FNL HomePage
Editorial Board
E-mail FNL
FNL Archives
Faculty Bulletin Board
MIT HomePage

The Plight of the Woman Scientist of African Descent

Stephanie Espy and Lynda M. Jordan

The thread of freedom forms the basic patterns in man’s [and woman’s] struggle to know himself [herself] and to live in the assurance that other men [women] will recognize this self. The ache of every man [woman] to touch his [her] potential is the throb that beats out the truth of the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America was founded because men [and women] were seeking room to become. We again are seeking that room.

MLK, Jr., February, 1960.

The above is an excerpt from the document entitled, "What Is the Student Movement?" written by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the occasion of the February 1, 1960 student sit-ins in Greensboro North Carolina. Four freshman students left the campus of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College, and took their seats in forbidden territory. . .the lunch counter of Woolworth’s, Inc.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the above article in an effort to explain to society the purpose of the student sit-in movement. These types of "radical" demonstrations were necessary to awaken the conscience of America. The demonstrators hoped that these protests would stimulate the implementation of change in this country. They would no longer accept nor tolerate the "less than" mentality that portrayed them as inferior, based on the color of their skin.

It is because of the efforts of these brave students that many of us, of all races and of both genders, can enjoy the opportunity of being active participants in society. It is amazing that it was only 39 years ago when people of African descent had to protest to be able to sit at a lunch counter to buy lunch. For some of us, this may seem like a long time ago, but for many of us, it doesn’t. The remnants of this type of human indignity, as perpetuated by slavery, still exist today.

The words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., clearly express the plight of the woman scientist of African descent.


As we approach the new millennium, less than one year from now, the numbers of underrepresented minorities in science and engineering fields are still low. Minority women scientists, in particular Black women scientists, i.e., women of African descent, are a small subset of the minority scientists and engineers educated in this country.

This article will briefly: (a) explore the issues associated with being a women scientist of African descent in academia, (b) address the issues of the undergraduate women of African descent at MIT, and (c) discuss strategies for change.

Underrepresented minorities in this article are defined as Black, non-Hispanics, Native American, Mexican-American, and Puerto Rican. The definition of African descent includes: African, African-American, and Caribbean nationals, who are Blacks and non-Hispanics.

In order to substantiate the validity of the issues raised in this paper, presented below are questionnaire responses of undergraduate women of African descent (WAD) who are presently matriculating at M.I.T. The purpose of the questionnaire is to explore the experiences of this subset of the minority community at M.I.T.

The students themselves are the best resource for obtaining information concerning their experience at MIT. The successful matriculation and retention of minority students can be more adequately addressed once the students’ needs are clearly defined. To our knowledge, no information of this kind has been collected or disseminated for any group of minority undergraduates at MIT. The total results of this survey will be published at a later time, however below are general comments that the WAD students shared about their experiences. The comments are direct quotations:

Q: What do you need, if anything, to enhance or improve your educational experience at M.I.T.?


• I need more research under my belt. I think that making research a

requirement will better prepare students for the future.

• Increased interactions with the professors in my field.

• More involvement with programs and projects related to my field of


• More professors who are female and minority.

Q: In general, how are you treated at school?


Sometimes there is racism, sometimes [there is] not.

•I am treated equally most of the time.

• I have had a few racist experiences.

• Most cases I am treated fairly, but racism is prevalent at MIT.

• Sometimes there is racism, sometimes there is not.

•I am aware of discreet racism here.

Q: How do you feel when you go to class?


• I am somewhat discomforted in class because I see so few people that look

like me.

• Non-minority students are cocky! They believe that they are of superior


• I don’t have any problems in class, but students from other races do not

speak to me.

Q: How do your professors interact with you?


Only in classes of my specialization are professors more likely to make

themselves available to me.

• They make themselves available sometimes.

• A professor has never spoken to me willingly; I have to go to the professor

to speak to him.

• I have time to chase them.

Q: If you were to encounter a problem at school, who would you turn to for


Responses: [In order of student ranking, (1) being the best ]

• Family (1)

• Peers of the same race (2)

• One of my Deans (3)

• Peers of another race (4)

• Professor (5)

Q: Do you ever feel inadequate or inferior?


• At the beginning of freshman year I did. I received a packet in the mail from a student group on campus saying that I was accepted because I was a minority and I was taking a more qualified person’s spot.

• Non-minority students and professors are so condescending.

• Many other people don’t seem to have as much struggle with trying to

adapt to MIT.

• Sometimes I feel like I have to work harder to prove myself when I

shouldn’t have to.

• I haven’t had the best experiences in group projects at MIT. I contribute,

but not as actively as I’d like because I sometimes feel like there are too

many "wanna be" leaders in the group.

• I always feel I can do better than my performance in class. I comprehend the

materials, but when it comes to testing, I second guess so much that I lose

sight of the task at hand.

• At a place like MIT, it is impossible for a semester to go by without feeling

like I don’t belong here, that my acceptance was a mistake and that I am not

up to standard.

