jemison, who was an African American astronaut and engineer,” Pendergast said. “I think that it’s critical for students to see people who look like them excelling in their areas of interest.”

Students are more likely to read about James Watson and Francis Crick “discovering” the structure of DNA than Rosalind Franklin who figured out the arrangement of atoms, said George Mehler, a biology professor. 

When women actually are brought up in textbooks, however, they are often lumped in with other minorities, said Natalie Léger, an English professor. 

“Part of the issue is patriarchy, and patriarchy is such that, notwithstanding the different forms of power that women of different races and classes have, women are still subordinate, particularly in western European societies,” Léger added. 

Temple’s gender, sexuality and women’s studies department explores how gender affects women’s experiences as a social group. The College of Science and Technology should take a similar approach by teaching inclusive, intersectional curriculum. 

Professors should stop lauding white, male scientists like Gregor Mendel and Nikola Tesla and start talking about women like Nettie Stevens, who determined chromosomes cause sex at birth, or Chien-Shiung Wu, the “First Lady of Physics.”

Only 2.9 percent of Black women, 3.8 percent of Latina women and five percent of Asian women attending higher education institutions earned a degree in STEM in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.   

The limited number of female scientists in classrooms and books contributes to these low percentages, Johnson said. 

“It’s important to see multiple personalities of women in these roles because sometimes we only kind of see one version of success,” Johnson added.  

Harneet Kaur, a freshman health professions major, only had one Black, female STEM professor as a student, she said. 

“I would say there’s a lot better quality of teaching when you’re a minority being taught by a person of color in the STEM field,” Kaur said.

Male-dominated departments like CST should modify their lessons — even if that means ignoring the textbook — to give women credit where it is due, in addition to hiring a more diverse faculty. 

We can educate ourselves on women’s history this month by acknowledging that women were there, even if history has forgotten them. 

“You have to first just disabuse yourself to the lie that women and women of color were not historical characters,” Léger said.

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