Sometimes, barriers to entry in science are invisible, like the lack of confidence felt more routinely by women than men. Other times, it is literally hanging on the walls themselves. The Yale School of Medicine’s flagship building is just one example: of the 55 portraits hanging throughout the building, 52 depict white men and three depict white women.
The impact of these portraits on Yale medical students is the focus of a new study that appears to be the first of its kind. Researchers (also from Yale) conducted interviews with 15 students, the majority of whom were not white men, and organized their responses thematically.
Multiple students said they felt the portraits reflected institutional values of whiteness, maleness and elitism — values they did not share and, as a result, made them feel alienated. If the portraits could speak, “they might spit at me,” one student said. Others noted the literal whitewashing of history by glorifying the subjects in the portraits without acknowledging in some cases their ties to the slave trade.
These results should not shock anyone, but they do underscore the need for administrators to think critically about visual representation in science. Some hospitals and universities are tackling this issue by commissioning works depicting historic figures who made standout contributions to science despite their non-whiteness or maleness (and they certainly do exist). As Akiko Iwasaki, a Yale professor not involved in the study put it so elegantly on Twitter, “Can we take down the #dudewall?”