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Posted under: Race & Identity Opinion

The plight of black women in STEM

I am a woman, and I’ll never know what it’s like to be a man. I get that. I’m not heartbroken over it, nor do I pretend that I can somehow overcome that fact. I have my own shoes to walk in and I don’t feel the need to 'Manifest Destiny' anyone else’s. The amount of people whose sentiments reflect the exact opposite of this is astonishing. Perfect example: After New Years, I normally get together with a group of ladies I met through the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) for brunch in Washington, D.C. This year was no different. We had brunch (bottomless mimosas, yas!), caught up, laughed, and ended the afternoon at Flight Wine Bar. Afterward, we took an Uber to a friend’s house to mellow out (*cough* sober up *cough*) and figure out the next move for the night. Having indulged in multiple wine flights, we were feeling rather chatty, so we engaged in friendly conversation with our driver on the way to our destination. Somewhere along the ride, we landed on the subject of what we did for a living. Our driver, a middle-aged racially ambiguous male, revealed that he did some sort of IT work in the past after learning my friends and I were working/studying in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. He went on to ask more about my friend’s research and what it entailed. Cool. From that point on I expected the conversation to be enjoyable, interesting and potentially insightful.

I was wrong...so wrong.

Instead of listening and learning (the usual position one would assume after asking a question), ol’ boy made it his duty to 'teach' my girl about her own work, because obviously he knew everything there was to know about biomedical engineering. He went on to downplay her work and make assumptions about what it was that he thought she did. He firmly stuck to his viewpoint without once considering that he might not know much about the topic. Being that the spirits were alive and well in our blood, I could tell this was not going to be one of those I’m-just-gonna-shut-up-and-let-him-think-that-he-got-it-‘cause-I-ain’t-got-the-time situations. I gracefully tried to play devil’s advocate to keep homegirl from completely ripping this guy a new one, yet and still, he would not acknowledge the fact that he really did not understand what she did. As this was unfolding, I couldn’t help but wonder if this dude would have been so bent on what he was saying if we looked a little different Being a woman in a male-dominated field seems to come with at least one special individual (most often a male) that thinks he knows your life. You know, that guy that insists on talking about things that he actually knows nothing about (and heaven forbid you correct him). It would be one thing if he did this with everyone, but he doesn’t. It makes you question his motives. What exactly are you getting from paying so much attention to me?
black women in STEM
black women in STEM
Photo: insidespelman.com As a black woman, this examination intensifies. Instead of only trying to gauge his attitude toward women, you’re also questioning his feelings toward black women and black people in general. Why are you treating me this way; which is it? Having to deal with this on a day-to-day basis isn’t easy. Yes, you try to ignore it and be the boss baddie that you know you are (because, after all, he may not even realize he’s doing it, right?) but the stress piles up eventually. After our Uber ride we were understandably heated...but not at the driver. We went on to have a passionate conversation amongst ourselves about how hard we work and how we’ve constantly busted our asses just to remain unacknowledged. How not having the smallest thing, like the presence of someone who looks like us in our respective fields to look up to, has hindered us in multiple ways since undergrad. How we feel the need to be the role models that we never had so that others won’t have to feel what we’ve felt. How we deal with feelings of depression and guilt when we consider pursuing other interests in a different area altogether. Who will our younger students have to look up to? Clearly, there’s much more to our frustration than meets the eye. These sentiments are not uncommon. What we needed from our Uber driver and what everyone as a whole needs from each other is simple — consideration and acknowledgment. No one is all-knowing, everyone has something to teach, and most importantly, assumptions aren’t cool or effective. (And if you’ve realized that you might be that aforementioned special individual to someone, give it a rest.) Even though our Uber driver wasn’t as awesome as we would have liked for him to be, my NSBE girls and I got a meaningful discussion out of our encounter. Instead of letting moments like these get us down, we use them to fuel the burning desire within each of us to go forth and conquer in STEM. And best believe that’s just what we’ll do.

What are some of your experiences as a black woman or even a black man in the STEM field? Let's get the conversation going!


N. LeKesia - STEM Freak. Systems Thinker. Aspiration Slayer. A tenacious servant leader determined to leave her mark in the nonprofit sector with a passion for service and STEM education, she aspires to increase the interest and confidence of underrepresented and underserved youth in computing and other STEM fields. She has contributed to LinkedIn Pulse and is the creator of MoreThanRubies, an inspirational blog aimed at providing encouragement and spreading positivity. Follow her @n_lekesia: Instagram | Facebook | Twitter  

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