Monday, July 16, 2007

Sisters in Science

Diverse ("Issues in Higher Education") has republished a 1998 article about African-American women in science. At the time significantly more African-American women were enrolled in institutions of higher education than African-American men, but that difference was much narrower in the sciences and engineering.

Is it simple propensity that has more Black women seeking degrees in education, the social sciences, and the health professions, or are sisters being subtly guided away from the sciences and into more "typically female" fields? Given the fact that African American women receive five bachelor's degrees for every three that men earn, why do they receive just two undergraduate engineering degrees for every three that men earn?
The article points out that the lack of African-American women in the sciences may have had a negative impact on research in some fields.

While race and gender should not necessarily dictate areas of research, the paucity of African American women scientists has clear implications. There have not been studies, for example, of the impact that crack has on African American women. We see rising incarceration levels among Black women -- with a 500 percent increase in the past decade -- largely because of drug use and addiction. We also hear anecdotal evidence of crack's "hold" on Black women. But there has been little done to explain this more fully.

Similarly, although African American women seem to be more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer -- and in many cases, to be diagnosed earlier -- there have not been scientific explanations for this phenomenon. Studies on the health status of women have just garnered attention in the past decade, but studies on the health status of African American women are few and far between.

Has much changed in the last nine years? A NSF report looked at minority undergraduate science and engineering students from 1995-2004 found that there was an increase in science and engineering degrees awarded to black students during that period, particularly in computer science. However, the data isn't presented as a percentage, so it's not clear to me whether the percentage has increased.

Women's actually crunched some of the numbers in a February 2006 article about black women in science:

Data collected by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency in Arlington, Va., found that of the 7,488 science doctorates awarded to all Americans in 2004, just 124--or 1.7 percent--were awarded to black women compared with 2,274 doctorates--or 30 percent--for white women. In engineering, a total of 1,941 doctorates were awarded in 2004. Of those, only 32--or 1.7 percent--were conferred on black women and 296--or 15 percent--went to white women. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Even fewer women of color are finding their way into academia. According to a 2004 survey by Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, the percentage of women among full professors in science and engineering ranges from 3 percent to 15 percent. Of these, there are only a few African American women in science and engineering departments; there are no black female tenured or tenure-track professors in computer science. (Nelson was named this year by Women's eNews as one of its 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2006 for her research quantifying female representation in science.)

While women in general are underrepresented in science and engineering, black women have even less of a presence in those fields. The book Sisters in Science: Conversations with Black Women Scientists on Race, Gender, and Their Passion for Science, by Diann Jordan profiles 18 of those women, including:
  • Yvonne Clark: the first black woman to be awarded a B.S. in mechanical engineering. According to her IEEE profile:
    Recently, Clark received a grant from the Department of Energy to lead a team of scientists on a research project for improving refrigeration. She has also served as the student division team leader for the NASA-funded Center for Automated Space Science at Tennessee State University (TSU), where she continues to teach today. Her prolific career has included a number of awards and honors, including recognition from Howard University for outstanding achievement in engineering, and for leadership and distinguished service by the Society of Women Engineers. In the nearly forty years she has spent at TSU, the number of women in the engineering fields at the University has risen from only herself in the mid-1950´s, to approximately one in four today, an increase that is surely due in part to her example.
  • Georgia Dunston: currently Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Founding Director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University. Under Dunston's leadership, the university established the Genomic Research in the African Diaspora to study genetic factors in diseases that disproportionately affect people with African ancestry.
  • Shirley Jackson: physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. According to her official profile:
    Dr. Jackson is the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from M.I.T. — in any subject. She is one of the first two African-American women to receive a doctorate in physics in the U.S. She is the first African-American to become a Commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She is both the first woman and the first African-American to serve as the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the first African-American woman to lead a national research university. She also is the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and the first to receive the Vannevar Bush award.
Diann Jordan is herself a scientist: she is an full professor of Biology at Alabama State. Like many black women in science, she has many firsts in her resume.
She was the first woman faculty ever hired in the Soil and Atmospheric Sciences Department, first African American woman tenured in a science department at the University of Missouri-Columbia (1996) and the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Soil Science at Michigan State University in 1987.
Hopefully in another 10 years more progress will be made to close the gap in both race and gender in the sciences.

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