Black women in STEM institutional racism STEM workplace discrimination
Confessions of a Black Woman Who No Longer Works in the STEM Fields4/15/2015
by Jenn M. Jackson I am a Black woman who is no longer in the STEM fields, but it isn’t for the reasons you may be thinking. Growing up,...
by Jenn M. Jackson
I am a Black woman who is no longer in the STEM fields, but it isn’t for the reasons you may be thinking.
Growing up, I frequently disassembled and reassembled electronics around the house and while my mother was frustrated at first, she soon relented. My interest in the inner workings of household gadgets were a part of my larger interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Though the tinkering I did at home prepared me for the education I would later receive in a top-notch engineering program, there just wasn’t anything out there to prepare me for the racism and isolation I would feel during college and in my STEM career. But it wasn’t just the discrimination on-the-job that convinced me to move out of STEM fields and into the social sciences. I chose to become an ex Black woman in STEM because the privilege my job granted left me feeling complicit in larger systems of racial exclusion in the United States.
Many have detailed the marginalizing treatment Black women in STEM fields face at work, and in academic settings. Most focus on: 1) the very low numbers of diverse faces in the fields; and 2) the discrimination they inevitably face. When describing the pressures these women feel, STEM advocate DNLee notes, “The problem comes from repressing myself even in the face of injustice or crying out when I am completely justified.” It was that sense of being restrained and restricted that drove me to question my long-term motivations in sticking with STEM work.
I, too, had negative experiences as an engineering student and STEM professional in California. In college, I was often encouraged by faculty and peers to leave my major for something easier. Once I started my first job, I was co-opted, accused of making things too “technical,” and excluded from social circles by my mostly White peers. And, later, when I moved into a financial position, I was frequently exploited for my experience with code and database modeling but never paid a premium for those skills. The greatest obstacle I faced was feeling as though my being in that space wasn’t really making a difference in larger issues of institutional racism.
Some have argued that the best way to combat these feelings of isolation many young women in STEM feel is through encouraging more women to move into STEM fields as role models. To them, just seeing other women in STEM helps to offset the stereotypes these girls endure. But, for me, that just wasn’t enough.
As issues of race and racism continued to boil over across the country, I felt insulated and partially complicit in a system which privileges "respectable" Blacks over others. When then Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president, I remember not feeling as though I was allowed to discuss the importance of that moment with white coworkers, even though they had plenty to say about it themselves. When Oscar Grant’s murder was made into the movie Fruitvale Station, I struggled with having grown up in Oakland yet not being able to discuss my closeness to the violence there for fear of seeming too different from my peers.
Inside my predominantly white STEM bubble, I was agonizing over the discord between the “respectable” contortion exercise I performed 50 hours per week and the real life issues that affected my friends and family, and—whether I realized it or not—myself. My presence in that space wasn’t actually changing minds, if anything, it was insulating me in ways I didn’t like. I was becoming a “token” in a system which requires that Blacks in STEM be seen and not heard. Increasingly, the idea of encouraging young Black women and girls to go into STEM education and work felt like a valiant lie.
For me, moving into higher education and performing research in Black Politics meant I could employ my mathematical skills while advocating for the larger Black community. I realized that I could do more for young women and girls who are interested in STEM from the outside. By teaching them that these fields will value their productivity over their individuality, their credentials rather than their interests, and their output more than their input, I am connecting their STEM goals to the racially-tense world we live in.
While some have expressed disappointment in me for “giving up” on important work in STEM, I emphasize that the work I do now is even more important. Rather than waiting on issues of discrimination to get better in STEM education and professions, I am working to ensure that these issues are better for all of us. Hence, I am an ex Black woman in STEM but I am still empowering #BlackandSTEM women leaders of tomorrow.
That, to me, makes my experiences worth all the hassle.
Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.