Feminist Theory and Research Methodologies for More Socially Affirming Undergraduate Mathematics Education

Gender research in education explores, among other things, the possible reasons for women’s lower rates of achievement and retention than those of men across STEM fields including mathematics. However, much of this scholarship, particularly in mathematics education, limits its analyses of gender to binary comparisons (namely, female-male or women-men) with males’ and men’s achievement and participation often held as standards for success (Leyva, in press). In addition, the sampled populations in this empirical work were mostly White, thus leaving mathematics achievement and participation among historically marginalized students of color at intersections of gender, race, and other social identities underexplored.

Analyses of gender as non-binary and dynamically shaped by other social identities (e.g., race, class, sexuality) hold promise in illuminating how mathematics operates as a White, heteronormatively masculinized discipline to shape variation in students’ experiences and thus further inform more inclusive educational opportunities. With mathematics serving as a gatekeeper for access to undergraduate STEM majors such as engineering and physics, the adoption of such analyses in higher education is critical for the advancement of socially-affirming learning and student support opportunities toward inclusion and broadened STEM participation.

(Image from Emily Griffith’s blog on Rhetorical Criticism.)

Feminist theory and research methodologies can be used to explore and disrupt forms of gender inequities in different parts of society, including education. Intersectionality, a theoretical perspective and methodology from Black feminist thought, allows for detailing forms of oppression and privilege that marginalized individuals uniquely experience at different intersections of their social identities such as gender, race, and sexuality (Crenshaw, 1991). In this blog post, I highlight the findings of intersectional studies from three interdisciplinary scholars — Dr. Lance McCready, Dr. Mia Ong, and Dr. Terrell Strayhorn – who pursued feminist analyses using queer of color critique, theories of body and embodiment, and the concept of othermothering. This blog post also raises questions about conceptual and methodological implications from this intersectional research for the advancement of more socially affirming undergraduate STEM educational opportunities. Please share your thoughts about the review, posed questions, and suggested references for other feminist scholarship in the comments section below.

Queer of Color Critique: “Making Space” for Multiply Marginalized Communities in White, Heteronormative Spaces in Undergraduate STEM Education

Lance McCready. (Photo from his personal webpage.)

McCready’s research adopts intersectionality theory to capture the interplay of gender and sexuality with other social identities, including race and class, in shaping the marginalization that gay and gender-nonconforming Black boys experience in urban public schools (Blackburn & McCready, 2009; McCready, 2004b). His intersectional scholarship across K-12 urban educational contexts engages a queer of color critique (QOCC), an epistemology and research methodology that “debunk[s] the idea that race, class, gender, and sexuality are discrete formations, apparently insulated from one another” (Ferguson, 2004, p. 4). QOCC, according to McCready (2013), allows his research to “interrupt” marginalizing discourses about Black gay youth’s urban schooling and identify “pedagogical possibilities” for more socially affirming learning spaces and opportunities. More specifically, McCready’s work disrupts the heteronormativity in discourses of Black boys’ schooling “troubles” and illuminates opportunities for challenging the normalization of heterosexuality and Whiteness in urban public schools (Venzant Chambers & McCready, 2011; McCready, 2004b).   

One of the major forms of intersectional marginalization that gay and gender non-conforming Black boys experienced was their sense of isolation and lack of belongingness in schools’ social support programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and questioning (LGBTQ+) students such as Project 10 in the Los Angeles Unified School District (Blackburn & McCready, 2009; Venzant Chambers & McCready, 2011; McCready 2004b). Project 10 in a California high school site for McCready’s research, for example, was largely populated by white lesbian students and membership was “under surveillance by their heterosexual Black peers” (McCready, 2004a, p. 42), thus bringing gay and gender non-conforming Black boys to feel that joining would be socially risky and not supportive in addressing their needs as queer boys of color. McCready identified various strategies that the gay and gender non-conforming Black boys employed to “make space” (McCready, 2010), or manage their marginalization in ways that affirmed their oppressed social identities in schools. This included self-expression that challenged heteronormative ways of doing Black masculinity (e.g., dress, dance program engagement) as well as becoming leaders in LGBTQ+ support organizations to inform change for increased inclusivity of queer students of color (Venzant Chambers & McCready, 2011).

