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Male professor addresses a group of students before a white background.

Sara Brownell (not pictured) and her colleagues hope their work will encourage instructors to share their nonvisible underrepresented identities to inspire even more students to see themselves as future scientists.


Student identities matter in the classroom. But while much of the literature in this area focuses on overt student identities, namely race and gender, a new study focuses on what it calls concealable stigmatized identities, or “CSIs.” These include LGBTQIA+ status, being a first-generation college student, struggling academically during college, being a community college transfer student, growing up in a low-income household, and having anxiety, depression, addiction or a disability.

The study “Beyond Gender and Race: The Representation of Concealable Identities Among College Science Instructors at Research Institutions,” published in CBE-Life Sciences Education, sought to answer four questions:

  1. To what extent do science instructors hold CSIs?
  1. To what extent are instructors revealing their CSIs to undergraduates?
  1. How does the prevalence of CSIs among instructors compare to undergraduates?
  1. What are the primary reasons why instructors conceal or reveal their CSIs?

The paper is part of a larger body of work by researchers including Sara Brownell, President’s Professor in life sciences at Arizona State University, who want to better understand the influence instructors can have as role models for students with their own CSIs.

More on Role Models and Identity: Four Actions to Take

A 2021 meta-analysis by researchers Jessica R. Gladstone and Andrei Cimpian, published in the International Journal of STEM Education, looked at 55 different studies on role models in STEM and provided recommendations for maximizing impact for all students:

  • Portray role models as competent and successful, but not as superheroes, lest it demotivate students to try.
  • Portray role models as being “meaningfully similar to the students,” in terms of identity as well as things like “having worked hard for their success rather than being effortlessly brilliant” and doing “regular” things in their life outside of science.
  • Prioritize exposure to role models who belong to groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM, “especially in cases where only a small number of role models can be presented. Role models from underrepresented groups are likely to have the broadest positive effects on students, regardless of students’ own social identities.” (Live role models are great but relying on examples of scientists outside of the classroom, from media and the professions, can minimize any burden on actual scientists, including professors.)
  • Portray role models’ success as attainable. When possible, make it clear how students could also achieve what’s been accomplished.

What’s the need: Previous research has found that students who identify with their instructors based on certain underrepresented visible identities can benefit from an increased sense of belonging and self-efficacy, better course outcomes and more. Brownell and her colleagues hope their work will encourage instructors to share their nonvisible underrepresented identities to inspire even more students to see themselves as future scientists.

This first step in this newest study was to measure the prevalence of CSIs among instructors, with the intention of comparing it to the prevalence of CSIs among students. (A key hypothesis of the work is that CSIs among professors are more common than students might think.) So Brownell and her co-authors surveyed national samples of science instructors (n=1,248) and undergraduates (n=2,428) at research universities in the U.S. to get some answers.

The instructor survey also asked whether, and why or why not, professors disclose their CSIs to students.

“We literally emailed every single science faculty member in the country at research institutions without telling them that the purpose of the survey was about any of those identities, so we would be as unbiased as possible,” Brownell explains. “For the longest time, we have wanted to be able to say what percentage of faculty are members of the LGBTQ+ community or struggle with depression, but we didn’t have those data because no one collects that data systematically.”

What researchers found: Ultimately, Brownell and her colleagues found the most common CSIs reported by instructors at research-intensive institutions were having anxiety (35 percent of the sample); being first-gen (29 percent); having experienced depression (27 percent); and growing up a in a low-income household (19 percent). But few instructors revealed these identities to students, exacerbating the perceived “mismatch” between students’ and professors’ prevalence of CSIs. With one exception regarding one particular identity, the number of instructors who never disclosed their identity to all undergraduates was higher than those who did.

What was that one exception? Professors in the study reported being most open with their students about having struggled academically in college, where that was the case (about 15 percent of the instructor sample).

Students in the survey reported higher prevalence of CSIs than faculty members, with relative differences being greatest for struggling academically in college and reporting a history of anxiety. The smallest prevalence differences between students and professors were having grown up in a low-income household and being first-gen. Of course, whether the student-faculty prevalence differences are big or small, professor nondisclosure widens these perceived gaps for students.

Implications for teaching: As for why professors don’t disclose CSIs to students, Brownell and her colleagues found that many instructors didn’t typically share their identity or hadn’t even considered doing so. Some didn’t think their identity was relevant to students, or that sharing it would be appropriate. Relatively few feared negative consequences, however. Those who did share their identities to all undergraduates most frequently said they did so to be an example to students, to be a known supporter of those with similar identities and to serve as a mentor to students with the identity.

Regarding the notion that CSIs are relevant in a science classroom, Brownell says, “I want instructors to consider that they can be role models and potential mentors for students with these underserved and stigmatized identities—but only if they reveal this information.”

The decision to share is a personal one, she acknowledges, “and we don’t advocate for everyone to share if they are not comfortable. But we hope that instructors will start considering how sharing could open up new opportunities for representation and mentorship for students with the same identities, which will affect student success.”

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