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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: In a Majority, Minority Experience


I was born in Kimberley, South Africa (SA), in the late 1960s and grew up during the apartheid era. My family was classified as so-called coloured by the SA government at the time, my ethnicity being of mixed race. We were treated as second-class citizens into my 20s, until the political climate changed. It would be heroic to say I was involved in protests, read "subversive" books, and did underground work for the cause, but that did not happen.

As a young child, I was quite sheltered from the political climate. I learned that things were different only through circumstances: not being allowed to enter certain shops in town, using the "nonwhites only" toilets, and the fact that, as a community, we avoided white people. One became scared of the police because of the large numbers of arrests and detentions without trial in the community.

I grew up in a middle-class household. My father, a schoolteacher, and my mother, a school secretary, always supported my academic ambitions. I was a good scholar and curious about my little world. From an early age, I knew that I always wanted to be involved in science.

The state school education system in SA was segregated along racial lines, and the schools for the coloured population group were not of the same standard as those enjoyed by the white population group. We lacked functional scientific teaching laboratories and other facilities, and the classrooms were usually overcrowded; at times there were more than 45 pupils in a classroom, sharing chairs and desks. All this was normal for us, as we were not familiar with a better system. The thought escaped us that at other, privileged schools, the students did their own experiments, instead of everyone watching the teacher demonstrate something in the front of the class.

I became more aware of the political situation in the country when I went to high school. During my first year there, a 6-month, nationwide school boycott began. It was a rude awakening to the apartheid trouble that everyone who was nonwhite was experiencing. I remember the first day of the boycotts clearly: They began the same day as the exhibition of my science project, which, of course, I had worked very hard on. Students from the neighbouring high school marched onto the school campus and coaxed most of the students to join the protest march to the city centre.

During the boycotts, I was eager to keep up with my schoolwork, so I read my textbooks and did personal studies. When classes resumed in September, the teachers provided extra classes over weekends and holidays. I did extremely well at the end of that year, scoring nearly 100% in all my science subjects.

Looking back, I can only think that the tests were easy because of the boycotts. Over the next few years, the boycotts and school disruptions were sporadic but not as lengthy as the one in 1980.

I still had to think about my future. What to do after school? The options that were easily available, or more affordable, for women were nursing and teaching. In Kimberley, nearly everyone in the community who did well at school either became a teacher or went to the technical college to complete a national diploma. However, I had been inspired by my science teachers, and I decided I wanted to read chemical engineering at university--the ideal balance between chemistry and math, with the processing details thrown in, too. This meant that it was vital to find funding. I applied for bursaries (grants) to all the companies I could find that might have "open" policies, i.e., companies that would allow black people to apply.

Many people told me it would be very difficult to get funding, being from a mixed-race classification. So for many of the application forms, I did not fill in the "race" columns. Finding funding was probably even more difficult for me as a female who wanted to study chemical engineering. One could more easily find female medical doctors, chemists, and biologists than female engineers at the time.

My final matric results (equivalent to U.K. A levels) gained me acceptance into the chemical engineering department of Wits University. I was lucky to receive a bursary from a national chemical/oil company. This was the only company that granted me a bursary, after an interview. All the rest declined, but it was a huge relief that my funding worries were over.

My undergraduate years were difficult, being torn between academic life and politics. Politically, things were coming to a head: Political violence escalated, university students were arrested, and apartheid-related problems were highlighted. One could watch this unfold on "liberal" white campuses and on television, and I think the rest of the world started to acknowledge the atrocities, too. At times, it was difficult to ignore the political upheavals on campus--as a black person, if you did not take part in political protests, you were often intimidated and labelled a sellout.

At the same time, one had to study harder to catch up with one's peers, who were mostly white and from privileged educational backgrounds. I had always believed in my own academic abilities, but the level was so much more difficult at university. I changed my career focus to a B.Sc. in chemistry at the end of my second year in engineering.

I completed my B.Sc. in chemistry in 1989. It was an achievement: My mom was proud, my old high school teachers were proud, and I was pleased. I was now a qualified person with a degree, and the world of chemistry was my oyster. I started working as a research chemist at the company that had granted me the student bursary, as this was part of the contract agreement. The contract was binding for the same number of years that the bursary was awarded. My first job entailed routine chemical analysis but also the chance to perform research on new chemical applications.

