#BlackInAstro: Black Women in Astronomy and Physics

This post is part of our series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here. This week, we will be posting a #BlackInAstro story every day for #BlackInAstroWeek. In this installment, we look at the underrepresentation of Black women in astro/physics, and summarize two papers that examine the obstacles these physicists face, the strategies they employ to overcome them, and how departments can support Black women physicists.

There are fewer than 100 Black women with PhDs in physics. Only 22 Black women hold PhDs in astronomy or related fields. (You can see many of their names on the African American Women in Physics website.) As we celebrate these physicists and their contributions to the field, we also need to understand why there are so few Black women in physics and astronomy, and their experiences in the field.

Black women hold a marginalized identity along the axes of both race and gender, and this intersection of oppressions manifests differently than each on its own. This is at the core of intersectionality, and is encapsulated by a quote from Dr. Evelynn Hammonds, the former Dean of Harvard College and scholar on the History of Science, who received her Bachelor’s in physics: “[Race and gender] aren’t separate in me. I am always black and female. I can’t say, ‘Well, that was just a sexist remark’ without wondering would he have made the same sexist remark to a white woman. … That takes a lot of energy to be constantly trying to figure out which one it is … being black, female, and wanting to do science and be taken seriously.” 

Though the small number of Black women in the field raises challenges in researching their experiences, there is still a significant literature on this subject. In this post, we first look at the numbers, and then break down two papers: one on successful Black women physicists through the lens on critical race theory, and another on the identities of Black undergraduate women in STEM.

Disaggregating the Data

When we see statistics about the underrepresentation of certain groups, it is often aggregated, so that it is only displayed along one axis at a time. In this case, we might see that women receive 19% of bachelor’s degrees in physics, and that Black students receive 2.4%. But when we look at the disaggregated data, we see an even more stark picture.

Black women receive only 0.8% of bachelor’s degrees in physics (55 out of ~7000 per year, averaged from 2013-2017), despite earning 11% of degrees across all subjects. There are 25 times more white women than Black women with physics bachelor’s—while white women hold only 6 times more bachelor’s degrees in any subject than Black women. The numbers are similar in astronomy: Black women receive ~1% of astronomy bachelor’s degrees, despite women overall earning a share of 33%.

Black women are further underrepresented at the PhD and faculty levels. Only a handful receive PhDs in physics each year, though the numbers have risen very slightly over the past couple of decades (Figure 1). Between 1973 and 2015, 66 Black women received Physics PhDs—while over 22,000 PhDs in Physics went to white men. In astronomy, 2% of women earning PhDs in 2016 were Black (<1% of all astronomy PhDs). Finally, at the faculty level, Black women represent 0.33% of U.S. physics professors, despite making up 6.4% of the general population.

Figure 1: The number of American women who earn doctorate degrees in physics. Figure via Quartz, data via the NSF.

These numbers make clear the severity of the underrepresentation of Black women in the field. They don’t tell us, however, about the experiences of these physicists; for this, we look to the social science literature.

Lived Experiences of Black Women Physicists

A 2016 paper by Rosa & Mensah, “Educational pathways of Black women physicists: Stories of experiencing and overcoming obstacles in life,” performs a deep, qualitative study of Black women in physics. They interview six Black women who have a Ph.D. in physics or a related field. This work, then, does not give insight into the paths of Black women physicists who were pushed out of the field, or those who were prevented from ever entering; rather, it focuses on how these six women overcame obstacles imposed on them due to their identities and remained in physics-related careers.

The paper details the educational trajectories of its six subjects (all names are pseudonyms). They range from Christa, who was the first Black student in her undergraduate physics department and is now an Assistant Professor of physics at a liberal arts college, to Betty, who grew up in Black activist circles, earned a Ph.D. in physics from a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), and now works in STEM education policy. 

The authors use the critical race theory (CRT) framework to understand these women’s experiences. They focus on three elements of CRT: counterstorytelling (lived experiences are critical to challenging dominant narratives), the permanence of racism (racism is structural and causes disadvantages for people of color), and interest convergence (actions that benefit Black people are taken only when they also benefit white people). They present their findings through two of these, which align with the obstacles faced and overcome by the interviewed physicists:

  1. Facing obstacles: The permanence of racism. Many of the women shared stories about facing discrimination from teachers, who dismissed their goals to learn science. This falls into the category of microaggressions, which are racialized (and sometimes further gendered) interactions that send the message that people of color don’t belong. The study also revealed study groups to be a significant site of racism. Many of the women described being actively excluded from peer study groups throughout their undergraduate and graduate coursework. This contributed to the isolation they experienced, often as the only Black woman in their department.
  2. Overcoming obstacles: Interest convergence. The study presents Black women in physics as a case of interest convergence, as the underrepresentation of Black women in STEM converges with the country’s dearth of trained scientists. The government addresses this by providing federal funding opportunities, which end up giving Black women the support they need to persist in the field. All of the women cited federal funding as significant to their trajectories: five of them were supported by NASA at some point, and many also attended various funded summer research programs, which provided a science community in addition to financial support. With regards to their exclusion from study groups, the physicists employed counter-strategies to surmount this barrier. One student figured out when the study groups were meeting and invited herself, leveraging her previous master’s degree to prove herself. Others formed study/support networks with Black students and students of color in other departments, though this was “more of a necessary act” than a choice.

