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Chemists grapple with lack of diversity displayed in ‘dude walls’ of honor

Academics share tales of rethinking the all-male portrait galleries in their departments

by Giuliana Viglione
September 19, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 37
An illustration of a dude wall.

Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock

A few months ago, a new term cropped up on Twitter to describe an all-too-common phenomenon at academic institutions: a dude wall. In science departments, these walls honor historical figures by portraying retired faculty, previous heads of an institution, or even just preeminent scientists in a field. But they’ve been attracting negative attention for their lack of diversity—almost all the portraits are white, male scientists. Students from underrepresented backgrounds report that such institutional portraiture stands at odds with their schools’ stated values of diversity and inclusion and can lead to lower self-esteem (J. Gen. Internal Med. 2019, DOI: 10.1007/s11606-019-05138-9).

As a result of the conversations happening both on- and off-line, many universities are changing their portrait walls. But the idea of taking down dude walls—and the term itself—has also stirred up controversy. Some see the dismantling of these walls as downplaying historical advances made by white, male scientists. The term dude wall has also come under fire for potentially alienating male allies who might otherwise agree with the idea that these walls should be changed. The term, says University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign chemist Jeffrey Moore, “turns up the heat on the whole conversation.” In addition, those committed to dismantling these walls must walk a line between inclusivity and erasure, especially when the wall celebrates past leaders of an institution as opposed to influential scientists.

“Feeling included needs to be part of the lived experiences of our students and colleagues,” says Louise Dawe, a chemist at Wilfrid Laurier University. So changing the portraiture on a university’s walls won’t be enough to solve the issues of diversity, inclusivity, and equity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), Dawe says, but it’s a good step.

Chemists shared with C&EN steps they’ve taken to address the portrait walls at their institutions.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

An empty conference room wall.
Credit: Jeffrey Moore/UIUC Beckman Institute
This wall, now bare, used to hold portraits of the past heads of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The director’s conference room at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was decorated with portraits of the institute’s benefactor, Arnold Beckman, and all the previous directors. When Jeffrey Moore became the institute’s sixth director in 2017, he says, he surrounded himself with a diverse leadership team. He credits the team with opening his eyes to the issue of the portraiture. “This set of portraits sends a message that says unless you look like one of these people, your input doesn’t matter,” Moore says. “And the likelihood that you will be on this wall is not high.”

This set of portraits sends a message that says unless you look like one of these people, your input doesn't matter.
Jeffrey Moore, director, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Once he came to that realization, he says, the next step was obvious. The portraits were removed and are being scattered around the institute. As Moore puts it, the problem is not the pictures themselves but their high concentration. Spreading them around allows the continued celebration of important figures in the institute’s past while creating a more inclusive environment. The institute held a contest and selected aesthetically appealing scientific art to replace the old portraits. The process, Moore says, “stirred up a very healthy conversation and self-reflection. I truly believe that this will make us a better place.”

Iowa State University

A man and a woman stand in a classroom with portraits on the wall.
Credit: Iowa State University
Javier Vela and Renee Smith teamed up to diversify the pictures of scientists in a classroom at Iowa State University.

The main lecture hall in Iowa State University’s Chemistry Department was adorned with portraits of prominent chemists—all male, save for Marie Curie. The classroom holds multiple weekly seminar series and introductory classes. Javier Vela, a chemist and the equity advisor for Iowa State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the portraits had registered with him as odd for years, but it had “never been so obvious and so pressing” that something should be done until a female graduate student pointed out the lack of diversity in the fall of 2015.

Vela worked with Renee Harris, a Chemistry Department administrator, to survey the campus community and decide whose portraits should hang on the walls of the classroom. Harris, who has spent her entire career at Iowa State, recalls stepping into the room for a first-year chemistry lecture in 1975 and thinking, “Oh, I guess only men do chemistry.” In the end, 13 scientists who represent a cross section of diverse identities were chosen for the revamped wall.

The resulting room, Vela says, is “much nicer, much more inclusive” and was generally well received by the department and the campus community as a whole. However, inclusivity is an ongoing challenge—this wasn’t the only dude wall in the department. In addition to the portraits of famous chemists in the lecture hall, the faculty meeting room features pictures of all previous department heads. Changing this wall is less straightforward, Vela explains, because of the desire to preserve the history of the department. As a Mexican American and a parent, Vela says changing this wall has a deeper significance for him. He wants his children to “see themselves as potential chemists or famous Nobel Prize winners.” Everyone, he says, “should be able to feel the same.”

University of Wisconsin–Madison

A man and a woman seated in front of an aerial photo of the UW-Madison campus.
Credit: Tatum Lyles/UW-Madison
Judith Burstyn and Robert McMahon, the current and former chairs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry department, pose in front of the aerial campus photograph that replaced their dude wall.

