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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: Gender Becomes an Issue for a Black Scientist


Editor's note: Anne Tyler is a pseudonym for a postdoc living and working on the East Coast. She has previously written for the Next Wave about her experiences.

Greetings! I am an African-American female who has been a postdoc for the past year and a half. For the most part, I find that being a scientist is fun. I like asking questions and devising ways to answer them. I also like the way that science provides an environment in which there is so much cultural diversity contributed by my fellow scientists from other nations. For me, being a postdoc is an opportunity to do the science I want to do without all the headaches of being the boss.

Until recently, I never really gave much thought to how my gender would affect my ability to be a scientist. For the most part, it always seemed that my race has played a bigger role. I was the first black to graduate from the biochemistry department of my undergraduate institution. I was also the first to graduate from my graduate program. Note, I was not the first black female, I was the first black. That has always been my scientific identity.

During graduate school when white female colleagues would approach me about women's-oriented events, such as mentoring or conferences geared specifically toward young women scientists, I rarely participated. My gender was never acknowledged by the faculty, so I suppose I thought it was not really an issue for me. (Although I was often selected to be the black voice, I never recall being asked for my opinion as a black female.) And quite frankly, when white females would complain about how unfairly women are treated, I did not take their concerns seriously. I honestly thought that my skin color gave me a hard way to go, and I was getting through it, so why shouldn't they be able to deal with being female? I mean, there were always plenty of white females around, but there were very few Latinos, Native Americans, or African Americans in science, male or female. I just didn't understand what these women were complaining about.

Well, now that I am approaching 30 and am getting married in a couple of months, I realize that all of those issues of gender that I thought never involved me will affect me.

In some ways, an African-American female scientist is no different from a female scientist of any other race. I think about having children someday, and I wonder when I will be able to find the time to do it. I also wonder if my adviser will still respect me and how other principal investigators will view me if I become pregnant. There is a definite bias against women who have children. People know that mothers occasionally have to leave work early to take care of sick children. Everyone knows that a pregnant woman will have to take some time off after childbirth. These circumstances are sometimes held against you. In the very competitive scientific publish-or-perish environment, only results matter. The longer you work, the more results you usually obtain.

Obviously, every female scientist has to make decisions at some point regarding marriage and children. I have grappled with these issues on and off for about a year. On the one hand, I have worked very hard to obtain my Ph.D. But on the other, I look forward to motherhood. However, I struggle with the knowledge that being a mother, and even getting married, may affect my career somewhat negatively . I suppose that on the issue of family, I am not too different from a nonminority female scientist. The biggest difference is that to get where I am, I have had to deal with racism in addition to sexism.

In general, I think that my race and gender have made it more difficult to move ahead in the scientific arena. My race has definitely caused people to treat me differently. Some people ask questions and are genuinely interested in me as a scientist. But others (nonminorities) imply that we, minorities, are so lucky because there are so few of us and it's easier for us. I can speak only for myself, but I can say that I didn't have the pleasure of having any bars lowered for me. I earned my Ph.D. just like everyone else--with hard work and perseverance.

In addition to the racist comments, misconceptions, and prejudices that I have to deal with, my male peers expose me to sexual harassment and objectification. For example, if I screw something up, I become "cute." If I wear a skirt, I am leered at. I have been touched inappropriately at work and sexually harassed by more senior scientists and by my peers. I think these experiences give a general flavor of how my gender causes people to respond to me.

The result of my experiences is that I work very hard and try not to give anyone an opportunity to view me negatively. I find myself being very strong. I try to hide my femininity in order to gain the respect of my peers. I am becoming more aggressive and outspoken, two traits I never really admired, but I am finding that I need these characteristics to be a successful scientist. I also try to assimilate racially as much as possible. I am careful about how I wear my hair, and I try not to be too ethnic or threatening. It's as if I have two "defects" that I am trying to compensate for.

Despite all of the problems associated with being a minority female scientist, I do find that my love of science has remained. I look forward to the day when there are more women like me in science. It gives me great joy to see other women doing science. I have found that there are many female scientists, although not minorities, who act as great mentors for me. Although they cannot address the race issues, these women can commiserate with me about being a minority and provide good advice on how to survive in a very male field.

When people comment to me that 30 or more years ago there were not many female scientists, I find it so hard to believe, because now there seem to be so many. My hope is that one day I can say the same thing about minorities in science and someone will look at me in the same incredulous way.