This document reports on the challenges faced by women of color in science and outlines selected programs within the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) that address these issues and offers a series of general recommendations that would serve to advance the status of women of color in science. Presented below are two actionable proposals that if implemented will greatly improve the attraction, retention, and career success of women of color in science, especially in academia.
Women of Color in Science – Proposed Action Items
1. Establish a Travel Award Program that will provide funding to support the attendance of women of color at National and Regional Conferences of NOBCChE.
2. Develop and implement a Career Development Program focused on the specific challenges experienced by women of color that can be presented throughout the year to professional and student groups around the country.
Women of Color in Science – Status
The status of women in science has changed measurably over the years since the founding of The National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). This change can be illustrated by the progression seen in the leadership of the NOBCChE organization. NOBCChE resulted from a meeting in April 1972 of an Ad Hoc Committee of seven African American scientists and engineers. All seven of those progressive scientists were also male. However, fast forward to 2012 and note that of the seventeen elected members of the NOBCChE Executive Board, eight are female. However, the representation by women on corporate boards and academic faculties does not mirror that level of improvement. In addition, the challenges faced by all women in science and engineering disciplines are greater for women of color.
Women of Color in Science – Challenges
Historically women of color needed to learn to deal with significant challenges during their academic and professional careers. These challenges include both racial and gender biases, family complexities, and, in general, a feeling of being the only person “who looks like me.” The following testimonies illustrate the challenges faced by women of color in science:
“The offspring from my grandmother is about 120 person, and my cousins are still having children (by the way, I’m done – I have two great children). I mention this to make the point that not one other person in my family has pursued a career in science. Not anyone from my neighborhood or my church. I felt alone early in my educational career. I was a black woman who wanted to study science, yet I was
trapped in a nowhere zone working as a cashier. It was considered a good job. Once in college, I learned about NOBCChE, and it has made the difference for me to learn about other women and men who want to become faculty members, scientists. Now that I have a large NOBCChE family, I feel like I can call on a brother or sister to help guide me. And I do. The NOBCChE network is indispensable. It is ‘ginormous’ in its impact.” V. G., BS, MS, NOBCChE Member
“Although some of my leaders have good intentions, there have been times when my abilities are questioned when my peers are not. I may have done a very thorough explanation, but I am drilled to the ninth degree, whilst my White, male colleague was not drilled as toughly.
“In addition, the quality of my work was far above his. With the same White male colleague, during one troubleshooting session, I suggested a path forward for a particular problem. My comment and I were ignored. But, five minutes later, the White male said the exact same thing and he was almost given a standing ovation. I am not a soft-spoken female nor a very brusque woman, however, they chose to ignore what I had to say. Many times, since, I have been made to feel as though I am invisible. I see that as their problem, not mine. If I didn’t, then I would go insane.
“Once in a discussion with a female associate about permanent make-up, a male co-worker told me that I “should get some of those big plates for my lips and put permanent lipstick on those babies.” I was appalled as his comments were directed at me. I mentioned this inappropriate comment to my supervisor, a White male. He said that I was being too sensitive. So, I am cognizant to ensure that I do not internalize such comments. I have done no wrong although I am made to feel badly.” S. B. PhD, MBA/HRM, NOBCChE Leader
At a recent NOBCChE leadership conference, students and early career professionals raised the question of appropriate appearance for a professional. Since African American women have very different hair and skin types compared to those of their Caucasian counterparts, the hairstyles and the products they use are not the same. It is a significant challenge for a new graduate or young professional to find a fashion style that they feel comfortable wearing and yet that is acceptable to the conventional scientific community. As a final challenge, the minority woman scientist who moves to a new community may find it difficult to find a hairdresser who can manage her hair, and she may not be able to purchase at a local store the products she is used to using in her home community.
Women in general have always juggled their academic and professional activities and the responsibilities and expectations they have as mothers and wives. For African American women, this challenge is even greater because African American culture is matriarchal in nature and typically expects women to contribute the major portion of care to the children and the home. This challenge is even more difficult for the woman who is raising her children as a single mother.