Overall, the authors find that persistent racism hindered the physicists’ educations, and that they employed some common strategies for surviving in the field. The paper further notes the importance of a passion for physics—but finds that this only becomes a dominant force for the Black women physicists when they are otherwise supported: “Once they are on track, they discuss with much excitement, love, pleasure, and passion physics content, and refer to specific events in their laboratory or their research.” Their findings complicate the dominant narrative that passion, inherent intelligence, and academic preparation are the driving factors of success or failure.

The authors present a few actionable recommendations for physics departments to support Black women physicists. Departments should a) provide access to professional organizations, which offer communities of support for Black students. They should b) facilitate study group participation among all students, and promote collaborative learning environments. Finally, departments should c) support summer research programs; they note that while these are not “neutral spaces” and may also propagate harmful cultures, they played a crucial role in the success of the physicists.

#BlackGirlMagic: A Poetic Look at Black Women in STEM 

Much of the literature positions multiply marginalized identities as “risk factors” that the individuals must overcome in pursuing STEM degrees. However, recent work has looked at whether these identities can also serve a positive role. Here we look at the 2018 paper “#BlackGirlMagic: The identity conceptualization of Black women in undergraduate STEM education” by Morton & Parsons.

The authors of the study conduct interviews with 10 Black women studying STEM subjects (including two in Physics) at an HBCU and a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). They analyze this qualitative data through the Phenomenological Variant Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST) framework, which aims to understand how individuals’ identities relate to their perceptions and experiences. In this study the authors focus on the PVEST component of “net vulnerability,” which maps identities along a continuum from risks to protective factors.

To present their data, they use the nontraditional approach of “poetic transcription,” in which they compile phrases from participants’ answers to interview questions into poem stanzas. These stanzas group the narratives by theme and capture a collective meaning. The authors compose 16 stanzas in total, two of which are shared below (though we encourage the reader to look through all of them in the paper). 

(IX) STEM is hard to get into, especially for people of color 

It’s really hard to get Black people into STEM, you’ll see very few Black people 

STEM is pushed more on White people and Asians, they’re stereotyped as smart 

A Black Female to enter that field? It’s very rare. 

There aren’t many Black American Females in the STEM field. It’s very uncommon actually 

You are the minority, a Black Woman in STEM…We’re the minority in STEM fields

(Interview #1, May, Lexi, Nicole, & Buttercup; Interview #2, Ginnette)

In this stanza, we clearly see that the participants have an “intersectional recognition of their Black woman identity,” and how they relate this identity to the sciences. This combination of identities is perceived as a distinct barrier to entering and persisting in STEM. This is characterized both as an external barrier, from their environment and people in the field, and an internal barrier, from conflicting beliefs on who can be a scientist.

(XII) Being a Black Female in STEM means success…It can be powerful 

Just one of few. The cream of the crop. 

There were two African American women in that lab, I appreciated that 

My identity as a Black Woman drives me to do my best in STEM 

For now, I’m the minority in STEM. They’ll see me as a Black Woman 

There is nothing that I can do to really change, I might as well work with what I have:

(Interview #2, May, Nicole, & Teresa; Interview# 1, Lexi & Buttercup)

Here we see participants conceptualizing themselves as active agents in how they maneuver through STEM as Black women. They find power in their identities, and redefine these identities in a STEM context in a positive way, separate from the oppressions they experience. This positive contextualization of their intersecting identities lends an alternative meaning that may protect their path in science.

These narratives spell out a nuanced picture of the intersection of race, gender, and science identity for the Black women in the study. Their identities of being Black and women work as both risk factors and forms of protection, spanning the vulnerability continuum. They drew connections between their identities and negative experiences in the field, such as stereotypes and racism. On the other hand, the authors write that their identities also serve a positive role: “Despite the recognition of society’s negative ascription to a Black racial identity, the Black women found solace, pride, and support in their Black racial identity previously affirmed through positive encounters.”

Finally, the authors emphasize the importance of an intersectional framework, writing: “In their conceptualization of their identity as Black women, the participants provided information that was specific and unique to the Black woman experience.” The findings of this study, which show that this identity is connected to “resilience and persistence” in pursuing STEM degrees, speaks to the power of the study’s titular #BlackGirlMagic.

Conclusion

These two studies give insights into the specific experiences of being a Black woman in physics and in STEM more broadly. They demonstrate how these scientists find power in their identities, but face systemic and interpersonal racism and sexism. The authors further show how men and non-Black folks maintain these barriers, and recommend ways they can do the work of dismantling misogynoir in the field and make it inclusive to Black women astronomers and physicists.

We would like to acknowledge that we are summarizing research outside of our field. While we are trained astronomers and physicists, and practiced writers of paper summaries, we are not experts in social science research. We have done our best to capture the findings of this literature accurately and respectfully, but do defer to the original papers and to the authors of the studies.

About Kate Storey-Fisher

Kate is a PhD student in the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics at New York University. She studies the large-scale structure of the universe using cosmological simulations and galaxy surveys. She is still waiting for the galaxies to respond to the SurveyMonkey she beamed to them.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Kate. I learned a lot from this.

    Reply
  2. Thank you for spotlighting not only women in physics, but also the research done by women and men of color in STEM.

    Reply
  3. “We have done our best to capture the findings of this literature accurately and respectfully, but do defer to the original papers and to the authors of the studies.”

    I think the paper was very well represented. 🙂

    Reply

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