Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2011 Issue »

    Symposium: Unraveling the Double Bind

    Women of Color in STEM

    Editors of the Harvard Educational Review
    Unraveling the Double BindIn 1976, the challenges faced by women of color who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields were first brought to national attention by Shirley M. Malcom, Paula Hall, and Janet Brown in a report titled The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science. In its foreword, Jewel Plummer Cobb, member of the National Science Board and adviser to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote:

    A small but significant meeting of thirty scientists took place in December 1975. The specialness of this meeting was that for the first time in America, minority women in science, engineering, medicine and dentistry met together to discuss their unique position as the most underrepresented and probably overselected group in the scientific disciplines. Although this group of women came from . . . a wide range of ages and experiences and diverse backgrounds and cultures, we shared a common bond; and a special and warm sense of sisterhood sprang from this. Generation gaps did not divide us, nor did our varied vocations, nor our cultural diversity. The common ties were those of the double oppression of sex and race or ethnicity plus the third oppression in the chosen career, science. (p. ix)
    Thirty-five years later, in 2011, what is the status of women of color in STEM fields? What have we learned about the experiences of these women, and how have our institutions and policies responded to the social inequities that have produced differential participation in these fields? What consciousness, corrective measures, and change—as called for by the 1976 report—have we achieved?

    At a recent symposium intended to once again gather women of color studying and working in STEM, organizer Maria Ong (2010) summarized the state of research on this population:

    We found many, many dissertations. When I asked my researcher to find out how many had been published, what they had published, the answer came back as zero. I asked somebody else to do the same research; the answer came back as zero. There’s not a knowledge gap. It’s a serious gap in publishing, in being able to get the word out. (p. 13)
    The pages of the Harvard Educational Review (HER) reflect this publication problem. From 1976 to 2010, HER has published only sixteen articles that relate specifically to women of color in higher education or minority participation in STEM. None of these articles addressed this unique intersection—the “double oppression of sex and race or ethnicity plus the third oppression in the chosen career, science.” The intersection of race and gender in STEM highlights the disparity in levels of achievement of women of color when compared to white women or to men of color, especially at the most advanced levels.

    In this issue, HER commits to getting the word out. In commemoration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Double Bind, and in the spirit of enacting HER’s mission to provide a forum to discuss the field of education’s most pressing issues, we present our own symposium, focusing on the experiences of women of color in STEM at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We contribute to the knowledge base on women of color in STEM and bring this issue to light for our readers; in doing so, we hope to be a catalyst for conversation and change.

    This symposium comes at a unique time in the national dialogue about STEM. Due to changes in the labor market over the last thirty years, postsecondary education is an increasingly important component in becoming a full-fledged participant, economically and civically, in American society. In this changing economic structure, STEM fields are among the occupations whose growth will require increasing numbers of college graduates and whose workers will benefit from these increasing payoffs (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010). Yet, as is documented throughout this symposium, the production of STEM graduates in the United States remains starkly behind other parts of the developed world; on the recent Programme for International Student Assessment, the average American student performed below the international average in mathematics (Robelen, 2011, p. 14).

    Given these economic and educational realities, it is no surprise that this issue has gained prominence in President Barack Obama’s federal policy agenda. Some are calling the president’s prominent focus on STEM this generation’s Sputnik (Robelen, 2010, p. 1). Although increasing the numbers of graduates in STEM fields is often linked to America’s continued economic prosperity, this is not the only issue at stake. Recent reports have lamented the rates at which universities retain women and minorities in STEM fields (Hill, Corbett, & Rose, 2010; Koenig, 2009). Indeed, there are long-standing issues of equity with respect to the achievement of women and students of color in STEM fields, and these concerns are as valid as any call to action based on America’s economic prospects. Yet these reports, in their calls for increased attention and greater equity, treat these women of color discretely; it is either an issue of race and ethnicity or gender. Thirty-five years after The Double Bind, research on this issue has not evolved in ways that allow us to fully understand and communicate the unique ways that race, ethnicity, and gender intersect in the experiences of these students.

