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Social Justice in Science

Social justice concepts and examples in Science/STEM disciplines

Foundational Social Justice Concepts with Examples

"The authors have written definitions that highlight some of the complex and sometimes contradictory nuances that these concepts are framed within and around. How one person experiences and understands a concept may not be the same as another. These concepts are defined in the context of social justice; they are meant to be conversational and understandable rather than formal, clinical or comprehensive definitions. While we cannot cover all the different possible definitions for each concept, we aim to provide a representative sample. The concepts and examples are based on the authors’ experiences in the United States academic environment. There exists a large volume of resources and research, academic and otherwise, on these concepts if you wish to research them more deeply." (Adapted from Bussmann, Altamirano, Hansen, Johnson, & Keer, 2020)

Ableism

Definition: The oppression of disabled people through words or deeds; Can be expressed through slurs, harassment, exclusion, using disabilities as negative metaphors, inaccessible work environments, patronizing attitudes, silencing, etc. The perception that people with certain mental, physical, or medical conditions should be cured or “fixed” and/or the assumption that everyone who enters a space or uses a service is able-bodied (not disabled).

Science Example: In science, one common ableist metaphor is the word ‘blind.’ It is often used to represent a lack of knowledge of something instead of people who are unable to see, such as double-blind study or blind peer review.

[Ableism]

Diversity

Definition: The state of being made up of a variety of different people, objects, ideas, and backgrounds that may or may not be of equal stature and prominence. A term that attempts to express, when used in higher education, an organizational recognition that people with different life experiences and identities affect organizations differently, and that people of differing experiences and identities should be represented in organizations because multiple perspectives are important. Diversity includes race, sexuality, gender, physical disability, mental abilities and disabilities, economic reality, class in society, etc.

Science Example: A biology lab realized that they did not have proper representation in their participant group, so they added a stock photo of the missing demographic to the promotional flyer in the next callout. 

[Diversity]

Dominant Culture

Definition: A set of norms or practices that are considered to be superior by the culture that holds power (through mechanisms such as traditions, laws, and/or economics) and have been imposed by them onto other cultures and/or subcultures, which are often seen as lower or subordinate. Dominant cultures can exist at different scales from a group of friends to academic organizations to entire countries. It is often the case that the smaller group’s dominant cultures reflect the ones in which they reside. For example, the dominant culture of organizations in the U.S. reflects the dominant culture of the USA which are the historical values of white, European men.

Science Example 1: In a research intensive STEM-focused academic environment, the culture of research productivity may be measured in funded grants, journal articles, and/or monographs, with the related policies and funding models in place. In another academic environment, productivity may be directly measured in local and regional services to students and communities, with the related policies and funding models in place.

Science Example 2: On the same campus, those who work in non-STEM fields may measure academic productivity by the outside communities and organizations that they have impacted, but have been forced to comply with the norms of journal articles and monographs, rather than elementary schools served or number of outreach events.

[Dominant Culture]

Equality

Definition: The condition of being equal in stature, prominence, and opportunities, whether by gender, ethnicity, or abilities.

Science Example: Both the engineering education lab and the cybersecurity lab were given the same empty lab space with no budget to outfit the lab, even though the cybersecurity group receives a large amount of external funding and the engineering education lab is reliant on internal resources.

[Equality]

Equity

Definition: The act of creating opportunities in order to obtain justice, fairness, and equality without impartiality or barriers.

Science Example: The university’s goals for the next five years include starting a cybersecurity academic program and increasing student retention by improving engineering education. In order to show that both initiatives were equally important, the projects given the same size of laboratory spaces to research the issues. However, the funding of the labs was not equitable.

[Equity]

Feminism

Definition: The ideology that people should have equal rights and opportunities regardless of gender or sex and the political and social movements and advocacy which rise from this ideology. Originally, a movement that fought for women to determine their own fates, in terms of career choices, motherhood, fertility, marriage, sexuality, voting rights, education, etc. Over time, a critical feminist theory was developed based on this movement.

Science Example: 500 Women Scientists is an inclusive, feminist organization which is working to address discrimination, sexism, unequal pay, and many other issues faced by women and other under-represented groups in science. (Ramirez, 2016

[Feminism]

Gender Binary

Definition: A socially constructed view of human gender expression that asserts that there are two biological sexes (male and female) that are determined by chromosomal composition and that there are two genders (man and woman) that are aligned to those biological sexes. These genders are believed to be inherent, natural, immutable, and exclusive, as well as opposite and complementary. This leads to the notion that the human experience is relegated to only two distinct genders, with no room for nuance. People whose gender identities do not match with their biological sex (transgender) and those whose biological sex is not distinctly male or female (intersex) are considered aberrations in this ideology.

Science Example: Charles Darwin argues, in his theory of sexual selection, that male members of the same species compete with each other over sexual access to females in order to successfully pass on their genes. This theory is predicated on the assumption that all species of animals (including humans) are naturally sexually binary and that biological sex equates to gender presentation, which is only useful for sexual reproduction purposes. However, Dr. Joan Roughgarden (2009) and others have observed that, in fact, not all vertebrates adhere to a sexual binary, much less a gender binary.

[Gender Binary]

Inclusion

Definition: Intentionally providing for or creating an environment that not only contains diverse people but also welcomes and allows for the meaningful involvement, contributions, representation, and empowerment of any person, particularly those who have been historically excluded. This can include ideas and objects as well. In an organizational context, inclusion is the act of involving, recognizing, and valuing the diversity of others with the goal of empowering them within the organization and creating an overall sense of belonging.

