Voices in Education

35 Years After The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science
In December 1975, thirty Native American, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Black American women met under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). These minority women (this is the term they used to describe themselves) in science, engineering, medicine, and dentistry met to “discuss their unique position as the most underrepresented and probably over selected group in the scientific disciplines” (Malcom, Hall, & Brown, 1975, p. ix).

This was the first meeting on record of minority women in the pure and applied sciences—in a wide range of disciplines from aerospace physics to zoology. They were diverse in age, experience, background, and culture. Despite this diversity, they articulated a common tie that linked them: “the double oppression of sex and race or ethnicity, plus the third oppression in the chosen career, science” (p. ix). Hence the title of the report of the meeting, The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.

In the preface to the conference report William D. Carey, executive officer of the AAAS, noted that while minority women scientists had participated on every panel, conference, and committee of the AAAS’s Office of Opportunities in Science, and their concerns had ostensibly been included in all activities undertaken on behalf of either minorities or women, “it had gradually become apparent [that]… the special problems peculiar to minority women scientists never were addressed” (p. vii). He continued, “the minority women were, in fact, falling somewhere in between the funded efforts to improve science opportunities for minorities and efforts to advance women in science” (p. vii). This conference was the AAAS’s first attempt to give serious attention to the experience of women of color in science.

There in 1975, at the outset of what was to be an historic meeting of minority women scientists, the executive officer of the AAAS identified the major flaw in existing efforts to foster diversity in science. Despite existing policies of inclusion, the unique problems of minority women scientists had never been addressed. There was little information available on their status in science and there was virtually no literature that could advise institutions on the nature of their problems or possible remedies.

The conference was chaired by the African American biomedical researcher and educator Jewel Plummer Cobb, who was at the time a recent appointee to the National Science Board. Cobb noted what brought these women together: “Science careers in the context of gender and race or ethnic bias have been a major part of our lives, setting us apart at every turn. Now we could address ourselves to the reasons for our small numbers, relative invisibility, and exclusion from mainstream science” (p. ix).

This radical statement, serious in tone and unflinching in its assessment of the barriers faced by women of color in science has yet to be understood more than thirty years later. The statement laid out what many had tried to avoid confronting—that minority women scientists saw their careers in part as existing in a context of gender, race, and ethnic bias. It was this bias that set them apart from their colleagues; it was this bias that produced their isolation within science. Furthermore, they acknowledged that only by producing a collective narrative of their experiences could they begin to examine the reasons for their small numbers, their relative invisibility, and their ultimate exclusion from mainstream science. While only thirty women attended this meeting, they were drawn from a pool of about two hundred minority women scientists, engineers, and medical researchers who had been nominated by their colleagues. Those chosen recognized the “monumental” barriers they had overcome while also expressing concern for the hundreds of thousands of minority women who had been, “excluded or systematically ‘tracked’ out of the pool of potential scientific and technological human power (their term)” (p. 2)

With a profoundly optimistic spirit, these women believed that by articulating the issues that had undermined the pursuit of [their] careers in science and engineering and hampered or prevented the careers of of others like them, they could make a different future. They felt that most of their negative experiences were due to unconscious acts on the part of those in the scientific mainstream. If only their colleagues could internalize the experiences and recommendations discussed at this conference, the current system, which produced so few minority women scientists, could be reversed. And the situation for all women would change for the better.

These women were not feminists and the word is not used in their report, but they did profess a commitment to other women of color while distancing themselves from a women’s movement they described as oriented toward the concerns of white middle- and upper-class women, and one that did not address itself to the issues faced by minority women (p.3). The attendees held a nuanced and quite sophisticated view of the ways in which racism and sexism had affected them; they argued that racism was clearly evident in their early years in primary and secondary educational settings. Sexism had gradually superseded racism as they advanced through graduate and professional school and into the working world (p.3). All the while though, many of the attendees could recall instances that could have been brought about by race or gender bias or both. They noted: “it becomes difficult if not impossible to determine which ‘ism’ [was] in force”—and ultimately the distinction didn’t matter because, as they put it, “both hurt” (p. 3). And this, they argued, was the “nature and the essence of the double bind” (p. 3).

Yet, this report, while widely cited in the literature on women in science, has had limited influence in the field at large and certainly did not have the impact that the participants hoped it would. By and large, few analysts, policy makers, or educators have been able to do what the conference attendees asked for: take the recommendations of this group and turn it into policy. That is, to take seriously that the experiences of women of color in science and engineering should be understood as reflecting troubling aspects of scientific and technical cultures that have to be actively and consistently addressed in order for the participation of women from these groups to increase. Perhaps one of the limitations of the Double Bind report was its impersonal quality. The report represents the collective voice of the group—an attempt at giving the experiences of the individuals in the group a legitimacy that their individual stories could not gain. A consequence of relegating race, gender, and ethnicity to the margins of analyses of scientific communities is that we fail to fully describe and articulate the structures of social relations within scientific communities.

To conclude, my point is that by not attending to the specific experiences of women in color in science and engineering and by maintaining practices that expound identity as “woman” or “person of color” as an either/or proposition, we have relegated the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling. And in the process, we have hindered reform efforts in science and engineering that would allow us as a nation to make the best use of the talent of all of our citizens who desire to do this work.

Malcom, S. M., Hall, P. Q., & Brown, J. W. (1975). The double bind: The price of being a minority woman in science. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This blog supplements the Harvard Educational Review's symposium commemorating the 35th anniversary of the publication of the Double Bind report, a seminal work that focused on the intersection of race and gender in science. The first blog post, by Dr. Evelynn Hammonds, examines the history made by this report as well as its largely unrealized promise. A second post, by Dr. Muriel Poston, articulates ten policy recommendations to support women of color in the science field, will be posted in the coming weeks.

About the Author: Evelynn M. Hammonds, PhD is the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies and Dean of Harvard College.