The conference included a panel of four women of color who are currently at different stages along the academic pathway. These women articulated a subset of the core issues for women of color in STEM disciplines, from postdoc to dean. They embodied the unique challenges and opportunities experienced by women of color and the resilience of women of color in the face of often unspoken positive and negative experiences.
POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH FELLOW
Tamisha Vaughn, postdoctoral research fellow from the School of Medicine at Emory University, discussed her experiences in and leading up to the postdoctoral stage in her career path. Vaughn received a bachelor of science degree from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina; participated in a post-bachelor program and received her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech; and is currently in a postdoctoral position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Early in her college career she planned a path to medical school, but turned toward a research career in immunology after a successful internship with her mentor, a postdoctoral researcher in microbiology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Vaughn expressed strong agreement about the value of young women observing more advanced women scientists and the positive influence that this has in encouraging students to pursue scientific careers.
Vaughn described the dramatic drop in levels of support for scholars who are women of color between the Ph.D. training period and the postdoctoral phase. Vaughn had been active in programs for minority support in high school, college, and graduate school; however, at the postdoctoral level such organized support ceased to exist. She and her postdoctoral colleagues realized that they would need to take action to obtain the mentoring they needed to successfully navigate the postdoctoral phase and the transition to a faculty position, prompting Vaughn to lead the formation of a Minority Postdoctoral Council. The members of the council hail from a wide range of departments across the university, around the city of Atlanta, and beyond. This network provides mutual assistance for a variety of professional activities, including preparing for job interviews and writing a research plan for major universities.
Vaughn gave her perspective on the reasons for low numbers of women of color in faculty positions, describing the daunting prospects seen by her and other postdocs. In the postdoctoral phase, where researchers are typically faced with five to six years of heavy workloads accompanied by low pay and a very difficult, uncertain path to a tenure-track job, this path must compete with science and engineering jobs in industry that are well paying and offer a more reasonably balanced workload. Vaughn called for stronger mentorship among women of
18 This session was moderated by Joan Bennett, professor of plant biology and pathology, Rutgers University, and member, Committee on Advancing Institutional Transformation for Minority Women in Academia.
color—passing the torch. She emphasized that it is critical that women’s successes in the sciences be made visible to postdoctoral fellows, who critically need role models who have successfully arrived in advanced positions in academia in order to remain committed to that path themselves.
Patricia Taboada-Serrano, assistant professor in chemical and biomedical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, received her bachelor’s degree in Bolivia and master’s degree in Venezuela, completed her Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and did postdoctoral work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Taboada-Serrano’s remarks focused on the importance of mentorship and institutional climate and culture.
She described the importance to women of color and other women of having strong mentors during the period when they are pursuing job interviews and selecting the institution where they will spend, at the very least, the early years of their career. She noted the importance of having mentors who provide guidance to talented women scientists on what questions to ask at institutions whose faculty they are considering joining, how to identify the characteristics of institutional climates in which they will thrive, and how to determine whether a potential institution has those characteristics.
Regarding university culture and climate, Taboada-Serrano stressed the importance of a woman of color understanding the culture and climate of the institution overall and her prospective department in particular. Job candidates must ask what their rights and resources are and must negotiate for what they need in terms, for example, of the tenure clock and family care policies. Job candidates need also to examine prospective institutions’ research cultures. As research becomes increasingly collaborative, junior women scientists need to ensure that their institution’s research climate is collaborative and that they will find outstanding collaborators in research areas allied with their own.
Taboada-Serrano called for senior women of color to actively offer their experience to the next generation of scholars and researchers. She envisioned a network—most likely online—where experienced women contribute their experience and offer guidance to the new talent rising through the ranks.
Gilda Barabino, professor of biomedical engineering and associate chair for graduate studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology spoke on her experience over the course of her career thus far. Barabino received her bachelor’s degree from Xavier University in chemistry and her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Rice University. Upon receiving her doctorate in 1986, Barabino was the fifth female African-American Ph.D. chemical engineer in the U.S. She joined the faculty of Northeastern University in 1989 and was the only African-American woman in a tenure-track position in chemical engineering in the country at that time.
Barabino emphasized the importance of context, notably the specific contexts that exist along the entire career pathway that includes the individual, the institution, and the interactions between them. She related common experiences of women of color in academia, approaching them from several directions. Her own research on sickle cell anemia was a subject chosen because she aimed to contribute to the African-American community, and she described
knowing many other women of color who have made similar research choices in an effort to give back to society. She also acknowledged the invisibility felt by many women of color in academia, relating their experiences to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man19.
Barabino put her remarks in the context of the academy and its origins, and emphasized the usefulness for women of color of understanding this history. She noted that the academy was founded by people who were not women of color and did not share the experiences, knowledge, or responsibilities of women of color, and that the academy therefore did not evolve as a system designed for their survival or success.
Barabino discussed the fruitfulness of cross-disciplinary research. She co-leads an NSF-sponsored program. Cross-Disciplinary Initiative for Minority Women Faculty, which engages social scientists who study women of color in the sciences and engineering, and helps educate women of color about the unspoken assumptions and norms of academia. Their ultimate goal is to shift the conversation from one of survival to one of thriving. Barabino concluded with a quote from Audre Lorde, calling on women of color to be forces for change: “As women we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change.”
Evelynn Hammonds, dean of Harvard College at Harvard University, spoke on the retention of outstanding faculty and the importance of institutional culture as well as resources provided to individual faculty. She began with an example of an outstanding woman scientist of color who left her tenure-track position at Harvard in favor of an institution whose climate and culture would provide the support she needed. Hammonds raised this as a case of the failure of mentoring programs that are not consistent or comprehensive, and she called for analysis of how, when, and why mentoring works and how, when, and why mentoring fails.
Hammonds remarked on the career trajectories of Nobel Prize winners, noting that for every individual, the presence of a mentor—often more than one—at every point on the pathway was critical to their success. She noted that she herself has benefited greatly from mentors along her own career path but that many women of color lack this critical support.
Hammonds expressed the view that we have failed in our measurement and analysis. She expressed great appreciation for the data presented in the first session of the conference, and she spoke to the problem of small sample sizes and the need to collect nuanced information about the experiences of women of color in academia. She pointed out that the problem is not a fear among women of color of being identified, but rather a fear of retribution. Hammonds urged the development of better metrics to describe the experiences of women of color, highlighting the need for deeper analyses of climate, causes, and context. She specified that the relevant contexts are both of individuals in their local contexts and of departments and institutions.
Universities have an economic imperative to provide an environment in which their faculty, in whom they have invested heavily, will thrive. Hammonds called on provosts and deans to provide leadership, keeping faculty on track with the goals and values of the institution. This imperative is not only one of values but is also economic. Investment in a new tenure-track faculty member is great, and for an institution not to support that individual’s success within the institution is economically foolhardy. To support the outstanding researchers who have been brought onto the faculty is to maximize the department’s and university’s research dollars.
19 Ellison, Ralph. 1952. Invisible Man. New York, NY: Random House.
Hammonds also addressed the climate in academia for students of color, saying that it is well known that these students receive, on average, less attention and support from faculty, with the result that many talented students in science, engineering, technology, and medicine do not see a place for themselves in the academic world where their contributions will be fully embraced. Consequently, many of them choose alternative paths, and their creativity is lost to the nation’s STEM workforce in academia. She urged deans to hold faculty accountable for making sure that all talented STEM students succeed. She urged decision makers in academia not to delay taking action simply because the numbers in our existing data sets are small, stressing that institutions have the information they need to take action now.