SFSU Provost Sue Rosser addresses campus community and opens up discussion on unconscious gender bias in the STEM fields

Posted by Lina Raffaelli on November 1, 2013 2:08 PM

Sue Rosser lecturing

Dr. Sue Rosser addresses audience questions

Two weeks ago Sonoma State welcomed Dr. Sue Rosser, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at San Francisco State University, for a campus-wide academic discussion. Dr. Rosser delivered a thought-provoking lecture on Unconscious Gender Bias, delving into the complex issue of underrepresentation of females in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Rosser is a noted scholar, having written 13 books and contributed to more than 130 journal articles on this and related topics.

The event was supported by every school on campus and many departments and programs, including the School of Education's Noyce Scholarship Program. The NOYCE Scholarship Program works in collaboration with the School of Education to recruit STEM majors to consider a career in teaching, in order to fill an important need in our California public schools.

Several Noyce scholars, many of whom now teach in local public high school science and math classrooms, attended the lecture, and then had the valuable opportunity to meet with Dr. Rosser after the event and discuss how an understanding of unconscious bias can help their own teaching practice.

The first of Rosser's four discussion points was the exclusion of females as experimental design subjects. For example, for a long period of history only men participated in drug trials. Problems arose as drugs were released and women began taking prescriptions designed for men.

With no research to reference, it was impossible to predict potential side effects a woman might experience from a given medication. Although this oversight was arguably unintentional, men continued to the serve as the archetype for research, creating a knowledge gap between how drugs may affect the genders differently.

By excluding half of the population, drug manufacturers took serious risks with the health of their patients. Rosser noted that if more female scientists had been involved behind the research then perhaps the inclusion of females as study participants would have began much sooner.

Attendees packed in the Cooperage Oct. 21 to hear Sue Rosser

Attendees packed the Cooperage to hear Sue Rosser's lecture

It is historical circumstances like this, Rosser argues, that have contributed to an unconscious gender bias over time. It's something that is ingrained in our history, and often something we unknowingly contribute to. However, women have made huge strides in the STEM fields, and more females are beginning to saturate these fields every day.

One strong point Rosser discussed is the importance of education and the early introduction of science and math.

"I know that the gender gap has improved in some areas of STEM but not enough," said NOYCE coordinator Dr. Kirsten Searby. "As parents we should expose our children to science at an earlier age so it becomes a gradual, natural area of study for all children."

Another contributor to unconscious bias is the overwhelming male majority amongst politicians and policy makers. Those in charge define what problems are the most important and the order in which they shall be researched. Similarly as professionals in the STEM field, fewer women equates to a weaker representative voice in the general community.

NOYCE Scholar Josh Baca asks a question

NOYCE Scholar Joshua Baca asks a question during the Q&A portion

Rosser argues that diversity is the key for innovation to excel and STEM fields to keep their forward-moving momentum. Diversity ensures that important decisions aren't made with any overpowering singular bias, unconscious or otherwise, while providing multiple perspectives on which to draw conclusions and contribute ideas.

Educators hold the power to be a major influence in this shift, as teachers cultivate early interests in science and mathematics, and encourage students to pursue STEM degrees and careers.

"The more females we have in STEM, the more they will be role models in our schools" said Searby. " I believe we need to have more science in elementary schools, so girls will feel comfortable with it early." Parents, teachers, and STEM professionals can also help encourage girls.

"I encouraged my son and daughter to follow their passion and keep an open mind. Most people do not have a thirty year career in the same field," said NOYCE scholar Anne Chism. "Education is the key to being successful, regardless of what your definition of successful is."

The full lecture is available on YouTube