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Sisters in science – few African American women in science programs

More African American women participate in higher education than
African American men, and the gap is widening. In 1995, there were
556,000 African American men enrolled as students in all institutions
of higher education at all levels of matriculation, compared to 918,000
African American women. The growth in the number of African American
women also exceeded the growth rate among African American men.

While the enrollment imbalance does not translate into a wage gap
— primarily because of the participation of women in typically female
jobs — the enrollment gap has socioeconomic consequences for students
and for African American society at large.

Because more sisters are enrolled, more are also earning degrees at
every level and in almost every field. But the gaps are narrower in
some fields than others, and reflect the stereotypes and pipeline
challenges that sisters face in some fields — especially in
engineering and the sciences. For example, while African American women
— recipients of 53,000 bachelor’s degrees in 1994 — received 72
percent more of these degrees than the 31,000 degrees awarded to
African American men, in just the biological and life sciences, the gap
— at 53 percent — was smaller.

Is it simple propensity that has more Black women seeking degrees
in education, the social sciences, and the health professions, or are
sisters being subtly guided away from the sciences and into more
“typically female” fields? Given the fact that African American women
receive five bachelor’s degrees for every three that men earn, why do
they receive just two undergraduate engineering degrees for every three
that men earn?

The gap is even wider for engineers at the master’s level, where
682 degrees were awarded to African Americans in 1994 — 493 to men and
189 to women. Overall, African American women receive two-thirds of all
of the masters degrees awarded, but in engineering we receive just 28
percent of the degrees.

Gaps are as wide at the Ph.D. level, where just a handful of
African Americans are receiving science and engineering degrees. In
1995, according to the American Council on Education, there were 102
Ph.D. degrees awarded to African Americans in the physical sciences and
another 102 in engineering. In the life sciences, 290 African A
mericans received Ph.D. degrees.

In contrast, almost 500 degrees were awarded in social sciences and
humanities, and more than 660 degrees were awarded in education.
Although a gender breakdown is not available by field, it is not
difficult to extrapolate from master’s degree gaps that African
American women collected few of the hard science degrees.

Many women who pursue science education experience isolation both
in their graduate departments and in their communities. To whom do they
speak of their work? Who are their mentors?

A sister who is junior faculty at a liberal arts college recalls
that she often declined to discuss her work with other African American
graduate students in order to avoid the description that her work was
“too heavy” for them to understand. Yet, sisters like this need to be
celebrated, not treated as brainy aberrations. When the notion that
African Americans can master scientific concepts is more widely
accepted, more African American men and women will feel secure in
pursuing science careers.

The under-enrollment of African American men in higher education is
one challenge that educators must tackle. But the issue of bias against
women in the sciences, and especially in engineering, is also important.

The examples of people like Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and MIT
graduate Dr. Shirley Jackson, science educator Dr. Shirley Malcolm, and
astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison make it clear that African American women can
do science. Do those who teach science and engineering understand this
capability, or have they bought the stereotypes that scientists are
supposed to be White and male? And if African American women represent
the bulk of our community’s enrollment in higher education, shouldn’t
our representation in the sciences and engineering reflect that?

It is clear that efforts to increase the presence of African
Americans in science are incomplete unless they have a women’s
component. White women scientists have talked about the hurdles they
have to clear and the barriers that make their enrollment in science
education challenging. Imagine the many ways these challenges are
compounded for African American women!

While race and gender should not necessarily dictate areas of
research, the paucity of African American women scientists has clear
implications. There have not been studies, for example, of the impact
that crack has on African American women. We see rising incarceration
levels among Black women — with a 500 percent increase in the past
decade — largely because of drug use and addiction. We also hear
anecdotal evidence of crack’s “hold” on Black women. But there has been
little done to explain this more fully.

Similarly, although African American women seem to be more likely
to be diagnosed with breast cancer — and in many cases, to be
diagnosed earlier — there have not been scientific explanations for
this phenomenon. Studies on the health status of women have just
garnered attention in the past decade, but studies on the health status
of African American women are few and far between.

There are other reasons to be concerned about the paucity of
African American women in science, especially as scientific occupations
are among the most pivotal and highly compensated in the occupational
spectrum. Yet, both leaks in the pipeline and gender stereotyping
contribute to the under-representation of African American women in the

Organizations like Dr. Shirley McBay’s Quality Education for
Minorities (QEM) have done significant work in creating a climate that
encourages success in math, science, and engineering for minority
students. Yet, efforts like this struggle for funding in an atmosphere
that is hostile to affirmative action and to targeted educational
opportunities. The evidence to support targeting, though, is in the
gaps revealed by the data. Too many gaps reflect the relative absence
of sisters in science.

Yet, women like Jemison, Jackson, and McBay offer stellar and
motivational examples of what can be done in science careers. These
sisters in science are true pioneers, women who make it possible for so
many others to see work in science as an option for African American

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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