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Two Young, African-American Women in Science

Photo: Donna Coveney/MIT

Women have come to represent a substantial percentage of the scientific work force in only the last several decades. Although parity remains a distant goal, especially at science's highest levels, the number of women with doctoral degrees in academia increased eightfold between 1973 and 2006. Except in certain fields--such as computer science, which has seen some disturbing recent declines--the vectors point in the right directions, however weakly.

When it comes to the representation of racial and ethnic minority women in science, the trends aren't as impressive, even if they do point in the right direction. Out of 69,300 science and engineering full professors in 2006, a mere 600--less than 1%--were African-American women. It's impossible to feel good about such numbers, but rather than dwell on the statistics, we decided to celebrate America's Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March) by telling the stories of two remarkable African-American women. 

First is Gina Wingood, profiled by Anne Sasso in "When Ironies Make Perfect Sense." Wingood was raised Catholic in a white suburb, but she found love and her calling in San Francisco's ghettos talking condoms, sex, and ethnic pride with African-American women. Now, she has found a scientific home at Rollins School of Public Health, part of Emory University.

Next, in "The Bigger Questions," freelancer Susan Gaidos profiles Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineer Kristala Jones Prather. Prather is a rarity in several respects: as an African-American chemical engineer, as a female chemical engineer, and as a scientist who managed to return from industry to one of science's most elite institutions.

As an international publication, we wanted to address the situation for women from underrepresented minority groups in Europe. So, in a related article, "A Double Bind: Minority Women in Science in Europe," south Europe contributing editor Elisabeth Pain spoke with several minority women--most of them African immigrants or of African heritage. Pain's most striking conclusion is that in contrast to the United States, where young scientists speak about race and gender discrimination quite openly, such discussions aren't considered appropriate for polite company in Europe.

For the scientists, it's a classic double bind: Minority scientists in Europe must confront problems and issues that are not okay to talk about. A consequence is that the issue is gaining attention very slowly, so that programs with the explicit aim of advancing women and especially ethnic minorities are quite rare in Europe. Minority women practicing science in Europe, Pain concludes, must often fend for themselves or rely on ad hoc help from supportive mentors or associates. The apparent reluctance of many Europeans to discuss the issues openly is likely to impede progress.

It would, of course, be wrong to conclude from this anecdotal evidence that for minority women in science, things are better in America than they are in Europe. That would require an extensive and difficult survey. Our American profiles are anecdotal stories, chosen precisely because the two women featured are the very models of modern scientific success. If we had gone looking for talented women who had been shut out of science by ethnic or gender discrimination, we could have found those, too. Statistics show, after all, that more minorities, and more women, drop out of science than stay in.

Yet our two American profiles demonstrate that it is possible today for talented African-American women to approach the highest levels of science without encountering serious resistance as a result of their genes or their gender. Their stories may not be typical--how could extraordinary women have typical stories?--but they at least show what's possible.

Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers.