Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Underrepresented Minorities in Science: Races to Run, Hurdles to Clear


When I was asked to write an article for Next Wave's March 2001 feature on underrepresented minorities in science, I enthusiastically accepted the invitation because I thought it might represent an opportunity to bring key issues to the forefront pertaining to the plight of students of color in science and engineering. This is certainly an issue with which I am intimately familiar. However, as I thought about what specifically I would write about, I quickly realized that all significant issues pertaining to the recruitment, retention, and subsequent career paths followed by people of color have already been written about, discussed, and analyzed over the years ad nauseam, in various forums, by many different organizations. The idea that there is nothing new under the sun--in terms of figuring out exactly what problems there are and which barriers exist in terms of minority recruitment and retention in science and engineering careers--is highlighted when you look at the sheer number of reports that have been issued on the subject from both public and private entities. The only thing left to do at this point is to get to work on solving the problems. (Where is the commission that has been appointed for this purpose?)

Studying the Problem

For instance, I recently received a copy of a report from the congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development (CAWMSET). This most recent report outlines the current status of women and underrepresented minorities in the science, engineering, and technology (SET) pipeline, beginning with early classroom education and progressing to professional life in industry, government, and academe. The report is appropriately titled, "Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering, and Technology." To be sure, plenty of "action-oriented recommendations structured for immediate implementation" are included in the report, after the expectedly dismal picture of the status of women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering is painted.

Implementation and Inclusion

This government sponsored study, as well as most studies similar to it, are well-intentioned and give a clear picture of some of the problems that are to be overcome by women and underrepresented minorities who are trying to survive in science and engineering careers. However, as a member of two of the most talked about underrepresented groups in question (Women and African Americans), I am usually left wondering exactly who is taking note of the recommendations made by such committees and furthermore, who might implement the suggested recommendations? It seems to me that those who could benefit the most from reading about and implementing policies that are suggested by such commissions (i.e., organizations and individuals that are NOT committed to diversity or equality of access) do not necessarily bother to read such reports, much less implement its policies. If they do read such a report, it is probably to find ways to counter the claims made. They appear to be quite happy with the status quo and seem only interested in maintaining it.

In addition, while examining this report, I noticed a major faux pas that is often made by such well-intentioned committees/commissions. To my dismay, there were no African-American, American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, or Mexican women appointed to the committee! How is it possible that a task force could be formed that lacks representation of the very groups that they purport to help? Why are policies being drawn up without the participation of all affected parties? Ah, therein lies the problem! The problem is one of inclusion. What African Americans and other underrepresented groups in this country need to succeed in science, or any other venue, is more access to, and inclusion in, all aspects of American life. More often than not, underrepresented minorities and women are relegated to the most trivial of roles in this society. That is why when most people think of a Ph.D.-level mathematician, engineer, or scientist, a picture of a woman of color does not come to mind. We have been assigned alternate roles in this society, most of which do not lead to an advanced degree or a position of power. Unfortunately, the strengths inherent in a diverse society are lost in favor of providing comfort to those who currently hold the most prestigious and powerful roles in greater numbers.

What Is Needed

To be fair, I do not wish to single out the aforementioned report as inadequate. In fact, my intent in mentioning the report was not to make any judgment on its content. As I stated before, there is not much new information that can be added to the subject of the status of underrepresented minorities and women in science. It is patently clear that our participation is intentionally limited. The example given is simply a representation of what types of things have been done to address the chronic problem of the underutilization of the talents of women and minorities in science. However, to put it bluntly, we do not need another report to tell us what we already know. What is needed is a REAL COMMITMENT to change by individuals, academic institutions, industry, and the federal government.

We need to be truthful here and recognize the fact that some people like things just the way they are. Due to this unfortunate fact, there are many individuals and organizations that say they are committed to diversity, but never reduce it to practice. There exists an old guard that must allow a natural evolution to occur. Only then will underrepresented groups achieve parity and cease to exist in a disenfranchised state. This can occur over time, as white women are quickly achieving parity in some scientific fields, as the group that is the main beneficiary of affirmative action policies that were fought for primarily by African Americans.

