How do I engage with (my own) biases?
There is still a tendency within the natural sciences and beyond to associate the topic of inclusion as solely pertinent to the social sciences and humanities. While there is something to be said about the role of these disciplines in addressing inquiries of inclusion through research, theory, and praxis, it would be a mistake to exclude the branch of natural sciences from the ongoing dialogue about inclusive online higher education – or for them to excuse themselves from it. The issues that digital inclusion seeks to address and redress, after all, are a fundamental part of the way in which we have organised our societies but also the knowledge production in academia. The status of the natural sciences as objective, neutral, and impartial disciplines have long been challenged and to a certain extent debunked (Reiss & Sprenger, 2020). When this position of impartiality is continued, however, this creates more room for bias to insidiously seep through in subtle, sometimes indiscernible ways. This underscores the importance of involving the natural science communities in ongoing efforts to create inclusive online academic environments in order for exclusion to be tackled in a rigorous and integral manner.
One of the entry points for intervention is higher education. Hence it is useful to look at the ways in which we produce and transfer knowledge within the natural science disciplines, which is not an objective process, and furthermore transmits certain notions tacitly.
The concept of hidden curriculum was introduced to described the implicit ways in which certain unspoken, unwritten, and unofficial norms, values, and ideas are – often unintentionally – taught to students in school (Giroux & Penna, 1979). One of the consequences of the existence of a hidden curriculum can be the production or reaffirmation of stereotypes: fixed or generalised ideas of a specific group of people and their characteristics and traits. Stereotypes can be harmful because they perpetuate untrue associations that are often based on sex, gender identity, ethnicity, ability, etc. Their continuous reproduction leads to experiences that negatively affect marginalised people in particular. Marginalised people are regularly forced to contend with small, daily manifestations of stereotypical ideas, for example in the form of microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle, everyday, indirect expressions, insults, slights, and actions that are directed towards people of marginalised groups. This can be in the form of comments, questions, assumptions, or other communications.
In the natural sciences, stereotypes and microaggressions tend to occur for instance when discussing the role of women in STEM, i.e., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The idea that women are less suited than their male counterparts for certain fields is a common stereotype. When people act on such a stereotypical idea by expressing it, people experience not only microaggressions but real barriers. A comment might easily be brushed off, but people also make decisions based on stereotypical ideas – with grave consequences for the one being stereotyped. Think of being passed over for a job or promotion, admittance to a study programme, or denied the rights as others.
Representation – or the way in which people are represented – is an important factor in creating inclusive virtual learning environments in this sense. The lack of representation in online course material is known to contribute to feelings of inferiority and undervaluing of the underrepresented group (Butt, 2020). This also applies for example in the subjects of assignments, which in STEM are often aligned with more typically ‘male’ interests (like transportation and construction), but can be broadened with examples that resonate with more typically ‘female’ domains (like care and communication). Also in terms of research funders or beneficiaries, it is important to become aware who will benefit from certain studies, or who is the target group. Does this include a broad range of people, including those who are now in marginalized societal positions?
The difficulty with biases is that they are not always intentional, which can make them difficult to address. Whatever the intention might be, however, is does not undo the impact of the action. Intention can therefore never be a justification, but an opportunity for accountability and learning to align action with intention.