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“The world around us is evolving at a much faster pace than the reading lists”: Are women underrepresented in the curriculum? 

The fact that women seemed sidelined by the curriculum in school always seemed an accepted fact. In GCSE English, we encountered depictions of Curley’s unnamed wife; in History, it was almost inevitable that women were not featured in broad discussions of 20th-century warfare. When it came to STEM subjects, I was far too preoccupied trying to pass maths to notice whether or not credit was being given where it was due. 

Dinah, a first-year Chemist, did notice. While completing GCSE and A-Level sciences she observed the persistent absence of female scientists in the school curriculum.  With a group of friends, Dinah wrote a letter to the Department of Education bringing up this concern. The reassuring response that arrived soon after stated that teachers could ‘teach about female scientists if they want to’. Taking into consideration just how little time there is to fit the curriculum into the school year and that teaching tends to be centred around the demands of exams, it is no surprise that the extracurricular inclusion of women scientists is unlikely to be undertaken. 

You can’t invent women scientists to be included in the curriculum where they don’t exist, but we don’t need to do any such inventing. As Dinah says, they do exist, but they aren’t included in textbooks: ‘the reason why people don’t think they exist is because they don’t know their names. It doesn’t take much research to find the work of female scientists, whose work is so linked to what we’re learning.’ Since female scientists and mathematicians are occasionally included in lectures, it’s better than the school curriculums where they were absent entirely, but even so, there are times when  their work remains unrecognised. Dinah recalls, when learning about DNA, that the scientists Watson and Crick might be mentioned, but no one mentions their colleague, Rosalind Franklin. ‘I’m waiting for them to say her name and they haven’t, and that’s someone who’s relatively well known’. It must be noted that in Oxford, knowing scientists’ names is not required, instead it’s seen to be an ‘inspirational, extra thing’. This approach seems fair, students already have enough content to remember. Nonetheless, this attitude echoes those of the Department of Education, leaving the inclusion of scientists, particularly women scientists, to the educator’s discretion. 

How does Oxford fare in comparison to GCSE and A Levels? 

I spoke to Sharon, the president of Oxford University Feminist Society, who is also a Human Sciences finalist. She emphasised the importance of including a more intersectional view; not only are women underrepresented, but this is especially the case for BIPOC women: ‘Women are underrepresented – especially BIPOC women. If there are women’s perspectives included, it’s usually white, upper-middle class women’. This brings up ideas about who gets to be included on reading lists. Of course, a meritocratic process sounds like the best way to go, but it’s also important to consider the obstacles which prevent this process from being put in place. Meritocracy is supposed to reward the talented and hardworking and create legitimate hierarchies within academia. However, as Sharon made clear, there are many obstacles which (even unwittingly) prevent women, particularly BIPOC women, from being included in a ‘fair’ way. Studies in social psychology relate this phenomenon with ‘implicit bias’: the attachment of stereotypes to particular social categories such as race or gender, which are so ingrained that one may not know they hold them. It seems that the meritocratic system may unwittingly uphold implicit biases which most of the time propagate unjust stereotypes. For example, one study found that when it came to publication, if refereeing was not anonymous, women’s work was more likely to be evaluated more negatively than men’s – solely due to the name attached to the work. Awareness of this bias is perhaps the first way meritocratic systems can be followed according to their aims.

Representation can also have negative effects on the viewer, in this case, women. The impact of ‘seeing yourself’ represented in a certain field or discipline will inevitably have differing effects depending on the individual. As Sharon put it, “In the media it’s so important to see yourself, but in academia it’s so important to read yourself”. The representations which surround us invariably shape the stereotypes and perceptions we hold, with real consequences. As mentioned, implicit biases can be reinforced through underrepresentation, but it also reinforces another phenomenon called ‘stereotype threat’, which occurs when people are reminded of the negative stereotypes associated with themselves, and end up performing worse as a result. An interesting example of this was a 2004 study that found that women who checked the gender box before taking their AP calculus exam did worse than students who checked the box after. It seems that this problem may also be prevalent in Oxford; as Dinah told me, “I feel like even now doing my degree, everyday I’m bombarded with images of what a scientist looks like: a white man with grey hair”. Inevitably, this may lead to some difficulties in relatability and feelings of belonging within the scientific community – which is in contemporary times a very diverse field. Sharon emphasised that often the reading lists given to undergraduates do not reflect the discipline itself. In fact, Sharon continued that “The world around us is evolving at a much faster pace than the reading lists”. Both Dinah and Sharon agreed that the images and ideas presented in classes, and the reading lists which follow, may be lagging behind the developments outside of the classroom.

So what’s the solution? 

I brought up the idea of quotas, which seemed to be put forward by the Philosophy Department in 2018. The suggestion was to ‘feminise’ the curriculum by ensuring 40% of the authors on reading lists were women. Understandably, this created some debate – a quota seems to undermine the academic, meritocratic process to which higher institutions like Oxford should adhere. A quota could potentially fill the gaps of an implicitly exclusionary reading list, essentially forcing people to grapple with new perspectives that they otherwise would have never considered; as Sharon put it, “If it gets people to interact with literature they would never have looked for themselves … I think that can only do good… It widens people’s points of view whether they like it or not”. At the same time, numerical quotas seem quite arbitrary, and there doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach that could be applied across different subjects. The divisive nature of a quota – leading to outrage about the preservation of meritocracy, also seems to be a drawback. Perhaps the most important thing is to emphasise the reason why a quota could exist, and as Sharon said, “Interrogate your assumptions to understand why it might be happening’, rather than seeing it as an ‘attack on the integrity of academia”. A quota is a double-edged sword: encountering new perspectives is crucial to a better understanding of the world, but the presentation of it as a method of shoehorning in new perspectives, rather than them being included for their academic excellence, would be performative. As Sharon commented, “The fact that they could exist is sad in and of itself. You aren’t just going to increase representation of women because you should, because they offer a perspective, but because you are forced to”. This conversation also brings us back to Dinah and her group’s call to better include women in the GCSE and A-Level curriculums. It doesn’t seem like a taxing demand – it seems more so about giving credit where credit is due. How can this be denied? 

Implementing institutional change in Oxford seems difficult; the university is so fragmented in its organisation, and institutes source their tutors individually. Sharon believes this system is used as an ‘excuse’ to prevent a change – ‘because the system works this way there’s nothing we can do to change it’. Considering whose responsibility it is to push for change is also interesting. Sharon talked about how after the BLM protests in 2020, an announcement was made before a lecture which asked students to submit any suggestions they had to the Race Equality Task Force. Sharon continued,‘They were particularly looking at me and the only other black person in the room. It was great but it was also very uncomfortable being singled out’. Sharon also emphasised the wider trend of placing the responsibility to enact change on students, particularly by Diversity and Equality officers. Change of the curriculum is only a symptom of wider social conditions, but even so, it’s important to try and recognise the need for change, because, as Dinah said it best, ‘as students, we are also the next generation of teachers’.

To find out more about Dinah’s campaign, email: [email protected]

Find more information about Oxford Fem Soc: @oxfemsoc

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