Although McCready’s research focuses on urban K-12 public schools, it brings me to consider its transferability in better understanding the social spaces of undergraduate mathematics education that shape intersectional oppression and privilege for different student populations. In particular, I think about the importance for STEM support programs in higher education [e.g., chapters of Out in STEM, Society for Hispanic and Professional Engineers (SHPE), and Women in Physics] to attend to the intersectionality of members’ experiences in providing meaningful forms of academic and social support. My research on Latinx students’ experiences as engineering majors at a predominantly White four-year university, for example, captured how SHPE meetings were on-campus spaces where Latinx men participants established meaningful connections with fellow Latinx peers who understood their struggles of negotiating STEM academics with gendered cultural expectations of becoming family breadwinners (Leyva, 2016b). Although the university’s SHPE chapter upheld the national organization’s mission of racial empowerment for the Latinx community in becoming future engineers, the meetings provided members with opportunities to “make space” for their whole social selves to feel affirmed as Latinx engineering students who were underrepresented in mathematics classrooms and other STEM spaces on campus.

Findings from McCready’s scholarship on gay and gender non-conforming Black youth in urban schools raise the following questions for future feminist research in undergraduate mathematics:

  1. What are implications for future research that employs a queer of color critique to better understand the mathematics experiences of queer students of color and other subgroups whose marginalization in undergraduate STEM education has gone largely underexplored?
  2. How can intersectional research inform practices in undergraduate mathematics classrooms and STEM support initiatives to “make space” for multiply marginalized students?

Feminist Theories of the Body and Embodiment: Challenging Exclusionary Discourses for Structural and Cultural Reform in Undergraduate Mathematics Education

Mia Ong. (Photo from the Feminist Research in Engineering Education (FREE) page.)

Ong’s research has examined the STEM post-secondary educational and career experiences of women of color from African American, Chicanx, Filipinx, and Latinx backgrounds in computer science (Hodari, Ong, Ko, & Smith, 2016), engineering (Kachchaf, Ko, Hodari, & Ong, 2015), and physics and astronomy (Ko, Kachchaf, Hodari, & Ong, 2014; Ong, 2005). Through a NSF-funded project entitled Inside the Double Bind: A Synthesis of Empirical Research on Women of Color in Science, Ong and colleagues reviewed 116 publications on empirical research about women of color in undergraduate and graduate STEM education to address the lack of scholarship about this population as well as identify factors associated with their achievement, persistence, and retention (Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011). Ong, more recently, shared findings from an interview study with 18 course instructors in first-year undergraduate engineering courses across three private, selective institutions to explore how discourses shaped their teacher identities and responsibilities in relation to gender equity in STEM (Blair, Miller, Ong, & Zastavker, 2017). For this blog post, I focus on Ong’s intersectional scholarship in mathematics-intensive STEM disciplines such as engineering and physics at the undergraduate level.

Drawing on feminist theory on the body and embodiment (Balsamo, 1996; Butler, 1990; Grosz, 1994), Ong (2005) used interviews and observations to document ten undergraduate and graduate women of color’s “body projects” of presenting themselves as ordinary scientists as strategies for navigating contradictory discourses about physics, race, and gender. Two “body projects” were observed: (i) fragmentation involving forms of passing as White and masculine and (ii) multiplicity involving stereotype manipulation (e.g., engaging the “loud black girl” self-presentation during instances of demonstrating physics competence) or performances of superiority through increased visibility and high recognition as physics students. These “body projects” capture the oppressive perpetuation of White and heteronormatively masculine norms in the disciplinary culture of physics, tasking women of color with the “additional, invisible, and sometimes draining work” (p. 603) of managing how they are perceived while engaging in practices of doing and learning physics.

