You know those moments where you suddenly notice the ism in the background? Had one recently meself. I spent a few weeks going through every single geology book available for Kindle on Amazon. I downloaded a ton of samples. And then I started sifting through them.

I noticed a few disturbing trends.

First, the samples are overwhelmingly by men. Not that this surprises me, but I'd hoped for a larger ratio of women. There were practically none. Hullo, background sexism!

A white peacock's gaudy display overshadows a peahen. Image courtesy Darkros via Wikimedia Commons.

A white peacock's gaudy display overshadows a peahen. Image courtesy Darkros via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, the samples are overwhelmingly white. Again: disappointed but not surprised. Hullo, background racism!

A black swan lost in a crowd of white swans. Image courtesy Colin Smith via Geograph. Click photo for details.

A black swan lost in a crowd of white swans. Image courtesy Colin Smith via Geograph. Click photo for details.

 

Third, most of the books by women are either for children, or they're fiction. That one really got to me. And it got me to thinking of cultural assumptions.

I have to wonder how many books on the earth sciences by women are overlooked by editors unless they're in the traditionally female-dominated realms of education, or a good lady-like pursuit such as literature?

So I'm willing to bet, although I know of no study that specifically proves*, there's an unconscious bias that editors have that goes some way toward explaining why the kids books and geology-themed fiction are much more likely to be by female authors, and why there are even fewer earth science books by women than I'd expect even with a lower ratio of women in STEM careers.

Even worse, I have to wonder if my unconscious bias has skewed that ratio even more in my samples. I'll have to go back and look. One of the things I've learned palling around with social justice people is that we have to be aware of what our culture has wrought - and mine has so effectively taught me to overlook women that I do it without thinking, even though I am a woman.

It's time that stopped. That takes effort, and a conscious commitment to noticing what culture wants us to ignore, aside from a few tokens so it can feel great about itself.

So here's your mission, should you choose to accept it: if you know of earth science books by women and/or people of color, tell me all about them. Let's get a list going.

And let's see about making editors aware of their blind spot. It's not that they're being deliberately discriminatory (in many cases), I'm sure, but our culture has spent generations telling us that it's white dudes, usually older white ones, who do the science, so the women and people of color doing science become practically invisible.

We need to be aware of that blind spot, and compensate by actively forcing ourselves to see. Otherwise, things won't ever change. And people who could have expanded our vista beyond our imaginings will remain overlooked.

We can do better. We have to do better.

 

*I do have studies showing that applications for research positions are rejected more often if the applicant's name is female versus male, and that papers by women get cited less. See Phil Plait's excellent article on Casual Sexism for more. See SciAm's own DN Lee for information on what it's like to be a person of color and female in science.

 

ATTENTION PEOPLE WHO WISH TO DENY THERE'S ANY BIAS AGAINST WOMEN OR PEOPLE OF COLOR IN THE SCIENCES: There is. Even if you have a hard time accepting it, or seeing it, or understanding it, it's there. Click a few of the links above, spend some time educating yourself, and above all, don't waste your time whining here. Rosetta Stones does not host denialists. Happy expanding your horizons!

A version of this post first appeared at En Tequila Es Verdad.