During these 3 years, I felt I was not as successful as my white, Afrikaans-speaking colleagues. A few other (white, Afrikaner) chemists, some with ordinary B.Sc. degrees like mine, were promoted within a year or two of their appointments. I was told that the criterion for promotion was to receive at least two consecutive above-average gradings on the annual merit appraisals. I received this grading each time my appraisals were performed, yet I had to fight for the promotion. My fairer-skinned colleagues did not seem to have the same problem.

At the end of 1992, I decided to complete a B.Sc. honours degree at the University of Cape Town. I did this to improve my qualifications, but at the same time, I was hoping that a higher qualification would increase my chances of getting promoted and minimise the racial and gender bias I suspected I was experiencing.

This year of study was a challenge, as it meant that I had to take a year's break from work and study after being out of university for 3 years. The company I worked for sponsored my studies for that year. However, the number of qualifications I had did not seem to matter. I would be treated in the same way: I was a black, English-speaking woman in a predominantly white, Afrikaans-speaking, male-managed company.

The company's seniority system was such that level 7 or 8 meant you had a degree and were on the entry level, and level 1 was the top management position. When I returned to the company in 1994, there were no black managers and perhaps just one (white) female manager above level 4 (middle management). For me to get a deserved promotion was usually a 6- to 8-month fight, after being in the same position for at least 2 years. I stayed with the company for 4 years after receiving my B.Sc. honours degree and received only one promotion in that time. Overall, my progress in this company from 1990 was two promotions in 7 years; compared to my white, Afrikaans-speaking, male colleagues, I was far behind.

Between 1994 and 1997, South Africa had its first nonracial elections and its first black President; in addition, the constitution was rewritten. The day that I voted for the first time was probably one of the most memorable days the country had witnessed. Everyone was equal at last. It was idyllic. Unfortunately, in my professional life, I found that equality was still a long way off.

In 1996, I started to organise a women's forum to address gender-bias issues faced by women in the company. I did a survey, and there was the need (but not the motivation) to get a forum going, as many women were afraid to participate for fear of recrimination by their mostly male bosses. The company had had a written policy of nondiscrimination in all forms since 1983-84, but the reality did not match up.

Because of my previous interest in addressing diversity issues, I was asked to assist with the newly formed Affirmative Action (AA) programme by someone in the top management group. The AA programme was probably similar to others that were started in other historically white-run companies since the new SA government came to power. My involvement in this process was probably detrimental to my career, despite the fact that I presented the case for AA to top managers, and they said they endorsed it. My immediate supervisor began spreading, to managers higher up, unsubstantiated rumours that my research work was not up to standard and thereby nearly prevented me from attending science-related seminars and necessary training. The irony was clear: Top management agreed in principle to manage diversity, but the middle to lower management levels did not.

Many of my black colleagues admired my boldness in getting involved with the AA process. I am not sure whether anything I did actually increased diversity in that company, but it did give some of my black and female colleagues hope. Unfortunately, there is still a shortage of degree-qualified black science professionals in South Africa. Consequently, white-run companies like this one will still exist, and the apartheid attitude will prevail for some time to come.

Why did I not leave this company and try to get a job at another? I did try. There were usually not many chemist positions available in the same region, and the coal/oil chemistry experience was very much specialised to this one company. Crime levels in the country were increasing, and it became more risky to drive long distances, especially alone as a female and at night, so I did not want to commute for more than an hour a day.

During 1997, my husband was offered a job in the United Kingdom. My final decision to leave the company (and the country) in order to join my husband was not an easy one, in terms of my career development. However, fate had a hand in this: When our favourite pet dog was poisoned and killed by would-be thieves, the unsettling feeling that the increase in crime was literally on my doorstep made the decision for me.

The difficulty of getting work (with a B.Sc. honours in chemistry) in Cambridge, U.K., surprised me. Initially, I was without work for 10 months. Eventually (and many application forms later), I accepted a technical staff position at a university. It then took me another 18 months before I found a job as a scientist. My dilemma, it seemed, was that now I was wholly underqualified, in not having a Ph.D., to get into a research and development company.

I have started again, aged 34, at the bottom of the corporate ladder, even after nearly 9 years of business and science-related experience. Naively, I have to remind myself that this is a First World country, and that any gender or racial bias is not common. I will start from scratch again, and perhaps my experiences may even come in handy.

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