Ong (2005) detailed how the women of color’s “body projects” reflected strategies of navigating science as a “culture of no culture” (p. 597, as cited in Traweek, 1988) with physics perceived as a genderblind and raceless domain that leaves the privileging of Whiteness and heteronormative masculinities unchallenged. Similarly, Ong and colleagues’ interview study with engineering instructors highlighted how instructors invoked a discourse of gender blindness that brought them to attribute gendered disparities in engineering success to individual differences rather than structural inequities in STEM education (Blair et al., 2017). Such genderblind and colorblind discourses of success in physics and engineering noted in Ong’s research, in turn, subject students to instructor-centered, traditional teaching framed by notions of innate STEM ability.

Insights from this study push me to think about the similarly marginalizing culture and practices of mathematics. My work has detailed how Whiteness operates through discourses of colorblindness and meritocracy to shape institutional spaces of mathematics education that perpetuate perceptions of mathematics as a cultureless domain and mathematical ability as innate (Battey & Leyva, 2016). Elsewhere I argue how such maintenance of Whiteness ideologies intersects with the masculinization of mathematics (Leyva, in press). For example, mathematical learning behaviors privileged in classrooms such as independence, persistence, and being vocal are aligned with cultural values among White, middle-class men in the United States. Underrepresented students in mathematics, much like the women of color studying physics in Ong’s (2005) study, experience tensions of negotiating gendered and racialized disciplinary values with their social identities in efforts to be perceived as competent by their teachers and peers. In my research, college students of color raised the discourse of innate mathematical ability in making sense of their educational experiences while also asserting that high-quality, supportive teaching largely contributed to their mathematical success (Leyva, 2016a). This finding illustrates the important role that socially-conscious undergraduate STEM teaching plays in disrupting gendered and racialized discourses of ability that position women of color and other minoritized populations as more or less competent.

Findings from Ong’s scholarship in undergraduate STEM education raise the following questions for future possibilities of feminist research in undergraduate mathematics education:

  1. To what extent does the coupling of narrative inquiry and classroom observations methodologically provide more situated insights into the strategies that marginalized populations adopt in navigating the socially exclusionary space of undergraduate STEM?
  2. In what ways should professional development for instructors in mathematics departments be structured to advance pedagogical reform that challenges the gendered and racialized culture of the field of study?

Othermothering: Identifying the Othermothers for Academically and Socially Supportive Opportunities in Undergraduate STEM Education

Terrell Strayhorn. (Photo from Twitter.)

A strand in Strayhorn’s scholarship qualitatively details academic and social experiences among undergraduate queer students of color, including Black and Korean-American gay men, at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly White institutions (Strayhorn, 2013, 2014; Strayhorn & Mullins, 2012; Strayhorn & Tillman-Kelly, 2013). In an interview study about the experiences of nine Black gay male undergraduates (BGMUs) at a large, predominantly White university, Strayhorn (2013) adopted the concept of othermothering from feminist thought (Collins, 2000; James, 1993) to argue for how institutional actors and programs can foster a sense of guardianship to better support BGMUs’ academic success and social development in higher education. Othermothering is the idea of caring for children that are not one’s biological own with such practices readily observed in the African American community.

Three major analytical trends across the nine BGMUs’ experiences were noted in Strayhorn’s (2013) study: (i) a limited sense of belongingness, (ii) plans for “coming out” during college, and (iii) navigating racism in the LGBTQ+ community and homophobia in the Black community. An ethic of care, cultural advancement, and institutional guardianship are the three main characteristics of othermothing practices that Strayhorn (2013) used to detail culturally-informed ways to better support BGMUs (Case, 1997; Collins, 2000; James, 1993). Educators serving as institutional othermothers who employ an ethic of care can help BGMUs make meaning of their gendered, racialized, and sexual sense of “betweenness” to develop increased feelings of inclusion in predominantly White campuses. In alignment with McCready’s calls for more socially affirming school spaces, Stayhorn (2013) addressed the important role that fellow Black and LGBTQ+ peers as well as cultural centers play in guiding BGMUs with navigating racism and homophobia to achieve cultural advancement and positive identity development.