The Lens of Stereotype

Let's delve a little bit deeper into the problem. As an African-American female engineer and scientist who has sacrificed much and persevered many years in order to earn a Ph.D., I believe that most of my experiences mirror that of many of my peers, whether or not they have an advanced degree or even a college education. You see, in the eyes of mainstream American society, I am African American first, a woman second, and usually nothing else matters. The advanced degree and improved social status does not necessarily translate into more respect for African Americans and this is not well understood by most. This helps to explain why to many of us, it is just not worth the trouble to pursue an advanced degree. Many people take one look at me and have already made up their mind that I am going to be a problem, or assume that I have three or four kids and am likely to accept some form of welfare. Surprisingly, individuals of any race and gender can have this response to me and the reaction is not limited to white males. The root of the problem runs very deep, as even other females or underrepresented minorities can hold the same stereotypical beliefs about me based on a glance. What must be understood is that even though I am highly educated and just as deserving of the right to pursue happiness as the next person, I am still looked upon through the lens of the black, female stereotype.

The black female stereotype is a myth that is larger than life, one that helps to explain the ills of society to those who want to place blame on someone else for their sorrows. I cannot tell you how many times I have been judged by this myth and mistreated as a result. My sisters and I certainly deserve better considering the many contributions that we have made to American society. The point of affirmative action and similar programs of which I have been a participant is to combat this type of prejudice and to force certain narrow-minded individuals, who happen to have power, to respond to our merits, not to our race or gender. The sole purpose of affirmative action policies, in my mind, is to grant access, albeit limited, to the academic corridors and societal benefits that my forefathers and foremothers did not have access to.

Stereotype Threat

Contrary to popular belief, affirmative action policies did not afford me any undue advantages that helped me to achieve my current status. More importantly, I certainly do not presently enjoy any special treatment from society now that I am finished with school. It has been an uphill battle from the start. People like myself have accomplished much through perseverance and merit, but continue to be dogged by "stereotype threat" (see box below to learn more), thereby devaluing the contributions that we make to society.


"Stereotype threat" can be defined as the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype. It is the stereotype that subjects you to disrespect, not who you are as an individual. Claude M. Steele's article, Thin Ice: "Stereotype Threat" and Black College Students , describes the phenomenon of "stereotype threat" and attributes the "stereotype threat" phenomenon to the perceived underachievement of African-American college students. Steele writes that many Americans have come to view the disadvantages associated with being black as disadvantages primarily of social and economic resources and opportunity. The assumption is that if you are black and come from a socioeconomically middle class home, you no longer suffer the significant disadvantage of race, as race-related disadvantages are overcome when the lower socioeconomic status is overcome. Steele and his colleagues performed a series of studies to prove that regardless of class, racial pressures depress the academic performance of African-American students.

This helps to explain why many women and students of color shy away from pursuing science and engineering careers. Who willingly puts in so many years of hard work, for so little return? Basic human dignity and respect are the very least that we should expect from society once we have come so far and given so much. This phenomenon needs to be understood by individuals, academic institutions, companies, and federal agencies who claim that they want to see the numbers of women and minorities going into science and engineering careers increase, because unfortunately "stereotype threat" is alive and well in the scientific community.

Preparing for the Hurdles Ahead

You see, I am the exception, not the rule. I was well prepared for graduate study in bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego, by the historically black colleges and universities in the Atlanta University Center (AUC, consisting of Clark Atlanta University, Spelman, Morehouse, and Morris Brown Colleges), as well as by Georgia Tech, an institution that graduates more minority engineers than most other engineering schools because of its participation in the dual-degree engineering program, a partnership with minority-serving institutions. As a dual-degree engineering major in the AUC, my peers and I did not face "stereotype threat" and were able to grow and become confident in our abilities. At Georgia Tech, the existence of a critical mass of African-American students allowed me to feel comfortable and gave me a sense of community within a largely hostile environment. More specifically, I attribute my participation in one of the federal programs created to channel more minority students into graduate programs, the AUC-MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) program (see also this site), with helping to prepare me for graduate study and the pursuit of a Ph.D.