    But, as is demonstrated by much of the scholarship presented in this symposium, some researchers have already begun to change this discourse. As the proportion of Hispanic and Latina/o students in higher education grows, scholars are investigating their experiences in STEM fields (Dowd, Malcom, & Macias, 2010; Malcom, Dowd, & Yu, 2010). Other reports have questioned our assumptions about how and why women and women of color are underrepresented in STEM fields (Ceci & Williams, 2011; Riegle-Crumb & King, 2010). Even the aforementioned connection between STEM graduates and our national economy has come into question (Morgan, 2010). Lastly, scholars have sought out innovative ways to improve the performance of women in STEM fields, such as a recent well-publicized study on the effects of value affirmation on student performance (Miyake, Kost-Smith, Finkelstein, Pollock, Cohen, & Itol, 2010). It is with this symposium that the editors of HER seek to push the field of education’s thinking about the experiences and successes of women of color in STEM fields further in order to better understand how they succeed in today’s postsecondary education landscape.

    Our symposium opens with “Double Bind: The Next Generation,” in which Shirley Malcom (primary author of the original Double Bind study) and daughter, Lindsey Malcom, reflect on how the experiences of women of color in STEM have changed in many ways over the last thirty-five years and how, in many ways, they have not. They write that “the next-generation women, the Double Bind Daughters, face different challenges from those faced by their mothers. Now it is less about rights versus wrongs and more about support versus neglect; less about the behavior of individuals and a culture that was accepting of bias as the ‘natural order of things’ and more about the responsibilities and action (or inaction) of institutions” (p. 163). This represents, in part, a shift from the one-tracked “leaky pipeline” frame to the “multiple pathways” into STEM fields approach. While programs of higher education in STEM have seen a growth in the representation of women of color, successful completion of such programs continues to be a concern.

    In “Inside the Double Bind,” Maria Ong, Carol Wright, Lorelle Espinosa, and Gary Orfield provide a much-needed synthesis of empirical research produced over the last forty years, highlighting the variety of factors that support or challenge underrepresented minority women in STEM undergraduate and graduate programs. Their findings reveal that existing initiatives, while seeking to serve women or minority groups, may not be effectively serving minority women—the double bind. The authors confirm that lack of interest in STEM attributed to women of color is indeed a myth and that their potential contributions are unrealized. The authors recommend that institutional policy and practice should intentionally support the advancement of underserved populations in science and engineering through engagement in rigorous research, student-faculty mentoring relationships, and access to professional development and publishing opportunities. In addition, states should have transfer policies between two- and four-year institutions. Finally, a recommendation for researchers is to disaggregate data on women of color in STEM to further understand how the intersection of race and gender manifests in different subfields.

    In “Pipelines and Pathways,” Lorelle Espinosa explores the factors in women’s precollege backgrounds, such as academic preparation and exposure to research, and college experiences that contribute to their persistence as STEM majors. Her findings suggest that these women’s experiences in their university environments are more influential than their prior experiences in high school, thus highlighting the crucial role of undergraduate institutional climate. Espinosa’s quantitative study sheds light on the role of faculty and peer interactions, pedagogy, and college selectivity, among other factors, in STEM persistence. Additionally, she explores these trends across racial and ethnic groups.

    While Espinosa’s study looks only at women who fit the traditional profile of a college student enrolled in a four-year institution directly after graduating from high school, Marie-Elena Reyes investigates the experiences of women of color who transfer from community colleges to a four-year institution, an increasingly common path for STEM majors. In “Unique Challenges,” Reyes finds that women of color who transfer feel that their new institutions signal to them that they do not belong because of their age, ethnicity, and gender, as well as because of preconceptions that transfer students are not adequately prepared or are not “high-quality students.” Reyes recommends transition programs that support transfer students in their new environment, provide research experience, and meet funding needs.

    As the findings from these empirical studies suggest, institutional action—and inaction—can contribute to the educational experiences and retention of women of color in STEM programs. But we must also remember the importance of resilience. In describing the obstacles and challenges of their undergraduate and graduate environments, the women in these studies also tell a story of motivation, strength, and talent. The authors and women featured in these articles offer successful strategies to navigate through and persist in STEM education.