• Today I was at the machine shop (the only girl in the shop) and people were

explaining things to me slower than to the guys like I am hard of


Issues Facing Women Scientists of African Descent in Academia

Women of color are confronted with two dilemmas as they progress through the academic infrastructure(s). In addition to the issue of gender, we must also deal with the issue of race. Most will agree, although some reluctantly, that there are discrepancies associated with the treatment of women in academia, and in society in general. However, issues facing minority women in the academic environment are rarely, if at all, openly discussed.

The sociological aspect of being a woman of color, more specifically a woman of African descent in American society, is a very complex topic and must be the topic of another paper. Nevertheless, it is important to say that slavery had a tremendous impact, which is still relevant today. The societal perceptions of who we are as women of African descent, are frequently limited to the intellectual and cultural comfort zones of the particular environments with which we are associated.

Every academic area has a particular intellectual comfort zone. Let’s use a simple example in chemistry; there is a basic level of knowledge that all chemists share: the periodic table. All chemists are familiar with the periodic table and are comfortable with the information on the table, their intellectual comfort zones.

Every subject area in academia, and its subdivisions, establish their own intellectual comfort zones which reflect a body of knowledge that is inclusive for that particular subject.

Additionally, suppose we put a laser physicist, an electrical engineer, a business executive (all whom do not know how to dance) and a professional dancer in a dance studio and tell all four to dance for 30 minutes. The dancer would be within his/her comfort zone and would not see this request as a problem. However, the other three individuals would be very uncomfortable and could see this request as a major undertaking. They would be operating outside their cultural comfort zone.

Science and engineering, as do all academic areas, have their own cultures. Culture in this context is defined as a way of governing which is shared within the confines of a particular subject area.

In addition to the comfort zones that are associated with particular academic fields and environments, we all have internal cultural comfort zones, representative of the environment and value systems in which we were raised. Even people who belong to the same ethnic group can have different cultural comfort zones. The personal limitations that we bring to academia contribute to the barriers that are associated with inclusiveness. These barriers exist in the academic community as a whole, and in science and engineering in particular. There is a level of discomfort for the minority individual (underrepresented minority men and all women) to become a part of the main stream infrastructure of the particular academic area.

Concurrently there is an equal, if not greater, level of discomfort that the majority group experiences when someone different joins the group. The majority group has established, over the years, a resistant culture. A resistant culture as defined by Gordon and Yowell, is an elaborate system of beliefs and behaviors that are adopted by a particular group to insulate themselves from the demands of acculturation and socialization experiences that they consider alien or conflicting to their interests. It is simply too much trouble to try to understand or address the issues (individual and group) that are associated with diversity. This resistant culture not only exists between a minority/non-minority environment, but also exists between males and females within the minority communities.

The race issue and the gender issue often become weighty encumbrances. Some women of color search for ways to assimilate into mainstream society by emphasizing their similarities, rather than their differences, from the majority population. The level of (perceived) assimilation is limited by the external factors of skin color, body build, facial features, length and texture of hair.

A recent example of this phenomenon occurred last semester. It was relayed by Dean Leo Osgood of the Office of Minority Education. Two female students, both minority women, were taking the same course. Each woman had different hues of skin color; one with lighter skin, the other with darker skin. Both students worked together and therefore their grades were very similar. Their test score, problem sets and final examination scores were similar. When the students received their final grades, the student of lighter skin color received a whole letter grade higher than the student with darker skin color. Dean Osgood assisted in the resolution of this incident, but what effect do you think it had on the women?

The physical characteristics of the woman of color which portray an African heritage are often correlated with lack of intelligence. As a consequence, some women of color resort to cultural assimilation. Cultural assimilation

(Kemp, Lero) is when one cultural group acquires the values, characteristics, behavior and attitudes of another culture while shedding its own cultural values and characteristics. The travesty of cultural assimilation is that the woman of color is in denial and negates the essence of herself. She internalizes emotions that are associated with her negative experience as a woman of color, which she will still have to address some time during her career.

The predominate historical portrayal of women of African descent in the media as sex objects, or in a position of servitude, affects how we women are viewed in society, as well as in academia. These cumulative subliminal messages have a pronounced effect not only on the students, faculty and administrators, but also on the women themselves. In the academic setting, we are constantly combating the stereotypes that are embedded in historical negative associations. The intellectual background and capacity of women of African descent are always being challenged. We are constantly addressing issues of low expectation, isolation, and ostracism. Clearly, other minorities and women may also face the same problems in their daily lives, but the consistent allegations that we as minority women are given preferential treatment and consideration because of affirmative action laws, is simply unsubstantiated rhetoric.

Women of African descent, even at the undergraduate level, who have successfully transversed all the stereotypes to pursue a career in science or engineering had to overcome tremendous obstacles on every imaginable human level. It takes intellect, courage, perseverance, fortitude, and faith to participate in this journey.

Issues Concerning Undergraduate Women of African Descent (WAD) at MIT

As we approach the new millennium, it is important to see where MIT stands in terms of the enrollment and matriculation of women of African descent in science and engineering fields. Undergraduate enrollment data was obtained from the Registrar and the Office of Institutional Planning. Data on the women of African descent was obtained from the Office of Minority Education (OME).


Table 1. Percentage of Undergraduate Women of African Descent (WAD)

Academic Year
African American

African-American women are the majority of undergraduate women of African descent at MIT. Women from Africa are the least number of undergraduate WAD. The African women come from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Algeria, South Africa and Sierra Leone, based on the demographic data obtained from the OME.


Table 2. Percent Total Women of African Descent (WAD)






























































Total Undergraduate Students (TUG)

Total Undergraduate Women Students (TUW)

Total Science(S) and Engineering(E) Women of African Descent

(S&E* WAD)

Total S & E Undergraduate Women Students (SEW*)

Total S & E Undergraduate Students (TSEU*)


* These data represent undergraduate students in their sophomore through
senior years at MIT who have declared a major.

The percentage of undergraduate women of African descent was maintained at 2% of the total undergraduate students from 1994 to 1997 and increased slightly to 3% in 1998 .

The total percentage of undergraduate WAD majors in science and engineering was 3% of the total undergraduate students in 1994 and 1995, and was maintained at 4% of the total number of women undergraduates 1996-1998.

The total percentage of undergraduate WAD majors in science and engineering at MIT was 2% of the total science and engineering undergraduates, during the last five years.

The total percentage of undergraduate WAD majors in science and engineering was 5% of the total undergraduate women majors in science and engineering for the 1994 academic year. This percentage increased to 6% in the 1995 academic year, and was maintained at that level throughout the remaining academic years.


Table 3. Percentage WAD as compared to Total Minority, Total Freshman
Minority and Total Undergraduate Students.

Academic Year

WAD/Total Minority

Freshman WAD/
Freshman Minority

Total Minority/
Total Undergrad





















At present, the undergraduate WAD constitute 16% of the total minority population. Freshman WAD are 15% of the total freshman minority population. The total undergraduate minority population represents 16% of the total undergraduate population at MIT.

Profile of the Undergraduate Women of African Descent at MIT

The Pursuit of a Career in Science or Engineering :

• Thirty-three percent of the undergraduate WAD were influenced by their

family or friends

• Twenty-five percent were influenced by their teachers

• Thirty-six percent had other influences, such as: the desire to develop their

natural talent in science and math, the M.I.T.E.S. program, other summer

programs, the desire to improve the deteriorating state of their country.

• Six percent were influenced by their community

One hundred percent of the students indicated that their families were very

supportive of their decision to pursue a career in science of engineering.

Extracurricular Activities:

• Seventy-five percent of the women are involved in campus women organizations.

• Eighty-five percent of the women are involved in minority organizations.

• Twenty-one percent of the women are involved in non-minority


• Three percent are involved in student government.

Solutions for Change

Students’ Suggestions:

Q: List three or more things that you would like to see implemented to

support your undergraduate educational experience at MIT.

Responses: (direct quotes)

More campus events that favor the entire community and not just

the "white" or "international" communities.

• Some monthly social event where minorities can get together and enjoy

each other’s company.

• Financial support, motivational support, emotional support.

• Community unity among minorities, increase in the number of minority

faculty members, better rapport of professors with students.

• Some type of mentoring program; more advisor/student interaction other

than the beginning of each semester. Student/faculty functions at least

three times per year.

• I would like to see an increase in the amount of financial aid at MIT. I feel

the social support for black women is great here. We could also increase the

contact with black women students and black women faculty.

• More people of African descent hired into administrative positions;

undergraduates of African descent need to believe in themselves more;

my institution should definitely do more to help international students

to settle better.

• I think motivational support is most needed around here.

• Academic support.

• I would like to see a lookout program hooking up freshmen MIT students

with upperclassman.

• Classes dealing with racial issues; more Black faculty; Black networks within


• Financial Aid packages with less loans and work study.

• Motivational support from minority professors.

• I would like to see more academic support. At MIT so many minority

students feel as though they are not making it. Everyone here says

"struggling." It makes you feel so displaced or ashamed to even do

well. I heard of one story of someone actually doing well on an exam

to the plethora of "Oh, I failed" or " I’m struggling. " If the case is that we

are really struggling, something needs to be done. If that is not the case,

we need to build up our academic self-esteem.

How can we as faculty and administrators initiate change?

First, we must break down the barriers. There are two major barriers that have to be addressed.

(1) Don’t Negate the Students’ Culture. If the education system does not value the various cultures of the students, there will always be a large void in the number of minorities and women educated and professionally employed as scientists and engineers in this country. Educators can not assess the true potential of a student without tapping into the innate resource of knowledge that is inherent within each individual’s culture.

(2) Change Attitudes. The biggest and most concrete barriers are the stereotypical attitudes toward the students. Intellectually superior attitudes and/or the ignorance exhibited purely on skin color or race needs to be eradicated. As educated individuals, it is our responsibility to look inside ourselves and recognize and address the insecurities that we have.

FNL HomePage
Editorial Board
E-mail FNL
FNL Archives
Faculty Bulletin Board
MIT HomePage