William Shockley Jr. of Stanford University was an American physicist who jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 for his role in the invention of the transistor. Modern computing and communications would have been unthinkable without Shockley’s work. But the Nobel laureate was also a proponent of eugenics and a firm believer in the racial inferiority of black people. Shockley wasn’t just a physicist with racist views. It was part of a larger university system that, then and now, perpetuates racial inequality. The persistence of this biased ecosystem means that its dismantling will require unrelenting tenacity on the part of all academics.
I have spent years studying how racism works in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, particularly in institutions of higher learning in the United States. Structural inequalities perpetuate tendencies that discriminate against STEM color faculty and stifle their progression. For example, institutions often expect these professors to lead the charge when it comes to anti-racism efforts. They are approached to mentor students of color, to serve on diversity committees, and to speak on diversity panels, activities that are tangential to their research. Although many people of color in STEM have a strong desire to make their fields and workplaces more equitable, the pressure to complete tasks unrelated to their research creates a service burden that many of their white colleagues cannot bear. not. In contrast, white professors are busy advancing their research, thereby securing grants, joining collaborations, and publishing articles that bolster their careers. This imbalance puts the faculty of color at a disadvantage in tenure and promotion decisions. People of color who “succeed” in STEM disciplines often do so by taking on a superhuman, unfair, and unsustainable workload.
Additionally, to function in today’s skewed ecosystem, underrepresented people of color are forced to conform to a predominantly white male culture and are discouraged from bringing their authentic selves to the workplace. For example, STEM teachers of color are encouraged to remove any language about racial justice, including diversity, equity, and inclusion, in their grant proposals. Additionally, some alter their appearance, behavior, and speech to assimilate and survive in the mainstream STEM culture. This stress is a burden and a humiliation that can have psychological consequences.
Because there are fewer people of color in university leadership positions, there are fewer leaders who are aware of these barriers. As a result, barriers for people of color in STEM are rarely addressed because leaders’ priorities are elsewhere.
To change the situation, the dominant culture must assume the burden of providing remedies. In the realm of physics, for example, people of color are called upon to understand how to “create change,” rather than those who benefit from the status quo. STEM ecosystems must distribute this responsibility among all, especially teachers who hold the power and privilege to implement compelling and lasting change. It engages the most influential people in efforts to innovate and redesign spaces in ways that support STEM equity.
Colleges of color in academia often hire students of color who are not part of their departments but are in desperate need of mentorship. Institutions should recognize when professors of color act as de facto academic leaders and reward these staff members with titles, compensation, and resources appropriate to the responsibilities they have assumed.
Higher education also needs to recruit more professors of color. It’s the most powerful way for STEM departments to demonstrate that racial equity and diversity are a priority.
Students, faculty, and administrators who are women of color experience both racial and gender-based forms of abuse in academia. Hostile environments range from negative comments about their abilities, qualifications and performance to sexual harassment. In my research, I have found that black women have great difficulty convincing their professors and colleagues that they are worthy of belonging to STEM. Instead of creating programs to “fix” students, how about coaching STEM faculty and administrators about the toxicity associated with racially unwelcoming conditions and the particular effects this has on women of color? Having more women of color leading STEM universities would be a good start.
Anti-racism work is hard work, but unless actions go beyond just throwing around diversity and equity buzzwords, people of color will remain underrepresented in STEM fields. . And the United States will continue to miss the STEM talent and innovation that exists within communities of color.