Science Example 1: A biology research lab team realized that they did not have the proper tools to ensure the success of the entire team. Based on input from the Accessibility Office and their colleagues, they purchased multi-lingual screen reader software for shared lab computers.

Science Example 2: After taking a workshop about making their science curriculum more inclusive, a science faculty member realized that their approach to teaching excluded the contributions of women of all races and men of color. In order to provide more students a way to see themselves as potential scientists, they restructured their classes so that examples of the contributions of scientists of color and women, rather than the traditional scientist pantheon, were made central to the course.

[Inclusion]

Lived Experience

Definition: A person’s direct, embodied, and subjective experience of life, and the events therein. The tangible details of an individual’s life, including their thoughts, beliefs, memories, and daily activities, as well as how they are affected by others’ attitudes and actions toward them. Thus, two people can have very different lived experiences of an event depending on their background, gender, race, class, previous experiences, etc.

Science Example: Austin was very excited to join a lab doing ground-breaking research in sound identification using machine learning, but this excitement soon evaporated when it became clear his job would be to identify gunshot sounds in audio recordings to use for training the machine learning model. As a mass shooting survivor, this assignment caused him emotional distress. Austin requested, and was granted, a move to the voice recognition team instead.

[Lived Experience]

Marginalized

Definition: To be habitually oppressed, discriminated against, or excluded from power and privilege. This can lead to people and communities of people who exist outside of the dominant culture, ethnic majority, or economically privileged. These people are frequently dismissed, forgotten, unacknowledged, and left out of the conversations, dialogues, and decision-making.

Science Example: A mathematics history class only presents the biographies of and mathematical proofs from European mathematicians (viewed by students as “white” men).

[Marginalized]

Misogyny

Definition:  The hatred of or prejudice against women. Misogyny can make its presence felt in many ways, including: violence, sexualization, verbal and online harassment, unequal treatment, diminishment of accomplishments, and a lack of opportunities. At a societal level, misogyny typically leads to patriarchy.

Science Example: Throughout the history of science, if a female scientist made a significant contribution to an experiment or concept, her male colleagues would often take credit for the entire project and not recognize her work. For example, Chien-Shiung Wu was left out of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics even though it was her experimental work that confirmed the results of the two men who were awarded the prize. (Dominus, 2019)

[Misogyny]

Patriarchy

Definition: A socially constructed, hierarchical system that privileges men, maleness, and masculinity on a structural level and devalues women, femaleness, and femininity through both overt and covert tactics of control. These tactics can include political, economic, legal, and social power, and also through holding that masculine perspectives and narratives are the normative experience of the world.

Science Example 1: Crash test dummies have traditionally been modeled on the shape and size of an average US man. This is now considered one of the major reasons why women are more than 70% more likely than men to suffer an injury when in a car crash. (Holder, 2019)

Science Example 2: In the past, the subjects studied in clinical trials (which test new medicines, procedures, or devices to treat or cure diseases) were predominantly or exclusively men. However, not all the results were applicable to women. For example, when women have heart attacks, they may not feel it in their chests, like men do, which can lead to potential misdiagnosis and treatment. This is one reason that clinical trials now require test subjects to have women in the testing pool. (Davio, 2018)

[Patriarchy]

Racism

Definition: Attitudes and behaviors that presume that one race is superior and all other races are inferior. Racism creates a socially constructed hierarchical system that privileges one race over all others and devalues other races through overt and covert tactics of power and control. The overt tactics can include exclusionary legal practices and policies, and the covert tactics can include unequal mortgage rates and biased patient care.

Science Example: Despite equal income levels, more African-American, Native American, and Alaskan Native women die of complications due to childbirth than white women. Health care providers often fail to recognize that other underlying conditions, such as hypertension and hemorrhage, affect these minority populations. The providers may not communicate well with the patients, especially if the providers are of different racial backgrounds as the patients.

[Racism]

Sexism

Definition: Discrimination and prejudice caused by the belief that one gender or sex is superior to others. Sexism can occur in overt, specific cases, as well as unconscious and systemic ones.

Science Example: Even though Catherine was integral to the running of the aeronautics laboratory and got along well with her all male colleagues, she never found herself invited to their after work social events or to participate in their softball league. When she asked one of them why, he answered, “We just do guy things, I don’t think you’d fit in.” [Additionally, because she is a woman, they assume she will write up all of the lab work, doing traditionally secretarial work.]

[Sexism]

Social Justice

Definition: A broadly encompassing term used to collect a variety of ideas and actions that work towards bringing justice to communities and people who are otherwise treated unjustly. Also used to describe the struggle to create, through advocacy, education, and activism, a society that is truly just and equitable.

Science Example: When she realized there was only one person of color among her coworkers in the Biology department, Natalie decided to start a special recruitment program to increase diversity in their biology majors as well as to help educate her fellow teaching faculty on instructional methods that will help these new students succeed in the major.

[Social Justice]

Systemic Injustice

Definition: The ways in which the institutions and structures of a society and the systems of power within it cause, amplify, and perpetuate unfairness and other more grievous injuries such as bigotry, racism, discrimination, harassment, and economic inequality against non-dominant groups in the society.

Science Example: Because African-American people were excluded from many college campuses, it was not until 1925 that the first African-American earned a PhD in mathematics and not until 1943 that an African American woman earned a PhD. There are still African-American mathematicians today who count themselves as among the first one or two to receive a PhD from their graduate institution or to work in their department. (Shakil, 2010)

[Systemic Injustices]