In honor of Black History Month, this episode of the Synapse Science Podcast delves a little into the type of gender and racial biases faced by women of color in STEM fields. We then proceed to geek out a bit about some of the amazing contributions to the STEM fields from scientists who happen to be women of color.
This is an important conversation to have, and gender/racial representation in STEM fields is extremely vital. That being said, if you know of scientists whose work is not as widely known or whose contributions are being undermined, spread the word! Get people talking about scientists from more diverse backgrounds. We encourage you to make your own podcast episode, YouTube video, social media post, etc. to continue this conversation.
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In 1976, a group of women, Shirley M. Malcom, Paula Hall, and Janet Brown came together to explore the challenges faced by women of color pursuing careers in STEM fields. Together, they compiled a report called "The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science" that called for an awareness of this issue and for a subsequent vital change in the sciences. About 35 years later, Maria Ong, the organizer of a symposium dedicated to women of color in STEM fields, did some research on the progress we've made towards the actions called for by the 1976 report. The following is a quote from her reported her findings:
"We found many, many dissertations. When I asked my researcher to find out how many had been published, what they had published, the answer came back as zero. I asked somebody else to do the same research; the answer came back as zero. There’s not a knowledge gap. It’s a serious gap in publishing, in being able to get the word out. (p. 13)"
From 1976 to 2010, the Harvard Education Review (HER) published only 16 articles that had some relation to women of color in institutes of higher education or just minority representation in STEM in general. None of those articles addressed the double bind the 1976 report refers to - this "double oppression of sex and race or ethnicity plus the third oppression in the chosen career, science."
Notes on the study from the UC Hastings College of the Law. Here are the four basic types of gender bias they detail:
- Prove-it-Again: Women tend to have to prove more of their competence than men do. This can make women feel like they don't fit in the role of a scientist.
- The Tightrope: Women tend to have to walk a tightrope between being too "feminine" to be competent and too "masculine" to be "likable". This bias also has to do with women facing backlash for behaving too "masculine", like being assertive or confident in their abilities.
- The Maternal Wall: The assumption that if a woman has children, she loses her competence and sense of work commitment.
- Tug of War: Gender bias against women can fuel conflict among women! Women who experience discrimination early in their careers tend to distance themselves from other women, a phenomenon termed the "queen bee" syndrome.
Researchers interviewed sixty scientists (20 each of Latinas, Asian-Americans, and Black women) and 100% of those 60 scientists reported encountering at least one or more of these types of gender bias. Researchers also conducted an online survey, in which 557 scientists (members of the Association for Women in Science) participated in.
Hey, do you like statistics? Well, you're in luck. Bam:
- More than 50% of the scientists surveyed reported the Prove-it-Again bias.
- The same holds true for all other patterns of gender bias discussed and in addition,
- ...about 1/3 of those surveyed also reported experiencing sexual harassment.
- Black women were more likely than other women to report having to provide more evidence of competence than others to prove themselves to colleagues.
- Black women are allowed more leeway than other groups of women to behave in dominant ways—so long as they aren’t seen as “angry Black women.”
- Latinas who behaved assertively risked criticism for being angry or “too emotional,” even when the women themselves reported that they weren’t angry—they just weren’t deferential.
- Asian-American scientists surveyed were far more likely than other women to report backlash for stereotypically masculine behaviors such as being assertive (61.4%) and self-promoting. They also were more likely than other women to report pressures to play traditionally feminine roles, such as office mother or dutiful daughter.
- Latinas and Black women also often reported being mistaken for janitors - something that researchers never heard in their interviews with white women - but men of similar colors reported similar experiences.
Read the report in its entirety here.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of female scientists of color whose contributions to the fields of STEM should be more widely known:
Annie Easley | Computer Scientist, Mathematician, & Rocket Scientist
Annie Easley developed computer programs related to alternative energy solutions, including wind and solar power, energy conversion, and vehicular batteries at NASA, where she spent 34 years.
Dr. Mae Jemison | Astronaut, Physician, & Professor
In September 12, 1992, Dr. Jemison became the first African American woman to travel through space, serving as Mission Specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-47.
