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Advancement of Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Disciplines

November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina

Pamela Holland Obiomon, Ph.D., Prairie View A&M University

Virginia Cook Tickles, Ph.D., Aerospace Engineer, NASA

Adrienne Holland Wowo, M.S., Manager, UPS

Shirley Holland-Hunt, M.B.A., Manager, NASA


The purpose of this paper is to identify several of the unique barriers faced by women of color in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.  Women of color are poorly represented in the STEM fields and encounter unique obstacles when attempting to obtain and maintain faculty positions, as well as positions of leadership within the STEM industry.  In a study conducted by Monthly Labor Review (2005) it was found that race makes a difference in how women experience their careers.  Although numerous impediments are present, stereotyping, bicultural stress, and tokenism will be discussed in this paper.  These barriers ultimately affect the extent to which women of color advance to tenure, receive research funding, obtain leadership positions, and remain in long-term faculty and leadership positions. These particular obstructions were selected as a result of many of the researchers’ personal experiences, as well as the research of other women of color working in STEM disciplines in academia and industry. Moskal (2000) suggests that understanding the experiences of female scientists and engineers can initiate improvement in the work and educational environment and increase female participation. Solutions to overcoming these barriers lie primarily in awareness, understanding, and training of women of color and the administrators, faculty, and STEM management involved in advancing their status.

African American women face serious barriers that limit their advancement in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.  Despite the existence of these obstacles, research reveals that African American women enhance the value of the STEM disciplines. They contribute a unique blend of culture, strength, courage, character, outstanding skills, and analytical abilities to the STEM environment (Jordan, 2006).  They bring tremendous character, persistence, talent and a deep commitment to STEM fields (MacLachlan, 2000). They are nurturing, possessing strong social values, collaborative, consensus building, and decision making skills, as well as including context in analysis (Van Beers, 1996).  They also bring a totally different perspective to STEM in the creative areas (Land of Plenty, 2001).  With all the added value that women, African American women, contribute to the STEM environment, why do the impediments still exist and how can they be overcome?

As a result of the expansion of global competition in the STEM fields and the increasing population of women and minorities in the U.S. labor force it is evident that the future of America depends on reducing the impediments that prevent women from reaching the highest levels of employment and prestige within U.S. universities and companies (National Academy of the Sciences). Women comprise 56.8% of the U.S workforce and a mere 8.5% of the country’s engineers. Approximately 87% of all engineers are white males. Research shows that women earned below 50% of the new STEM PhDs, are less likely to enter STEM full time, to hold advanced positions in both industry and academia, and are more likely to receive lower salaries even after adjusting for age, field, and type of work (Long & Scott, 2001). Women in engineering earn approximately 13% less than their male peers. Data from the National Science Board reveal that 7, 488 science doctorates were awarded to all Americans in 2004.  Of that total, only 124 doctorates or 1.7 percent were awarded to African-American women compared with 2, 274 doctorates or 30 percent for white women.  In engineering, 1,941 doctorates were awarded in 2004.  Of those, only 32 or 1.7 percent were received by African-American women and 296 or 15 percent went to white women (National Science Board, 2006).

The presence of women in STEM presents unique internal challenges.  Women in these fields are faced with the issues of salary disparity, under representation, gender stereotyping, a sense that their ideas are not taken seriously, being overlooked for promotions, inadequate mentors and exclusion from informal networks. Women of color face additional challenges because of their race, gender, and cultural differences as well as questioning of technical capability and competence.  

The Barriers
To promote career advancement of women scientists and engineers at all levels, the task of identifying and eliminating institutional/organizational barriers, biases, and structures that impede women is critical. Stereotyping is a barrier that is present in every environment. A stereotype is a belief that all members of a specific group share certain traits or characteristics. Stereotypes are learned from parents, culture, media portrayals etc. The effect of stereotyping is prejudice and the behavior is discriminatory. Studies have indicated that everyone holds stereotypes (Fazio, Jackson, Dunton & Williams,1995), (Diehl & Jonas, 1991). Internal stereotyping may not be harmful, but becomes a problem when used to prejudge people’s competence and ability and result in the development of unfair and incorrect expectations.

