Bias is Not That Sneaky

There are few things as satisfying as uncovering the answer to a real-life mystery.  One of the greatest things about social media is its ability to suss out lost or hidden information. The Twittersphere solved one such mystery during Women’s History month that’s been bugging me ever since, and not simply because of the thrill of the reveal.
Illustrator Candace Jean Andersen took to social media in early March to ask for help identifying the lone Black woman in a 1971 photograph taken at a biology conference. With her face partially obscured by a neighbor, the woman seemed to be a tantalizing anomaly. Thanks in particular to Black Twitter’s help, Andersen was able to get in touch with two of the white male scientists who were registered at the conference and involved in the picture, one in front of the lens and the other behind it. Neither man recognized the mystery woman, and both guessed that she was likely support staff.

That’s quite an assumption. Maybe my knowledge of the answer is affecting my opinion. But, as they lacked any evidence other than cultural and historical stereotypes to support those guesses, the bias there sticks out like a sore thumb.
Thanks to her avid sleuthing, Andersen was able to uncover that the woman was Sheila M. Jones, who was a biological research technician with a B.S. in biology and had presented her own research at this conference. Ms. Jones was not just “support staff”—she had been included in the photograph because she deserved as much recognition as her male colleagues.

The mystery has been solved, but parts of the search as reported left a bitter taste in my mouth. It’s frustrating that even people who were there in person could not overcome stereotypes in making their guesses. Yes, the picture was from 47 years ago, but is that really enough of an excuse? I don’t think so.
Let me be clear that my point here is not to take these two particular men to task, but to express my dismay and provide a reminder to check our own biases in all such conversations. It’s hard to even feel comforted by the fact that more information about these biases is coming to light when some of the statistics seem so stark. A recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, for example, reported that women of color often feel unsafe in science and technology-focused jobs due to greater risks of both gender- and race-based harassment. Although women make up half the U.S. college-educated workforce, they are only 29% of the science and engineering workforce. Further, less than one in 10 employed scientists and engineers are women of color.

It’s long past time for these statistics to become obsolete, and we need to do more than simply highlight women of color who have made history, even if that is a good start. Consider, for example, Marie Maynard Daly, who became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry in the U.S. in 1947. Although learning about her successes—like the significance of her studies on the effects of cholesterol on the heart, or of her dedication to increasing the enrollment of students of color—is important, it’s not the best way to honor scientists like Dr. Daly or Ms. Jones.
We need to pave the way for more women of color in science and technology fields by encouraging girls to take those classes and dismantling the classroom biases that make this more difficult. We need to stop making assumptions based on historical or cultural stereotypes. We need to stop letting bias have so much control over us all.