Study: STEM Careers Put Latina, Black, Asian Women in ‘Double Jeopardy’

March 27, 2015


By Sheryl Estrada

Photo by Shutterstock

Latina, Black and Asian women working in the male dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, are said to encounter “double jeopardy” as they face both race and gender bias.

Katherine W. Phillips, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics and Senior Vice Dean at Columbia University’s Business School, is a co-author of the study “Double Jeopardy Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science. “

She told DiversityInc, “I do think that with the research we’ve done you can certainly see the experiences of women of color in STEM are different than others.”

Phillips and co-authors Joan C. Williams, a Distinguished Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, and Erika V. Hall, an Assistant Professor of Organization and Management at Emory University, conducted detailed interviews with 60 female scientists.

The study states that 100 percent of the women reported they experienced bias and discrimination in the workplace. In addition to the interviews, the authors also surveyed 557 female scientists with the assistance of the Association for Women in Science.

Williams writes in the Harvard Business Review, “My previous research has shown that there are four major patterns of bias women face at work. This new study emphasizes that women of color experience these to different degrees, and in different ways. Black women also face a fifth type of bias.”

Patterns of Bias

The five major patterns of bias and examples of how they can vary by race:

  • Prove-It-Again: participants in the study reported needing to prove themselves over and over again as evidence of competence, especially Black women.
  • Tightrope: walking a tightrope between being seen as either too masculine or too feminine. Asian women encounter more “too feminine” problemsand Black women encounter fewerthan do other women. Asian women more often reported backlash for stereotypically masculine behaviors. Black women have to avoid the “angry Black women” stereotype. Latinas reported that they often were discredited as “angry” or “too emotional” even when they weren’t angry.
  • Maternal wall: affects women of all races as almost two-thirds or 64 percent of the scientists reported running into challenges when entering motherhood.
  • Tug of War: (female rivalry) Black women were far less likely than other groups of women to agree that females were supportive of one another. Latinas were far more likely to report finding it difficult to get administrative support personnel (who are typically women) to support them.
  • Isolation: when women feel that socially engaging with colleagues might damage perceptions of their competence was greatest among Black women, followed by Latinas.

Phillips explained isolation makes the women feel like constant visitors.

“Just imagine feeling like you’re a constant visitor when you work at a place for 40 hours-a-week, more like 60 hours-a-week,” she said. “It’s a very difficult thing to experience. I try very hard, personally, to make sure that I feel like I own the environment that I’m in because some of that is a feeling of empowerment.”

The study also points out that Asians are not “underrepresented minorities” in STEM, and are usually seen as equal in competence to Whites. However, most Asian women interviewed reported experiences similar to those of Latinas and Black women.

“I have felt always underextra scrutiny,” said an Asian woman in astrophysics.

Authors of the study write, “An Asian woman in statistics recalled that she was the only one who had a tenure track position when she finished her program. Despite the fact that she had three publications while her White male colleagues had none, she was told that she had gotten the job because she was a woman.”

Changing the System

Williams noted in her article, though the five major biases toward Latina, Black and Asian women in STEM “reflect stereotypes people may not know they have,” there is also evidence of “old-fashioned” obvious racial stereotypes that persist.

Phillips said the best way to change the system is to interrupt the bias.

“I would hope that women feel empowered enough to know that they’re not crazy,” she said. “What they’re experiencing is not in their heads, but it really is something that they should try to interrupt and change both at the individual level and the system-wide level.”

There are plans to initiate system-wide changes in the U.S., although beginning with the youth. On Monday, President Obama announced $240 million in new pledges to his initiatives toward STEM education, with $90 million dollars allocated to enhance opportunities for underrepresented young people.

Phillips said the “amazing initiative” can also have positive implications for Latina, Black and Asian women who currently work in the STEM fields, as it places a focus on the issue of diversity. She also said she hopes the programs geared toward underrepresented youth will be sure to emphasize female inclusion.

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