Robert McMahon, a chemist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, describes a familiar scene: a dozen black-and-white photos of former male department chairs on the wall of his department’s nicest conference room. When he became department chair in 2013, he decided the time had come to retire the wall. He had been sensitized to the issue, he says, many years earlier by then-chancellor of the university John Wiley. Wiley had removed the photos of prior chancellors from the walls of his office.

The portraits in the Chemistry Department were replaced with an aerial photo of the campus. McMahon says the photo is practical as well as aesthetic—it helps orient visitors who pass through the department. The portraits are now part of an interactive history on the department’s website. This, he says, preserves the record of the service performed by past chairs while providing a “richer historical context” than a gallery would.

John Brown University

An art gallery showcasing diverse scientists.
Credit: Pati Morales Chang
The "What a Scientist Looks Like" art gallery, spearheaded by undergraduate student Pati Morales Chang, ran at John Brown University for two weeks.

No formal dude wall welcomed visitors at John Brown University, explains former undergraduate student Pati Morales Chang, but one of her professors had painted four portraits of famous male mathematicians and hung them outside his office. It was, she says, the only place with “any sort of art in the whole science building,” so it drew the eye. After reading about the effects of portraiture on girls pursuing STEM careers, an idea came to her. “I wanted to make sure people knew that all voices matter,” Morales says. Morales enlisted her roommate, who is a photographer and graphic designer, to help with the project. They set up a temporary photo studio in the lobby of the science building and took pictures of students and professors between classes. The director of the school’s art program offered Morales a 2-week rotation in the student art gallery in October 2018, giving rise to the exhibit What a Scientist Looks Like.

Although the display was short lived, the project culminated in a photo book, including interviews with many of the women in the science department. In addition to showcasing diversity within science, Morales says, she thinks the project opened the eyes of nonscientists who don’t think about the struggles that minorities face in STEM. “A lot of people felt seen and rewarded for the project,” she says. “It was very emotional.”

University of Wisconsin–Platteville

A set of portraits on a wall.
Credit: James Hamilton/UW-Platteville
The walls of the chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville feature retired faculty members—male and female.

The walls of the Chemistry Department at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville are lined with pictures of retired faculty members. When Charles Sundin was chair of the department, a female faculty member was preparing to retire. She told Sundin that she didn’t want her photo taken for the wall, but he “couldn’t let it stop there,” he says. He told her that it was important for female students to have a visual reminder that women, not just men, could succeed in academia—not just become professors, but stay so long that they could retire from the profession. “I could tell on her face,” Sundin says, “I had convinced her!”

University of Pennsylvania

A wall of portraits of Nobel Prize winners at the University of Pennsylvania.
Credit: Taylor Barrett
The chemistry department at the University of Pennsylvania holds Nobel Laureate Hall.

At the University of Pennsylvania, receptions are often held in the Nobel Laureate Hall, where portraits of the seven Penn-associated Nobel laureates—all men—adorn the walls (partially shown here). “It’s sort of disheartening,” says Taylor Barrett, a graduate student in biological chemistry. The Chemistry Department has produced many “amazing, trailblazing” women who deserve to be celebrated, too, Barrett contends. The Nobel Prize is not the only metric of success.

A lot of times male graduate students either don't see these things or can be really dismissive.
Taylor Barrett, graduate student, University of Pennsylvania

Barrett cites Madeleine Joullié, the first female faculty member in Penn’s Chemistry Department, as a person she would like to see recognized more. Joullié’s work in organic synthesis led to advances in cancer therapies, antibiotics, and forensic science; she also worked tirelessly toward equality for women at Penn. The department has a lecture series named after Joullié, but that type of acknowledgment is “not as present and constant” as a permanent portrait, Barrett says.

As a leader of her school’s Women in Chemistry group, Barrett organizes women-only events to create spaces where students, postdocs, and faculty alike can express their frustrations with gender imbalance. “A lot of times male graduate students either don’t see these things or can be really dismissive,” she says. Holding these types of events, she says, is valuable for fostering an inclusive environment, even while institutional reminders of inequity persist.

Memorial University of Newfoundland

A woman poses in front of her picture on a wall of portraits
Credit: Christopher Rowley/Memorial University
Louise Dawe, a former professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, poses with her portrait, which was added by a colleague after she left.

In Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Chemistry Department, the lunch room was once decorated with portraits of the department’s male founders. When a beloved colleague, Louise Dawe, departed for Wilfrid Laurier University in June 2013, Christopher Rowley wanted to ensure that her memory was not lost from the department. Rather than seek approval through official channels, he got Dawe’s picture printed and framed, went in at the end of the workday, and hung the picture himself. “Best money I ever spent,” he says.

When she returned to Memorial several years later for a visit (shown here), Dawe was both honored by the gesture and impressed by the risk taken by her former colleague. “He made a big statement about his values as a feminist in STEM,” she says of Rowley. The growing conversation around such dude walls has also made her think more critically about her surroundings and what values her public spaces are conveying. It’s important, Dawe says, that her students know that “there is room for their contributions in the future of science.”


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