African Americans are generally stereotyped as superstitious, lazy, happy go-lucky, ostentatious, active in sports, entertainers and poor performers in academics. The moment African Americans enter a predominately white organization, there is a pressure to disprove preconceived stereotyping. Many African Americans feel like they have to say the right thing, not say too much, or agree just to fit in. In many cases, the African American attempts to disprove stereotypes until their technical value can be exemplified to the organization and/or when the organization recognizes their value.

African Americans in STEM are concerned about about how others perceive them. The ability to perform well in an environment where one must be creative, declines as a result of the pressure formed from the anxiety of disproving stereotypes (Steele &Aronson, 1995). In many cases, after a protracted period of high performance, the stereotype is finally eradicated. Treating people in accordance to a negative stereotype can bring out stereotype confirming behavior (Word, Zanna & Cooper, 1974). After being exposed to repeated negative images of their ability, the group internalizes performance anxiety.

Stereotypes based on ethnicity have been shown to bias evaluations (Bodenhausen & Wyer, 1985). It has also been shown that after negative feedback, individuals internalized a reduced sense of self-esteem (Fein & Spencer, 1997). Increased pressure to perform can result in choking under pressure (Steele & Aronson 1995). Consequently, disparities in salaries related to poor performance can be justified. Individuals oftentimes become disillusioned and leave the organization.

Acceptance into organizational networks is important to long-term advancement. Being part of a network increases information and knowledge, resulting in an increase in the chances of advancement in the STEM disciplines. African American women are often excluded from networks and isolated in the work environment. White women may be more socially and culturally accepted in a white male dominated organization than women of color. One reason for this lack of acceptance is racial visibility. Women of color stand out overtly because of hair, skin, and body shape. Research by the Monthly Labor Review indicated that even though the African American woman had the same educational background and, in fact, additional work experiences, they did not receive the same benefits from these investments.

Stereotyping affects the psychic energy of the African American. When individuals are isolated by people who do not want to work with them, a large amount of time is spent legitimizing one’s place in the organization. One feeling that many African American women have is that they have to out perform and out strategize their white male and white female colleagues to succeed. They are constantly under pressure to be superstars, contending with stereotypes that consider them inferior and incompetent. As a result of stereotyping they often feel that their work is unfairly scrutinized and that they are not adequately challenged (Tickles, 2006).

Bicultural stress is another barrier that impedes the performance of African American women in STEM environments. There is little tolerance of appreciation for cultural diversity in terms of behavioral styles, dress, or rich aesthetics representing multiculturalism. Women of color have to wear two hats: one at home and one at work.

For women of color their work lives are embedded in white male dominated organizations, where the norms, cultures, and values are based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition and the Protestant work ethic of western society (Barriers, 2005). African Americans have to manage two cultural contexts: one European American and the other African American.

Gender seems to be an easier barrier to negotiate than race. However, race and gender have a negative impact on the work experiences and career advancement of African American women (Coombs 2003, Bell & Nkomo, 2001). African Americans feel like they are outsiders. Cultural differences at social gatherings make individuals feel out of place. They are often isolated in the work environment. Without mentors they must learn to succeed from the main stream of organizational life. There is a limited supply of these mentors because in the past educators have failed to nurture and mentor young black women (Jordan, 2006).  In this regard, African American women are doubly disadvantaged.

Tokenism represents another impediment for African American women in STEM occupations. A token is a member of a group that is included in a larger group through policy or practice to desegregate. Tokenism begins when a lone African American becomes part of an organization or is placed in an area where they are underrepresented or only one of a kind. Research by Karter, 1997 on stressful environmental factors reveal that under-representation leads to high visibility and sets into place a variety of negative perceptions of persons labeled as tokens. When African Americans are perceived as tokens by majority group employees their behavior and job performance, whether good or bad, are magnified, distorted and overly scrutinized. In many cases increased pressure to perform leads to choking under pressure (Steele and Aronson, 1995). Performance decreases (Saenz, 1994) because token members get the attention, not their work. Repeated poor performance leads to devaluing of ability. To overcome their perceived incompetence, they experience increased pressure to perform, yet high level performance may not necessarily lead to comparable rewards and the same level of recognition given to whites.