Dr. Marie Daly | Biochemist
Dr. Daly became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1947 from Columbia University. A trailblazer in the field of biochemistry, Dr. Daly researched the connection between high cholesterol and heart disease. Conducted pioneering research on the effects of hypertension (high blood pressure) and blockage in arteries leading to a better understanding of how heart attacks are caused.
Dr. Karmella Haynes | Assistant Professor, Arizona State University
After completing her PhD, she went to Davidson College in North Carolina to teaching and research postdoc position. It was here that she found her field of synthetic biology. As part of an International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, she helped a group of students design a plasmid that incorporated an ideal method of stacking objects in the right order and orientation using the fewest rearrangements. During her second postdoc at Harvard, Haynes hybridized the fields of chromatin dynamics and synthetic biology, something that her mentor Pam Silver claims “no one had ever done." Haynes engineered artificial transcription factors that activated genes by targeting histone methylation. In 2011, Haynes started her own lab at Arizona State to continue her research on additional “molecular dials” in chromatin that can be used to turn up or down the strength of signals to control the phenotypes of cells.
Terrian Nowden | Power Systems Analyst
Nowden worked as an instrumentation Technician in the Research Instrumentation Branch of the NASA Lewis Research Center (now the Glenn Research Center), where she continued to work for 15 years. In her time here, Nowden designed, developed and tested research devices and hardware for use in aeronautical research. In particular, she specialized in the development and fabrication of micro-miniature instrumentation. Nowden is now a Power Systems Analyst on the Electrical Power Systems (EPS) team for the International Space Station (ISS). The EPS team helps to model the electrical power system of ISS, predicting the amount of power ISS will have for scientific research, experiments, life support etc.
Dr. Aprille Ericsson | NASA Aerospace Engineer
Dr. Ericsson was the first female & first African-American female to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University and the first African-American female to receive a Ph.D. in Engineering at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, Ericsson earned her bachelor’s in aeronautical/astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her role as a NASA engineer, Ericsson contributed to multiple projects, some of which include the Microwave Anisotropy Probe, the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, and the Integrated Mission Design Center. She is currently the instrument manager for a proposed mission aiming to bring Martian dust from its lower atmosphere to Earth. Ericsson won the 1997 “Women in Science and Engineering” award for the best female engineer in the federal government, and is a member of the NASA GSFC Speakers Bureau and the Women of NASA Group. She also teaches at the collegiate and middle school levels at Howard University and is a member of their Board of Trustees.
Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola | Scientists & Engineers
This group of 14 year old female scientists from Lagos, Nigeria created a generator that produces electricity for 6 hours using a single liter of urine as fuel. Their model works as such:
- Urine is put into an electrolytic cell, which separates out the hydrogen.
- The hydrogen enters a water filter for purification, which then gets pushed into a gas cylinder.
- The gas cylinder pushes hydrogen into a cylinder of liquid borax, which is used to remove the moisture from the hydrogen.
- This purified hydrogen gas is pushed into the generator.
In a nutshell, their model utilizes urea electrolysis to make hydrogen, which can then be used to make electricity.
Christina Lewis Halpern | Founder of All Star Code
All Star Code is a nonprofit organization that aims to prepare and place high-potential, qualified young black men in the tech-career pipeline and help them achieve full-time employment at technology companies early in their careers.
Dr. Wanda M. Austin | President & CEO of the Aerospace Corp
In January 2008, Austin took over as head of Aerospace, one of the leading architects for the nation’s national-security space programs. The company has nearly 4,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $850 million. Recognized internationally for her work, she served on President Barack Obama’s Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in 2009, and in 2010 was appointed to the Defense Science Board. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Franklin & Marshall College, master’s degrees in systems engineering and mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in systems engineering from the University of Southern California.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson | President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Considered by Time Magazine to be “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science". Since her arrival in 1999, she has been the school’s top fundraiser, bringing in more than $1.25 billion for the facilities, equipment, technology, faculty and infrastructure. Before arriving at RPI, the theoretical physicist had a distinguished career that includes senior leadership positions in government, industry, research and academics. Jackson holds a Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics from MIT.
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