Almost Half of Black and Latina Scientists Report They’ve Been Mistaken for Administrative Assistants or Janitors

Women of color in science are more likely to experience some forms of bias

black female scientist
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Fighting discrimination against women in science has gotten more and more attention in recent years. While some progress has been made and some stereotypes challenged, change is still needed, especially for women of color. A new survey of 557 female scientist reveals that 48 and 47 percent of Black and Latina women, respectively, have been mistaken for custodial or administrative staff. 

In comparison, 23 percent of Asian women and 32 percent of white women experienced the same, reports Lisa Wade for The Society Pages. The results of the survey were published online at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law by three professors, Joan C. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips and Erika V. Hall. Of 60 women further interviewed about their experiences, 100 percent reported experiencing some form of bias. 

The results of the survey especially emphasize the challenges women of color face in the sciences.

The women surveyed reported the need to "walk a tightrope" between the pitfalls of seeming too feminine or too masculine. Asian-Americans said they felt this pressure the most, with 40.9 percent reporting they felt like they were expected to play traditionally feminine roles such as "dutiful daughter" and "office mother." And 61.4 percent also reported pushback for appearing aggressive or assertive. 

Black women and Latina women both reported that their coworkers confronted them with negative racial stereotypes. Here are two illustrative quotes:

  • The post-doctoral advisor of a [Black, female] biologist “turns to me and says, hey, do you have any family on drugs or in jail….” 
  • “Just comments here and there, assumptions people made, ‘Oh, you’re Hispanic so you love tacos and you love spicy foods.’ That’s not true. Just, ‘Oh, you’re very into drinking and music,’ and just stereotyping, a lot of stereotyping,” said a bio-engineer. A neuroscientist recalled a “joke”: “‘Oh, be careful. She’s Puerto Rican and she may be carrying a knife in her purse.’”

The effect of such discrimination, even in relatively small doses, can be noticeable. The study authors write:

No matter what a woman’s race, bias is draining and demoralizing. An Asian-American in astrophysics found the bias she encountered “tiring and exhausting because it’s a constant.” A Black woman in biostatistics described “this under-the-surface feeling of uneasiness that you can never quite identify as being overtly racially discriminatory, but, man, it certainly feels that way.” What’s most draining, she noted, were “those little micro kinds of situations, I think that, in some ways, they’re probably a little bit worse in that they linger the longest.”

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