What I was not prepared for were the things that I discovered during and after earning my Ph.D. Mainly, I was not prepared for the lack of a real commitment by universities to recruit faculty members of color in the fields of science and engineering. After all, they were supposedly unable to "find anyone" to hire into these positions and were "desperate" to hire women and faculty of color. I was also not prepared to understand the lack of commitment by universities to graduate some of my peers who also attended graduate school and were very bright students. Many universities have what I call the "roach motel" mentality. We'll let you in, but we won't let you out! (... and we'll do it with a smile!). Heck, it almost seems as if there is a quota on the number of Ph.D.s of color produced. Another revelation was the relatively small change in my societal status after earning a Ph.D. ( which can be measured by the utter surprise on strangers' faces when they find out that I have Ph.D. in bioengineering and by the refusal of some to call me Dr. Clemmons even after being informed of my proper title). The list goes on, but all evidence is to the contrary when a person asks me if it was all worth it in the end. I cannot say with a straight face that anyone should willingly go into a gunfight armed with only a knife.

If you look at the situation objectively, you will see that there is a lot of window dressing going on. People commonly believe that if you are one of a handful of women or persons of color in a particular field, you are encouraged to stay on the academic track and given incentives to do so. Regrettably, this is not the case. A real commitment to change on the part of many universities is not evident. For instance, on a recent visit to The Chronicle of Higher Education's Web site, I visited the career network and there were more than a few Ph.D.-holding, ivy-league educated, networked, and ambitious minority individuals with a myriad of accomplishments who related their stories of not being able to land a faculty position. In fact, one writer informed me that the consensus was that if the announcement had the pervasive statement at the bottom, "Women and minorities are especially encouraged to apply," that it is commonly interpreted as "if you let us know that you are a minority, you're out!" An article entitled "Faculty Diversity When Jobs Are Scarce: Debunking the Myths," written by Daryl G. Smith for the 6 September 1996 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, backed this writer up by asserting that many minority Ph.D.'s insist that they must struggle to find positions. With academic search committees constantly complaining about the "small pool" of qualified minorities, how could this situation possibly exist? I am forced to ask, what's wrong with this picture? Can somebody please explain this phenomenon to me?

Due to reasons outlined here and elsewhere, it is quite evident that for a person of color, a Ph.D. is not enough. There are many factors working against you and many barriers will be placed in your path. That is why you must become an expert hurdler and world-class runner in order to finish the race toward your personal and professional goals. At least, that is what was required in my case. What is needed in order to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities in science, engineering, and technological fields is a push for a new and concrete plan of action, with mandatory implementation guidelines, adopted at the national level which focuses on transitioning women and underrepresented minorities into positions of power. We need to be present in places where we can relate our experiences and introduce true change. The time is gone where it was adequate for academic institutions, government, or industrial organizations to simply place a token woman or person of color in a subordinate position within the organization, and then pat itself on the back for having done so. We are currently in need of a nationwide, REQUIRED, plan of action that is carefully crafted to provide important remedies for some of the many problems that have consistently plagued us who try to follow the less traveled path to the Ph.D., sometimes to our self-detriment. Any such proposal should be designed with the knowledge that for a person of color, a Ph.D. is never enough. For us, obtaining a Ph.D. is not an endpoint, but rather it serves as another beginning; another long and lonely road to travel, until the rules of society see fit to catch up with us.

In December of 1999, Sonya Summerour Clemmons became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, one of the top bioengineering programs in the country. While a graduate student, Sonya received numerous fellowships and awards, including one of the first 12 UNCF-Merck Science Initiative Graduate Fellowships in 1996. Clemmons entered the Ph.D. program at the University of California, San Diego, after completing undergraduate degrees in both physics and mechanical engineering at Spelman College and Georgia Tech, respectively, as an Atlanta University Center dual-degree engineering major. Clemmons currently works for a small biotech company in San Diego and recently founded SSC Enterprises, a consulting firm that concentrates on helping academic and industrial institutions successfully recruit, retain, and transition students of color into fulfilling science and engineering careers.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers