Bias Against WOC In STEM Is Worse Than You Think

If you know where to look, the Internet is chock full of women's experiences with sexism in science — that is, white women's experiences. The gender bias against women of color in STEM fields is alive and well in the modern day, but it's a topic rarely discussed in mainstream media. As always, the feeling appears to be that someone can only claim one minority identity at a time: You can be either a female scientist or a Latina scientist, but surely you aren't influenced by both, can you? (Spoiler: Yes, you can.) As a result, white women almost exclusively dominate research on gender bias in male-dominated fields, especially STEM. The implication is that their encounters with gender bias are the default, and women of color should experience the same thing.

Unfortunately, that's not quite how the world works. Although research has shown that the overwhelming majority of women, no matter their ethnicity, come across sexism in STEM fields, a 2015 report by the University of California Hastings indicates that women of color experience a "double jeopardy" where their identities intersect. In other words, women of color face discrimination based on their gender as well as their ethnicity, and the report shows that this has a clear effect on their lives: According to the study, a full 100 percent of the women of color interviewed reported gender bias, compared to 93 percent of white women.

Led by Professor Joan Williams, the study surveyed more than 550 women of all ethnicities who worked in STEM and conducted interviews with 60 women of color in STEM. The results provide a disturbing look into the bias women of color encounter even in the modern day, from being mistaken for janitors to having to prove their worth to male colleagues again and again.

The study identified four patterns in the sexism directed at women in STEM. The "Prove-It-Again" category describes the expectation for women to provide more evidence of their competence than men, due to the "perceived lack of fit... between being a woman and being a scientist." The "Tightrope" describes the line women in STEM walk between being perceived as too feminine to be intelligent or too masculine to be liked. The "Maternal Wall" describes the assumption that mothers become less competent and committed to work after they have children. Finally, the "Tug of War" describes the conflict that sometimes arises when women feel they have to compete with each other.

Let's take a look at some more notable findings from the study below.

1. Assertive Latina Scientists Were Labeled "Angry"

Antonia Novello, first woman and Hispanic-American Surgeon General.

Almost 60 percent of Latina scientists faced backlash in the form of being called "angry" or "emotional" when they asserted themselves. Furthermore, they were more likely than any other group to be expected to do office work like making coffee or administrative duties. In contrast, Black women were allowed a certain level of leeway in dominant behavior, although they experienced backlash if they were seen as an "angry black woman."

2. Black Scientists Were More Likely To Have To Prove Themselves

According to the report, more than three-quarters of Black women reported needing to provide more evidence of their competence, compared to less than 65 percent of Latina, Asian-American, and White women.

3. Asian-American Scientists Experienced The Most Pressure To Be Feminine

Chien-Shiung Wu, Chinese-American physicist.

Asian-American scientists reported the most backlash against stereotypically masculine behavior like self-promotion, and they were the most likely to feel pressure to fulfill traditionally feminine roles at work. Black women reported the least pressure and the lowest levels of backlash.

4. Competition Was More Common Than You'd Think

More than half of those surveyed reported "Tug of War" patterns, even though 75 percent of scientists said their female coworkers supported each others. More than 40 percent of scientists agreed that "some women just don’t understand the level of commitment it takes to be a scientist," and fully half agreed that "some women [scientists] have ‘just turned into men."

5. Black Women And Latinas Reported Being Mistaken For Janitors

Jemal Countess/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Shirley Ann Jackson, first African-American woman to obtain a doctorate in physics from MIT.

In interviews, Latina and Black scientists "often" reported being mistaken for janitors — something that Williams noted has never come up in her interviews with white women.

6. Asian-American Stereotypes Helped With Students, But Not Colleagues

Although stereotypes hold that Asian-American people are good at science, the report found that this didn't appear to help Asian-American's competence in the eyes of their coworkers. "[Their] experiences were shaped far more by the negative stereotype that women are not good at science than the positive stereotype that Asians are," the study authors wrote, adding that the stereotype may largely work in Asian-American men's favor. On the bright side, Asian-American women reported less "Prove-It-Again" bias from their students.

Clearly, women — and especially women of color — in STEM have the odds stacked against them. The good news is that women are becoming increasingly vocal about their experiences with gender bias; even if it isn't going away anytime soon.

Images: Getty Images, Giphy, Wikimedia Commons (2)