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Cut Off at the STEM

News & Features | September 29, 2016

The experience of walking into almost any STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) classroom at Tufts is eerily similar. The seats are primarily filled with cisgender men, the majority of them White. Professors lecturing in the front of the room, TAs and lab assistants, as well as directors of the programs, will most likely also be White men. Though there are a few women scattered around the room, one or two of whom are Black or Brown, they are in the overwhelming minority. The stark reality is that there is a devastating lack of diversity in STEM-related fields, with the roots of this phenomenon originating in the classroom.

Some individuals discredit the diversity that does exist, often attributing it to filling a quota. For instance, Dr. Laney Strange is a White professor who recently joined the Computer Science Faculty and has experienced this insult in her career. “I’ve heard every anti-feminist cliché you can imagine…This is the one that gets under my skin the most, ‘you’re only here because you’re a woman,’” she said. “This is such an insidious comment in this field, because you’re young, insecure, and you’re in a position where you feel like you have to prove yourself and that you belong. When I was young, that would really freak me out, like I didn’t belong and had to work harder than everybody. Now I have confidence and experience, but even still, I heard when I took this job, ‘Oh, they’re just trying to get a woman on Tufts faculty.’”

Almost every underrepresented group in STEM fields faces similar prejudices and biases. However, women of color face a double-bind because they experience biases that neither their male counterparts nor White women will face.

STEM at Tufts is no exception to these biases. Marilyn Allen, a recent Tufts graduate and current PhD student in Chemical Engineering at University of Maryland, explained that she never felt that her intellect was respected during her undergraduate experience as a Black woman in the Tufts Engineering department. “As a Black woman in STEM you are constantly being tested. People want to know how smart you are and if you can prove it or they assume that you are not smart enough and dismiss your ideas immediately,” she said. “As a woman in STEM, you have to learn to have a voice because people will walk over you, but this is especially difficult as a Black woman because you are immediately deemed ‘angry’ or ‘bossy.’”

According to a study conducted by Professor Joan Williams from the Hastings’ Center for WorkLife Law, “In interviews conducted with 60 women of color and 557 women in STEM fields, a full 100% of the women of color reported gender bias [within their STEM professions].” As Fortune Magazine reports, from Williams’ study, “Both Latinas and Black women, who report regularly being mistaken as janitors, and Asian-American women said they felt more pressure to act feminine…and received more pushback when they don’t.” Both Latina and Black women feared fulfilling stereotypes of being “angry and overemotional” if they pushed back on the bias they experience. Racist stereotypes attributed to Black and Latina women are harmful both inside and outside of the classroom.

Though Williams’ study focuses on Black and Latina women, all women of color face these stereotypes and biases. They are often used as qualifiers or control mechanisms for keeping women of color inside a polished box that narrowly defines how they can interact both with their environments and with other people, especially men. Inside the classroom, these perceptions often limit their success. Many aspects of academic performance can be affected, from feeling capable to push back against professors or engaging in conversation with peers.

Whether women of color do choose to reject these stereotypes or not, they are often met with microaggressions from their professors and feelings of inadequacy and dismissal.                   Junior Nihaarika Sharma, a South Asian biology student, tells the story of responding to a question posed in the lecture hall. Despite speaking up and giving the correct answer, her professor completely dismissed her. “When a White male classmate of mine said the exact same thing, he responded with ‘yes exactly!’” These instances are not rare and contribute to the atmosphere of isolation that many women of color in STEM feel.

Junior Morgan Freeman, a mixed-race Black woman, entered Tufts as a Computer Science major after partaking in three years of a high school computer science program called Women in Technology. In the bimonthly program, Freeman was introduced to coding and completed multiple projects, all of which promoted women being involved in the field. However, when taking Intro to Computer Science at Tufts, she felt with each lecture that her presence was not welcome. Though the concepts and C++ language were not new to her, Freeman states that the more she went to class and lectures, the less confident she felt in her abilities. “I was so frustrated because how can I be bad at something I’ve been doing for three years…and be taking this class with people, especially a lot of White men, who’ve never been exposed to computer science before and were thriving in this environment.”

These feelings of inferiority and questioning one’s belonging can be summed up by the theory of Imposter Syndrome: the idea that you think you don’t belong in a space, even if you do. The effects can undermine one’s validation as well as degrade their sense of self-worth. “You think you’re an imposter even if, by all outside views, you are qualified and a part of it,” said Senior Sibonay Koo, an Asian American in Computer Science. “It’s pretty common in tech in general and in computer science, but especially among minorities. You continue doing it, but you feel like you never deserve what you have. You think you’re doing badly even if you’re doing fine in the class,” she said.

When Koo was taking Computer Science 40, a notoriously demanding computer science class, she was convinced that she was stupid and had lost her grasp of the material. Her first instincts were to blame herself, the time off when she went abroad, or what she believed to be her lack of intelligence. Instead, she came to the realization that her male partners in class were doing the majority of the coding and ignoring her ideas. It took her time to convince herself that she was not, in fact, an imposter or unintelligent, but that she was not being given equal opportunities and an equal voice in the classroom.

Even beyond the classroom, the homogeneity of STEM fields is creating an often hostile and violent environment for women of color. Audrey Chu, who is a survivor of sexual assault, depression, attempted suicide, and is currently an electrical engineering student, was a woman of color in the Computer Science department who eventually left Tufts after facing a lack of university support. She described an experience she had in Halligan, the primary computer science building, where she and a Black peer were talking about critical social issues together while finishing a project. She said, “Halfway through talking, a White man interrupted us to share, ‘Damn, Audrey is opinionated!’ and I looked around to see a lab of white men laughing at me, an Asian woman, and a Black man.”

Granted, certain attempts are being made to make spaces more accessible and open for women of color at Tufts. Kristin Finch, the Associate Director of STEM Diversity at Tufts, explained that Tufts has many active projects working to improve inclusion and diversity for marginalized identities in STEM. As a Black woman in this field, she examines the importance of not only recruiting women of color into STEM, but also retaining them—this is much of the work that STEM Diversity at Tufts strives to do. There are many initiatives, including STEM Ambassadors who connect female, minority, and first-generation college students to high school classrooms fostering conversations about their experiences in STEM. BEST (Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts) and PRISE (Promoting Retention In Science and Engineering) are other examples, supporting first generation STEM students through their first and second years at Tufts by exposing them to research, helping them network and doing weekly check-ins. These programs are intended to support underrepresented students and help them feel safe within the fields. Finch stresses the importance of this support, and emphasizes that it starts early. “I think the image of what Science and Engineering is in the media doesn’t show diversity, so marginalized students from a young age don’t feel connected and see themselves in science and engineering,” she said. “I think it’s really important to emphasize that science and engineering is for women, it is for people of color, it is for people who are low income or first generation college students.”

Marilyn Allen describes the STEM pipeline as a place “where Black and Latino students enter STEM fields, or think about entering STEM fields, but eventually quit.” The lack of the inclusive space not only blocks women of color from these spaces, but also creates an environment where they feel like they cannot succeed, and they often change their focus to more inclusive and validating fields. However, she believes that STEM fields at Tufts contribute to this pipeline, and that Tufts needs greater investment in students of color, especially women of color, in these programs to continue pushing for the already existing programs to reach more students and be more comprehensive. Allen, in addition to Koo and Freeman, believes that with greater support from the university, more women of color would stay in STEM. “I think there could be a support group for women of color. If that had existed, I’m sure I wouldn’t have quit so easily.”