Women of Color in Science – NOBCChE Programs
As an organization, NOBCChE has helped countless women deal with these challenges. NOBCChE is committed to the discovery, transmittal, and application of knowledge in the fields of science and engineering. The mission of NOBCChE therefore is to build an eminent community of scientists and engineers by increasing the number of minorities in these fields. NOBCChE attempts to achieve its mission through diverse programs designed to foster professional development and encourage students to pursue careers in science and technical fields. To this end, NOBCChE has established educational partnerships with school districts, municipalities, businesses, industries, other institutions and organizations in the public and private sectors.
NOBCChE’s first national meeting was held in March 1974 in New Orleans. Dr. William Guillory, one of NOBCChE’s seven founders, was elected the first President at that meeting. The organization has held national meetings every year since then. The national meetings provide opportunities for Black chemists and chemical engineers to discuss issues of significance to their careers, to present technical papers, to mentor high school students, undergraduates, and graduate students in the areas of science and technology, and to present several fellowships to deserving graduate students. The first graduate fellowship was established by the Proctor & Gamble Company in 1976. This was followed in 1980 by the Kodak Fellowship Award and in 1990 by the DuPont Company Fellowship Award. In recent years additional graduate fellowships have been established by GlaxoSmithKline and the Dow Chemical Company. A new joint National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) - University of Maryland – NOBCChE fellowship began in 2007. To date, more than one million dollars have been distributed through these fellowships. In addition, national meetings serve as occasions to recognize professional members through the Percy L. Julian Professional Achievement Award and the Dr. Henry C. McBay Outstanding Teacher Award. Professor McBay, who was one of NOBCChE’s seven founders, taught chemistry at Morehouse College until his death at the age of 80. NOBCChE also administers the Henry A. Hill Lectureship sponsored by the Northeast Section of the American Chemical Society.
Students and professionals who receive these NOBCChE awards and fellowships also receive invaluable NOBCChE support and mentorship. Although much of this mentorship is not and likely cannot effectively be formalized, time and again NOBCChE members comment that the experience of being a part of this organization has helped them in ways that cannot be measured or quantified – “But, if it weren’t for their love of NOBCChE, and the collective love of the entire organization, I can honestly say that I would be pretty shallow, and you could read my thoughts in a femtosecond.” V. G., BS, MS, NOBCChE Member. The opportunity to see, interact with and learn from scientists who “look like me” but who have nonetheless succeeded provides critical encouragement to women of color who are struggling to manage the challenges they are experiencing in their careers.
Included in NOBCChE programs are formal training sessions that are specifically aimed at addressing the challenges faced by women of color in science. For example, the agenda at the NOBCChE Annual Conference for the last several years included a workshop presented by COACh in partnership with NOBCChE. COACh programs are designed to: “Provide training in professional skills for women and minorities in STEM fields. The topics covered are ones not traditionally taught in science and engineering programs and include effective leadership styles and techniques, negotiation and management skills, career advancement strategies, time
management and work-life balance issues, effective communication methods, and preparing for and landing that first job”. (http://coach.uoregon.edu/coach/index.php)
Women of Color in Science – Recommendations
Success in dealing with the challenges faced by women of color in science hinges on education and training for the scientific community and support for the women of color in science. The key to encouraging women of color to be successful in science and engineering is ensuring they get to know other women of color “who look like me” but who have succeeded and, thus, they will know “I can too.”
Members of the scientific community-at-large need to be trained to eliminate discriminatory actions and to improve the atmosphere in the workplace for all employees. The scientific community also should be educated about the cultural differences inherent in different ethnic groups. In general, if the scientific community could be encouraged to recognize, understand, value, and respect the differences of each other, we would all be more effective and successful.
Finally, women of color, as with other “minorities,” need the support that allows them to see and get to know other “people like me” who are successful in their chosen career. Scientific women of color will benefit from the opportunity to know other women scientists of color. The supportive, family-like atmosphere of NOBCChE is critical to helping shape the success of women scientists at all career levels.