Women in STEM: A Long Way to Go and a Short Time to Get There

Women of color who are trying to break into male dominated fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) face both racial and gender bias. Katherine Phillips, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics and Senior Vice Dean at Columbia University’s Business School has another term for this condition after surveying and interviewing 617 female scientists-double jeopardy. As a co-author of the study “Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color” she found that the bias women experience trying to navigate the STEM community breaks down into 4 categories.

Prove it Again
Women in STEM have to exert more energy to prove their competence than male counterparts. The message these women receive is you are not a good fit in this profession.

The Tightrope
Women in STEM face the same challenge as other women trying to smash the glass ceiling. They are seen as too female to be competent and too masculine to be liked. Asian women were told they were too macho, Black women were singled out as too angry and Latina women were stereotyped as too emotional.

They were often steered into roles as administrative assistant or den mother to those no one else wanted to mentor.

The Maternal Wall
The most toxic of all STEM biases, motherhood resulted in the perception that women were viewed as less committed and less competent in their profession after they had children.

The Tug of War
Known as the “queen bee” syndrome in other job sectors, this bias often pits women against women. When women face discrimination at work, they regularly distance themselves from the very people they need support from-other women in the workplace.

Examples of Bias
Some of the women in the study were put on notice by male colleagues. “He told me directly, ‘Look, I know you want to go into research. And I think that if you are willing to fight, this will be a productive career for you. But this is a male-dominated area. So you’re going to have to saddle up here.”

Women of color indicated that women STEM initiatives were regularly seen as “White women initiatives” as alliances were made between White women and men leaving women of color on the outside looking in.

Students displayed the same kind of biases against women faculty members often mirroring the comments made by male faculty members. One woman said, “Students tend to basically just have a certain level of respect for a male faculty member from day one that they don’t necessarily have for female faculty.”

Having their ideas stolen by male colleagues was a frequent occurrence according to one Latina engineer. “I would say something in a meeting and it would go on deaf ears. And then somebody else would say the exact same thing and there would be the, ‘Wow, that’s such a great idea.”

A female doctor reported getting feedback to stop dressing so masculine in pantsuits like Hillary Clinton.

The one American Indian woman interviewed in the study said, “She likened her experiences communicating with members of the dominant culture to “two aliens meeting.” “There’s no common understanding … To be a scientist who is also an American Indian, You have to be okay with being totally ostracized in every way….You have to be willing to continually confront that.” In essence, she had to be her own self-advocate.

One immunologist recounted an incident where a colleague ridiculed her accent when she was a student. The colleague told her “If you can speak English without an accent then you can come back and discuss it with me.”

A Latina statistician noted that since she worked late hours in the lab when most of the professors had gone home, she was frequently mistaken for the janitor even though she wore a lab coat.

Asians bore the brunt of the forever foreigner myth and were on the receiving end of comments like “you speak perfect English” even though they were born in the USA.

Latinas experienced racial stereotypes from messages and assumptions about their culture ‘Oh, you’re Hispanic so you love tacos and you love spicy foods. Oh, you’re very into drinking and music. Oh, be careful. She’s Puerto Rican and she may be carrying a knife in her purse.”

Black women were not immune from racial epithets either. The post-doctoral advisor of a Black biologist said “hey, do you have any family on drugs or in jail.” A professor asked a Black student if she was familiar with rats since she was born in an urban area.

Latinas reported they were consistently undercut by their supervisors when they were addressed by their first name even though they were doctors like everyone else.

A Latina biologist pointed out that there were different standards for mothers and fathers. When men said they had to leave to pick up their children, “people will stop and say, you are such a great dad. That is so wonderful that you spend time with your kids.” The reaction when women did the same was very different.

A Latina bioengineer was asked, “Why are you pursuing graduate school when you should be working, Why are you pursuing graduate school when you have a husband to take care of?”

A Black woman witnessed firsthand race-specific motherhood bias when a microbiologist told her, “While I don’t have any data, being a Black woman with children gets complex because the assumption is once you start, you’re never going to stop. You’ll end up being a welfare queen.”

A female engineer recalled being told, “You are very assertive in a very sweet way. You get what you want in a very sweet way. You do not antagonize anybody.” The message here is you can be assertively masculine but in a feminine sweet way.

Another Black woman related that after assuming the position of department chair, a colleague told her she needed to dress up more, wear more skirts, apply more makeup and change her natural hairstyle to something more professional looking.

“We’ve Come a Long Way Baby” was a top ten hit song in 1978 for country music legend Loretta Lynn. The song later served as the basis for a famous cigarette ad for the Virginia Slims brand entitled “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.” I am sure women in STEM share this same sentiment 37 years later. The more things change the more some things stay the same. For women in STEM, they not only still have a long way to go, but they have a short time to get there.

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