Monday, March 13, 2017

Does Science Need Intersectionality? Part 1

Recently, the 21st Century Scientists Working Group organized a panel examining the question "Does Science Need Intersectionality?" Our lab is very involved in 21sci, so we quite excited to see we had a good turnout on a Friday afternoon! 

The panelists included:
  • Dr. Deanna Hence, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Sciences. Dr. Hence studies tropic meteorology, hazardous weather, and their consequences for humans.
  • Dr. Elisabeth Stone, Director of Education at the Spurlock Museum. Dr. Stone is a feminist archaeologist who focuses on community engagement and inclusive practices.
  • Dr. Cari Vandeerpool, Associate Professor of Microbiology. Dr. Vanderpool studies the regulation of bacterial stress responses.
  • Dr. Kelly Cross
    , Research Scientist in Bioengineering. Dr. Cross is working to redesign the Bioengineering curriculum through the NSF-funded Revolutionizing Engineering Departments Grant.
Since there's so much great material I want to cover, I'll have a series of three blog posts summarizing the panel, as well as some of my own thoughts about how we approach these issues in our lab. 

Dr. Deanna Hence

The panelists answered the following questions:

 Does science need intersectionality?

All of the panelist agreed that, yes, science needs intersectionality (duh!).  Elisabeth Stone broke it down into two interconnected arcs that require different ways of thinking: 1) the production of science, and 2) the dissemination of science. As an anthropologist, Stone emphasized the way her training encouraged her to critically at how scientific knowledge was produced, because cultural biases affect the questions you ask and how you ask them. She also suggested that way science is incentivized to value the newest, the biggest, and the first, affects the research we do. Cari Vanderpool addressed the first arc, noting that the openness and curiosity she experienced in her graduate school lab gave her the space to fully explore her own identity. Kelly Cross emphasized that education is a social experience, and both instructors and students bring their identities into the classroom. Thus, intersectionality plays an important role in how instructors teach their students and whether the classroom environment is accepting of student identities. Deanna Hence provided a clear example from her graduate work on Hurricane Katrina about how dissemination of scientific knowledge is impaired and can cause real harm to people when intersectionality is ignored. She notes that scientific tools to get advance warning and prepare for the hurricane were there, but that information wasn't applied to in a way that could have saved lives. She emphasized that it's not enough to answer theoretical questions--part of science is applying that knowledge to benefit society, and that's where we are failing. 

How do you define the terms diversity, inclusion, intersectionality, and identity politics?

The panelists agreed that "diversity" is a buzzword that has lost a clear meaning. Hence said it had become "a bit of a dirty word." When straight, white, male, cisgender identities are considered as"normal." people who don't fit that identity are coded as "diverse." Stone noted that an individual person can't be "diverse" but often they are identified as such. Everyone agreed that "inclusion" was a better term. To Cross, it's more constructive to look at how and why we educate, and how we make space for different identities in the classroom. She concluded that "diversity" is the outcome of creating a tolerant and inclusive environment. Stone noted that there are different kind of diverse perspectives, and concurred that inclusion is something you commit to practice. Cross mentioned that the value of intersectionality is that it allows you to break down stereotypical assumptions and recognize a fuller range of identities. However, Hence noted that sometimes it's difficult to bring your whole identity into an academic setting, using the example of how she's learned to hide her Texas drawl because it is considered a stigmatized accent.

Integrating Intersectionality into our Research

In one of my major projects, we are looking at the way health and productivity of women of color in academic science are affected by intersectional forms of oppression. Research on women of color indicates that incivility, sexism, and harassment can have additive effects on workplace stressors (Cortina et al, 2001; Miner-Rubio et al, 2004; Settles et al, 2006) and these factors can impact stress and health (Bellingrath et al, 2011). I will be examining how workplace representation, female friendships, and social networks mediate the impact of these stressors. In order to design a study that is grounded in women's lived experiences, we are currently conducting focus groups with women scientists of color to inform our research design. However, this panel has given me a lot to think about in terms of identifying the specific ways we can apply the results of our research to improve the climate for women of color in academia.

In our collaborative project examining the biology and social environment of adolescent girls, we also incorporate an intersectional approach. Mary Rogers examines age of menarche across different contexts, and part of this work involves reframing what we look at as "normal." She emphasized in her poster for the Feminist Biology conference that a number of factors, including family composition, socioeconomic status, immigration, racial background, and urban vs. rural context can all impact age of menarche. Researchers need to take all of these factors into account to understand how they may impact a population, and there is a risk of pathologizing early or late menarche when it is simply part of "normal" variation within the population. Additionally, Summer Sanford is examining the impact of ethnic identity on girls' social networks, and further research will examine how factors such as neighborhood food access affect health.


Bellingrath S, Weigl T, Kudielka B. 2009. Chronic work stress and exhaustion is associated with higher allostatic load in female school teachers, Stress, 12:37-48.

Cortina LM, Magley VJ, Hunter Williams J, Langhout R. 2001 Incivility in the workplace: Incidence and Impact. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 6:64-80.

Miner-Rubino K, Cortina LM. 2004. Working in a context of hostility toward women: Impact for employees' well-being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 9:107-122.

Settles IH, Cortina LM, Malley J, Stewart AJ. 2006. The climate for women in academic science: The good, the bad, and the changeable. Psychology of Women Quarterly 30:47-58.

If you are at interested in engaging more with these issues, 21sci has an upcoming workshop, The Future of Science in a Post-Factual World.  There's also a new Science Communication Certificate open to graduate students and post-docs!

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