    The articles that form this symposium serve to reignite the collective sense of mission born in 1976, as stated by Jewel Plummer Cobb: “Our mission at this meeting was clear. We wanted to find out how and why we had made it and others had been left behind; how our sisters had handled personal and societal problems from childhood until the present” (Malcom et al., 1976, p. ix). This mission must be sustained by educators, educational researchers, and policy makers who believe that the opportunity to pursue an education and career in STEM should belong equally to all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender.

    The thirty-fifth anniversary of The Double Bind is an occasion to celebrate and honor the women of color who came together to acknowledge and address inequities in the science community. It is also an occasion to expand this original sisterhood, to broaden our own perspectives and knowledge about the differential attainment of success in STEM, and to commit to unraveling the double bind these women face.

    Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2010). Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education requirements though 2018. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

    Ceci, S. J., & Williams, W. M. (2011). Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States of America [Advance online publication]. doi: 0.1073/pnas.1014871108

    Dowd, A. C., Malcom, L. E., & Macias, E. E. (2010). Improving transfer access to STEM bachelor’s degrees at Hispanic serving institutions through the America COMPETES Act. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

    Hill, C., Corbett, C., & Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and math. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

    Koenig, R. (2009). Minority retention rates in science are a sore spot for most universities. Science, 324(5933), 1386–1387.

    Malcom, L. E., Dowd, A. C., & Yu, T. (2010). Tapping HSI-STEM funds to improve Latina and Latino access to the STEM professions. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

    Malcom, S., Hall, P., & Brown, J. (1976). The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L. E., Finkelstein, N. D., Pollock, S. J., Cohen, G. L., & Itol, T. A. (2010). Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234–1237.

    Morgan, J. (2010, August 26). Questioning value of science degrees. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/08/26/stem

    Ong, M. (2010). The minisymposium on women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM): A summary of events, findings and suggestions. Cambridge, MA: TERC.

    Riegle-Crumb, C., & King, B. (2010). Questioning a white male advantage in STEM: Examining disparities in college major by gender and race/ethnicity. Educational Researcher, 39(9), 656–664.

    Robelen, E. W. (2010, October 29). Obama plays cheerleading role for STEM Education. Education Week, 30(10), 1.

    Robelen, E. W. (2011, January 12). High achievers scarce in math, science in U.S. Education Week, 30(15), 14.

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    Summer 2011 Issue


    Symposium: Unraveling the Double Bind
    Women of Color in STEM
    Editors of the Harvard Educational Review
    The Double Bind
    The Next Generation
    Lindsey E. Malcom and Shirley M. Malcom
    Inside the Double Bind
    A Synthesis of Empirical Research on Undergraduate and Graduate Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
    Maria Ong, Carol Wright, Lorelle L. Espinosa, and Gary Orfield
    Pipelines and Pathways
    Women of Color in Undergraduate STEM Majors and the College Experiences That Contribute to Persistence
    Lorelle L. Espinosa
    Unique Challenges for Women of Color in STEM Transferring from Community Colleges to Universities
    Marie-Elena Reyes
    Symposium: Learning After Disaster
    Voices from Haiti and New Orleans
    Editors of the Harvard Educational Review
    Rebuilding a Country, Cultivating Local Capacity
    Interview with Fabienne Doucet and Louis Herns Marcelin
    Raygine DiAquoi
    Diasporic Lakou
    A Haitian Academic Explores Her Path to Haiti Pre- and Post-Earthquake
    Charlene Désir
    Race, Charter Schools, and Conscious Capitalism
    On the Spatial Politics of Whiteness as Property (and the Unconscionable Assault on Black New Orleans)
    Kristen L. Buras
    “There Is a Lot That I Want to Do”
    Reflections on the Relief Efforts in Haiti
    Raygine DiAquoi
    Who Dat Say (We) “Too Depraved to Be Saved”?
    Remembering Katrina/Haiti (and Beyond): Critical Studyin’ for Human Freedom
    Joyce King

    Book Notes

    Storytelling for Social Justice
    by Lee Anne Bell

    Quality Education as a Constitutional Right
    edited by Theresa Perry, Robert P. Moses, Joan T. Wynne, Ernesto Cortés Jr., and Lisa Delpit

    Black Youth Rising
    by Shawn A. Ginwright