‘I’m a Scientist, Not a Janitor’: The Experience of Women of Color in STEM
Gender bias, racial bias, and “Prove-It-Again” bias — to start.
The shortage of women in STEM has often been attributed to the small percentage of young women who choose to pursue STEM degrees or to the intense work demands often involved in these kinds of jobs. But a new report, Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science, by professors Joan Williams,Katherine Phillips, and Erika Hall, broadens this conversation — especially our understanding of why there are so few women of color in STEM.
The report, based on interviews with sixty women of color (Black, Asian, and Latina) in STEM and a survey of over five hundred scientists, finds that gender bias is an ever-present problem for women in technical fields. Not only does bias make it harder for women to get ahead in their careers, but the stress of having to regularly deal with gender bias wears women down. As the report notes, “No matter what a woman’s race, bias is draining and demoralizing.”
Yet, women of color face additional hurdles because they experience a kind of double jeopardy in that they are on the receiving ends of both gender bias and racial/ethnic bias. Importantly, the specific types of biases and issues individual women have to navigate depends on the cultural stereotypes held about the social groups to which they belong. For example, the angry black women stereotype, the hot-headed Latina stereotype, and the soft-spoken Asian stereotype shape the particular forms of bias women of color experience. As a Black microbiologist explained, during tense discussions with fellow scientists, “I’m calm. I don’t raise my voice…Because if I were as assertive as some of Caucasian colleagues that are male, I would be called a mad Black woman.”
Some of the significant key findings in the report are:
- 100% of those interviewed reported experiencing gender bias.
- Two-thirds reported the Prove-It Again Bias — having to show more evidence of their competence than a man in order be seen as equally competent by colleagues.
- Half of those surveyed reported backlash for behaving in an assertive manner or expressing anger and one-third reported backlash for self-promotion.
- Black women scientists (77%) were more likely to report experiencing the Prove-It Again Bias (Latinas 64.5%; Asian American 63.6%, White 62.7%).
- Asian-American women scientists were more likely to report workplace pressures to fulfill traditionally female roles and to get pushback if they didn’t.
- 61% of Asian-American women scientists reported backlash for behaving assertively
- 48% of Asian-American women scientists reported backlash for self-promotion
- Latina scientists were more likely to be seen as “angry” or “emotional” when they behaved assertively.
- Nearly 60% of Latina surveyed faced backlash for expressing anger as compared with 54% of Asian-American women, 50 % of White women, and 48% of Black women.
- Both Latinas and Black women scientists report regularly being mistaken as janitors.
- Over one-third of those surveyed reported sexual harassment.
The sad truth is that about HALF of women leave STEM careers at the mid-stage of their career and many never return. And much of the time they are leaving because, quite simply, they have had it.
If we are serious about getting more women into STEM and keeping more women in STEM, companies, universities, and organizations need do the work necessary to raise awareness about gender and racial bias, figure out where bias is embedded in people processes and workplace interactions, and put in place practices that reduce and eliminate bias.
For leaders, this means making diversity and inclusion a business imperative and requiring those who do recruiting and performance evaluations in your organization to receive evidence-based bias training. For managers, this requires understanding how bias impacts people processes and leads to dynamics that can disadvantage women. For example, performance reviews of women tend to focus on their style or personality, while men receive more feedback on their accomplishments. When it’s time to promote someone — guess which kind of evaluation leads to promotion? For individuals, this means that we need to scrutinize our thoughts and decisions. Research shows that the vast majority of us do in fact hold biases. But by correcting for these biases, like making sure we use the same criteria upon which we evaluate men and women, we can create a more welcoming and inclusive work environment.
Together, leaders, managers, and employees can change the ratio on women in STEM and create companies and organizations where talented women of all colors and from all backgrounds will actually want to stay.
Marianne Cooper is a sociologist at the Clayman Institute at Stanford University. She was the lead researcher for the book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. This is an excerpt from her new book, Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times, which examines how families are coping in an insecure age.
This post was originally published on Linkedin.