STEM Queens: Breaking the Double Bind
“At every point during my career and education, when I wanted to go a different way, I had a strong Black woman who was like ‘get your behind back in STEM.’ And that is exactly what I’m trying to be for the next generation of young ladies.”
Racism and sexism lurk in the shadows of scientific and technical fields. Despite efforts to combat prejudices against minority women, a foundational report by Dr. Shirley Malcolm supported by the National Science Foundation from 1976 defines the issues facing minority women stating, “they have traditionally been excluded because of biases related to both their race or ethnicity and gender, constituting a double bind.” While documentaries like “Picture a Scientist” and the forthcoming “Coded Bias” tackle sexism and racism respectively, Black women are acutely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Black women are approximately 7 % of the US population but less than 2% of scientists and engineers, according to 2014–15 data from the National Science Foundation. Research has shown that bias and discrimination are key factors in the acute underrepresentation of Black woman. Dr. Shirley Malcolm is the voice loudly calling for diversity in STEM and also the Whitney Houston as fairy godmother to my Brandy as Cinderella. A foundational report from 1976 by Dr. Malcolm and colleagues, supported by the National Science Foundation defines a term for the issue facing minority women in STEM stating, “they have traditionally been excluded because of biases related to both their race or ethnicity and gender, constituting a double bind.”
The Malcolm report recognizes that the double bind is supported by stereotypes; “built, reinforced and destroyed by books … and especially by television and direct observation.” The film Hidden Figures uniquely touches on the intersectional issues black women face in STEM, albeit carefully to ensure commercial success with mainstream audiences. In Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson’s unparalleled math skills elevate her to the elite NASA team supporting the critical mission to put a man in space. As she looks in wonder at her new modern and expansive workspace, a coworker mistakes her for the janitor. Katherine blazing new trails to the forefront of her professional field still shoulders discrimination issues related to gender and race. I identify personally with this scene as black women in STEM because at every job that I had in the first ten years of my career, I have been asked if I am the new administrative assistant. Furthermore, I noted it as a pleasant shift in bias when I was mistaken for the information technology support person in a more recent job change.
I don’t remember any other television show or film program that featured Black women in STEM. Even though documentaries “Picture a Scientist” and “Coded Bias” deftly tackle gender and race issues, respectively, they only depict the side effect of being either Black or a Woman in STEM. And while that is needed, what’s missing is the retelling of our stories. The Malcolm Report suggests “the presentation of new images in programming and advertising,” in order to increase participation of minority women in STEM. Even more compelling is Dr. Malcolm’s call to action: attack “prejudice that exists.”
My personal journey coupled with my deep desire to support young women who share similar paths to STEM inspires me to enter the war for the minds of young black women. It also inspired me to create STEM Queens, a web series that highlights Black women in STEM. In this show, we provide examples to challenge biases about who can succeed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It is my purpose-driven journey and the unique, soul-fulfilling way that I am changing the world of STEM. Black women (in STEM) will no longer be hidden.
STEM Queens premieres Monday, March 2, 2021 at 10 AM ET on YouTube.
ABOUT DR. J’TIA HART
As a 15-year-old freshman at Florida State University and a former contestant on CBS’ Survivor, J’Tia has always challenged herself. Now she’s turned her attention to serving as a spark to ignite young minds and increase minority participation in STEM. Dr. Hart holds a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and a master’s and doctoral degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their two children — a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, whom she is grooming to become globe-trotting, well-read Nobel Laureates with flawless fashion sense.