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This is what it’s really like to be a woman of color in the world of science

The "America" we learn about has one type of successful scientist: a white male. For everyone else, it's a battle.

In the 10th grade, my chemistry teacher told my class that boys do better at science and math than girls.

Most of us brushed it off, but it doesn’t mean I was not familiar with this gender stereotype and heard this from numerous adults. I felt disappointed by my teacher’s comments. They stuck with me through adolescence.

Sometimes I wouldn’t do as well on a science test and find myself going back to my teacher’s words. For a second, I’d flash back to what the teacher had said, wondering,  “Is it because I am a girl?”

Most women are exposed to these negative stereotypes from a young age. This just gets worse as women climb higher in STEM fields.

Women of color are not only underrepresented in STEM fields. They also face a “double jeopardy” situation. They have to carry the weight of not only gender but race bias as well. Compared to their white counterparts, they are at a higher risk of being pushed out of science fields due to these biases. According to a study by the University of California, 100% of women of color in science report some form of gender bias compared to 93% of white women in science.

How does this bias affect women of color?

In a survey,  Black women report their skills being questioned. Latinas are mistaken as custodial or administrative staff. Asian-American women feel the pressure to act more feminine in workplaces. Most women of color report having to work twice as hard to be perceived as legitimate compared to white men and women. They also report instances of accent discrimination and demeaning comments.

There seems to be an additional bias at work against Black women, this makes them feel lonely and alienated.  Black women also felt that engaging socially with co-workers could lead to negative perceptions of their competence. Colleagues bring up awful racial stereotypes in workplaces. On confronting colleagues about those stereotypes, Black women were told off for being too sensitive and were told to “get over it” by their white counterparts. According to this study, women of color report that the challenges faced were attributable to “cultural differences” between them and the dominant culture. 

The race bias further molds sexism towards women of color based on ethnicity. Their white counterparts just don’t experience this “double jeopardy” anywhere near the same level.

Furthermore, the toxic environment hinders the relationship between women co-workers as well. The competitive environment gives rise to in-group conflict. To elaborate, women report feeling the need to compete with one another to maintain their spot. Carrying out scientific work becomes harder in such burdensome circumstances. Why should women carry the weight of society’s prejudice and ignorance?

How does the lack of diversity affect science?

Any sort of bias is demoralizing and exhausting. Negative stereotypes set a precedent for young girls and women that they won’t be as good as men in science. No wonder the caricature of a scientist is a cis-gendered white male. There is little representation for women of color in science. 

Children mainly learn about male scientists in classes. This implicitly tells young girls that there is no place for them in science. In reality, women of color have been making major contributions but are left out of the narrative.

Moreover, the lack of diversity affects science too. With a monolithic workforce, the understanding of scientific concepts and inquiry become limited. A diverse set of scientists would bring broader questions and insights to the table. Groups such as 500 women scientists are working towards a more inclusive and accessible STEM field. Their ‘March for Science‘ rallies conducted across various cities worldwide stood for this message.

These efforts work toward an inclusive and diverse science workforce. Such a workforce is key to helping science evolve and grow.