Strayhorn’s (2013) interpretations of culturally-responsive institutional support for BGMUs as othermothering remind me of one of my research findings – namely, the blending of familial forms of academic and social support that contributed to Latinx students’ success in pursuing engineering degrees at a predominantly White university (Leyva, 2016b). More specifically, support that Latinx students received from fellow SHPE members and undergraduate mathematics instructors can be likened to notions of apoyo (moral support) and consejos (narratives of advisement) observed in Latinx culture for young children’s educational advancement (Auerbach, 2006; Delgado-Gaitan, 1994). Analogous to Strayhorn’s (2013) adoption of othermothering as an analytic, I used the concept of familismo (Marin & Marin, 1991), a sense of loyalty and responsibility to the Latinx family unit, to better understand the relational support that contributed to the Latinx students’ success in navigating engineering as a White, masculinized domain in and out of undergraduate mathematics classrooms.

In an interview study with 29 BGMUs at six predominantly White universities, Strayhorn and Tillman-Kelly (2013) documented variation in the students’ strategies for negotiating their identities and beliefs with discourses of Black manhood and masculinities. While some BGMUs engaged in behaviors aligned with heteronormative notions of Black masculinity by “passing” as straight and compensating for lack of Black maleness through athleticism, others directly challenged these gendered norms through “less masculine” degree pursuits (e.g., nursing), extracurricular involvement (e.g., cheerleading), and transgressive behaviors (e.g. “coming out” to Black peers). The BGMUs’ negotiations of discourses about heteronormative Black masculinities parallels Ong’s (2005) findings about the variation in women of color’s body projects. Like Ong’s (2005) discussion of how such negotiations resulted in emotional labor that took women of color’s time away from doing physics, Strayhorn and Tillman-Kelly (2013) described the BGMUs’ strategies as “direct[ing] energies away from important tasks and activities such as studying, reading, and thinking about course content” (p. 101).   

Strayhorn (2017) highlights the value of intersectionality as an epistemology and methodology in higher education research for more complex understandings of students’ experiences of integration and marginalization. Such intersectional analyses are promising particularly in the realm of undergraduate STEM education where there is a void of scholarship that addresses the interplay of systems of privilege and oppression when engaging intersectionality theory (Leyva, Sengupta-Irving, & Joseph, in preparation). In efforts to broaden the analytical gaze beyond race/gender intersections in mathematics education research, I consider the following questions for future feminist research in undergraduate mathematics education based on Strayhorn’s scholarship:

  1. Who serves as the othermothers for multiply marginalized students pursuing mathematics-intensive majors? How does such othermothering support students in navigating intersecting discourses of oppression in mathematics and STEM higher education?
  2. What more nuanced insights about undergraduate mathematics teaching and STEM support program design responsive to the intersectionality of marginalized populations’ educational experiences can be gained by looking across different institutions of higher education (e.g., historically Black colleges and universities, two-year community colleges)?


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About Luis A. Leyva

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education, Vanderbilt University (Website: http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/bio/luis-leyva)
This entry was posted in feminist theory, gender research, intersectionality, math education. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Feminist Theory and Research Methodologies for More Socially Affirming Undergraduate Mathematics Education

  1. Jennifer V. Jones says:

    I’m so proud of the work you do and share #RUGSE

    • Luis A. Leyva says:

      Thank you, Dr. Jones! It was so great to see you again and learn about your important work at Johns Hopkins. I am so lucky to be your colleague for so many years and counting!

  2. Rebecca R.G. says:

    Thank you for this amazing article! It’s really great to hear more about issues of intersectional feminism in math, and to get such a thorough list of sources to learn more. I had one thought relating to othermothering. It seems that the female/people of color members of a department are the ones who tend to take up this role. It’s obviously a very important role, but at the same time, this leads to even more work on top of the already difficult work of research/teaching. This work is often not recognized as service, so it does not help their careers, even though it is so critical to the community. Do you have any thoughts on this, or sources to recommend?

  3. Matt Voigt says:

    Great post Luis, gave me lots to think about for framing future research. I am also wondering from a teaching standpoint how can we challenge or interrupt the “genderblind and raceless domain that leaves the privileging of Whiteness and heteronormative masculinities unchallenged.”Does this involve curriculum reform? different approaches to peadagogy? or explicitly having these conversations with students and colleagues?

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