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Barriers for women of color in science

Credit: G. Grullón

Women of color in science face a double whammy of discrimination, according to a report released 21 January. The results show how stereotypes of different groups play out in the scientific workplace and demonstrate the biases women in science confront regardless of their race.

For example, explains author Joan Williams of the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, in an interview, “although all women who behave in assertive ways risk being seen as unlikable,” about half of the women who participated in the study reported experiencing backlash for behaving in a “masculine” way. “Latinas were the only group of women who reported again and again that when they behaved assertively, they were seen as angry or too emotional or even crazy. Latinas who violate prescriptive stereotypes appear to trigger racial bias in the ‘hot-blooded Latino’ vein.” At the other end of the spectrum, “Asian Americans report a sharply higher level of pressure to behave in feminine ways and pushback if they don’t.”

“Black women are more likely than other women to report having to prove themselves over and over again.” That’s not to say that black women are the only ones who experience this type of bias: About two thirds of all the women reported this “prove-it-again” bias; that percentage is only a little smaller than the one for black women (77%).

The relationship between female scientists and their administrative support staffs can also be problematic. “There were persistent reports of conflict between women and their admins, with admins expecting women to be more nurturing and less demanding than men, and also of women having a harder time getting admins to do their work,” Williams says. “The Latinas had a particular problem. As one said, ‘I was this Mexican telling them what to do.’ ”

Psychologist Isis Settles of Michigan State University in East Lansing believes this study and others like it are important because women of color in science are a relatively understudied group compared to white women. “I think this was a great report that really highlighted some of the key issues for women of color in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics],” she wrote in an e-mail to Science Careers.

Putting aside racial differences, the report illustrates some of the barriers that affect all types of women in science. “One hundred percent of the women we interviewed recognized one or more of the patterns of gender bias,” Williams says. “That’s pretty important. One of the reasons we have a paucity of women in science is because they spend so much of their time trying to navigate through workplaces shaped by subtle bias. … It all adds up to a lot of difficulty and unpleasantness.”

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