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Gender, Racial Biases Pushing Women out of the Sciences

While efforts to narrow the gender gap in science target young girls, a report from the Harvard Business Review finds that gender biases in the workplace may be a greater barrier to getting more women into the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

In the report, author Joan Williams refutes the idea that the low number of women in STEM is primarily a pipeline issue and that getting more girls interested in the sciences and related fields at an earlier age will eventually result in higher numbers of women scientists later on. Instead, in interviews and surveys with more than 600 women, she and her co-authors found gender biases that play out in the workplace on a daily basis may be pushing women scientists out.  

The authors had previously found major patterns of bias: having to prove their competence over and again; walking a tightrope between being too feminine and too masculine; having their commitment to their careers and their competency questioned after they started families; and navigating sometimes difficult relationships with other women scientists who may have faced gender bias. 

In the current report, they say that women of color experience these biases to different degrees and in different ways. In particular, the workplace for black and Latina women scientists may be especially debilitating, the authors found. For example, while two-thirds of all respondents said they had "their successes discounted [and] their expertise questioned" and had to continually prove their scientific chops, three-fourths of black women scientists said they encountered such bias, the report says. 

Black and Latinas also said they have to navigate racial stereotypes on the job. "Black and Latina women are particularly at risk for being seen as angry" if they were assertive, outspoken, direct, or competitive, the report says. A biologist said that after her department chair once "angrily told her 'Don't talk to me like that,'" she felt as if she had "'to put cotton candy in my mouth.'" 

A cancer biologist said that she stopped herself from getting "too animated in lab meetings, lest she trigger the "'angry black woman'" stereotype," the report says, while another biologist who also is black reported that an advisor once asked her if she had any family members who were doing drugs or were in jail. 

The study also says that 48 percent of black women and 47 percent of Latinas reported having been mistaken for administrative or custodial staff, compared to 32 percent of white women scientists and 23 percent of Asian-Americans. 

Black and Latina women scientists further said they often felt isolated in their workplace. On the question, "I feel that socially engaging with my colleagues may negatively affect perceptions of my competence," 42 percent of black women said they agree, while 38 percent of Latinas agreed, 37 percent of Asian-Americans agreed, and 32 percent of white women answered in the affirmative. 

In their interviews, Williams and her co-authors added, black women took particular note of the phenomenon. One microbiologist told the authors that she's been left out of events because her colleagues think she will be the only black person there, and it would be better to leave her out, rather than put her in an uncomfortable position. 

"'You don't know who you can trust,'" she told the authors. "'This has been a very lonely life.'"