African American women are very conscious of their double minority standard. According to the Glass Ceiling Commission, the psychological effects of being treated as a token take a heavy toll on the emotional and psychic energy of African Americans. They find themselves isolated with colleagues who do not want to work with them and have few outlets to express their frustrations and disappointments. Long and Scott describe a triple penalty for women scientists (a) barriers in STEM field, (b) perceived discrimination (limited aspirations), and (c) discrimination in opportunities and rewards.  Makobella and Green speak of a tri-consciousness of lived experiences (a) as an African American woman, (b) as a women in a male dominated field, and (c) the inequities in the African American community.

Barriers for women, particularly African American women in STEM fields, are real.  Although these limitations exist, there are also solutions that may diminish the effect these barriers have on the career advancement of African American women in STEM occupations. These solutions are not a “one size fit all”, as STEM work cultures are unique and dependent upon several factors. Alternatively, these solutions provide ideas on how to penetrate these barriers and should be uniquely tailored to cultivate a paradigm that empowers the African American woman to improve opportunities for advancement in the STEM workplace.

The Solutions
To surmount barriers, African American women in the technically diverse world must maintain positive attitudes, utilize the support of family and friends, encourage a supportive workplace culture, be passionate and competent in what they accomplish, engage supportive mentors and role models, embrace a supportive educational culture, and exercise extreme commitment and faith (Tickles, 2006).  Thus, overcoming the barriers of stereotyping, bicultural stress, and tokenism involve modifications of individuals as well as organizations. Organizations and individuals have to recognize that the barriers exist and create the right climate for success ensuring a culture of (a) equal status, (b) shared goals, and (c) active participation (teamwork).

Management and administration should understand and embrace cultural differences and learn how to utilize those differences to add value and balance to the workplace. Organizations should seek to increase the number and percentage of women of color employees, provide mentors, ensure salary equity by gender and race, and create a supportive work culture by training, employees,  managers, administrators and the likes on the benefits of developing a culturally aware organization.  

When an African American woman enters the work environment it is important that she observes and understands the work culture and know what is expected. Training should be sought early in the career of the African American woman to develop good communication and leadership skills. One must project a credible, self-assured, communication image.  One must develop ways to express technical input with authority and learn to handle conflicts and confrontation skillfully. Many women of color leave STEM disciplines because they don’t have the skills to deal with many of the uncomfortable experiences in that environment.

Research on African American women with doctorates in STEM in the work environment revealed that African American women must “know that they know that they know”, and must learn to trust themselves and their vision (Tickles, 2006). This promotes a more confident existence regardless of being the “lone ranger” in the department or organization. Self promotion is another solution that helps to mitigate the effects of these barriers. Confidence in one’s own abilities and taking charge of one’s own public relations for career advancement is vital for the African American woman. Participating in meetings, in organizational functions, serving on committees, and professional organizations provides many opportunities to cultivate professional relationships and to network. This is important for African American women in STEM be it in academia, private industry, or government agencies.

Women in academia experience some of the same problems as women in industry.  African American women must create internal and external networks that help them to navigate through the system. African American women should serve as mentors to one another by reaching inside themselves and giving back to those who come behind them.  Sometimes it requires reaching outside the environment in which one works to give and obtain guidance, advice, or proposed solutions to and from others in similar environments. Understanding the dominant culture norms, knowing one’s self, knowing the organization and how one fits in the scheme of things are important in the mentoring of others.

African American women in STEM fields must believe that these barriers can be overcome. Dianne Jordan says it best in her book entitled, Sisters in Science: Conversations with Black Women Scientists on Race, Gender, and Their Passion for Science, 2006.

“There are times when only another African American woman scientist can possibly understand the dilemma...I know these women’s voices, I know their joys, I know their pain, I know their triumphs, I know their despair, I know these women and they know me.  We share a form of marginalization that others find difficult to grasp and that we often have a hard time expressing in terms that others really understand. This is the point where we look beyond each other’s race, gender and class. It is looking beyond those external factors that allowed all of us to break barriers."

Stereotyping, bicultural stress, and tokenism affect the manner in which women of color obtain and maintain faculty positions in STEM disciplines as well as obtain leadership roles in industry. Access to mentoring, funding, and collaboration among industry/academia are affected by these barriers. These obstacles also affect the level of self confidence necessary for success in academia among women of color. Not only do these barriers exist in academia, but they also present in agencies and organizations that hire scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians throughout the country. These obstructions not only prohibit the personal advancement of African American women in STEM disciplines, but they also limit the organizational effectiveness of those organizations that do not employ proactive strategies to eliminating these barriers.



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