Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gender Equity in STEM Education

There is a tremendous focus in the STEM world on gender equity.  The nation must provide greater access to the STEM enterprise for women and girls.  That is absolutely true.  The argument could not be more simple. The nation cannot realize its full potential if half of the talent pool is locked out of such critical fields. What appears to be happening; however, is that gender efforts primarily benefit white women and girls. From my vantage point, it is becoming increasingly clear that when the clarion call is gender equity, the image associated with that is a white woman.  So, where does that leave women of color? 

Left out.

I understand that it is easier for large public and private institutions' gender efforts to default to focusing on white women. It is an easier proposition. White men dominate the captaincy of the tech space.  Without exception, they all have intimate relationships with white women in some form – mother, daughter, or girlfriend. When they look at white women, they see extensions of themselves and their loved ones.  They do not want their own daughters, for example, to have their ambitions truncated or predetermined, or some other man to harass, inhibit, underestimate or restrict the infinite potential of their beloved little girls. Similarly, among the increasing number of white women holding leadership roles in the academy and in the public and private sector, they surely see younger versions of themselves in the next generation of white girls.  It is a natural instinct to want the very best for them.

For black girls, and girls of color, the story is more complicated. Not only do they not have natural advocates, the images they are overcoming are more challenging. The country watched the white police officer in South Carolina snatch a young black girl out of her seat by her neck, smash her on the ground and then throw her across the classroom floor.

It was a math class.

In a nation with a history such as ours, that imagery is connected to a much longer and darker legacy – a legacy where white men have abused black women and girls with impunity. There is no intimacy there. It is not too many chapters back in our national narrative where that episode ends with the girl being whipped and raped – and the strange stillness of the young black boys indicative of the reality that if they moved they would be shot.  The one other black girl who stood up to resist was also arrested. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In notion doesn’t work the same way for black girls.

Here too, it is clear why black women, and women of color, have to exhibit such grace and strength. They all too often have to cheer for and lift themselves up, sadly with little support except from each other.  The unfortunate lament in the STEM world is that black men are in crisis and black women are forgotten. The additional power and resilience that are forged in black women make their entry into the STEM ecosystem even more valuable. They demonstrate the tenacity to persist despite unfavorable circumstances and the creativity to add color and beauty to any canvas as they paint themselves into the landscape. Those are the virtues of problem solvers. They are a national treasure to be sure. 

Efforts towards gender equity that leave out black and brown women are irresponsibly incomplete. It is surely difficult and inconvenient for the champions of gender equity to come to terms with the different realities of women of color.  That difficulty does not grant them a pass. Until women of color are squarely and measurably included in STEM gender equity efforts, those victories will be hollow.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Breast Cancer Awareness

Like so many others for whom breast cancer has been a distant national pink slogan, I was not really aware until it hit close to me.  My dear friend and sister Keisha the Beautiful had her number called.  It is such a quiet and vicious lottery.  She neither paid, nor asked to be part of selection pool, but was selected nonetheless.  Somehow breast cancer reaches down into the population and using some sinister calculus, selects women to go on a harrowing journey of fear and pain and struggle and hope.  It is a journey where at the outset you know that some women will survive and others will not.  Needless to say, I was unaware of the magnitude of the emotions involved until I was forced to help escort a friend that I love dearly through the valley.

The nature of the work that I do is such that I am constantly reminded that nearly all of the social ills that afflict American society hit black people with a special brutality.  Breast cancer is no different. Black women’s survival rates are far less than their white counterparts.  I understand this as a social artifact – disproportionately less access to high end health care and insurance plans, having to deal with pernicious stereotype threats and biases both explicit and implicit that affect the medical system like all other systems.  What I do not understand is why the most virulent and deadly form of breast cancer – triple negative – disproportionately affects black women. Why with all the innumerable burdens that black women bear, this too? That is a cruel cosmic form of discrimination. 

This is the kind that drew my girl’s number.

Apart from any epidemiological understanding, I have to believe that black women are uniquely able to bear the cross and triumph despite.  Black women are an American treasure.  They set the standard for grace and strength and beauty.  They have done so and continue to do so despite a history of swallowing pain and sorrow doing the work of Sisyphus to repeatedly prop up the black family in a vicious historical American narrative.  Out of that story comes a particular grace under pressure; a special kind of faith in our Creator and an ability to generate and harness love and power to do miraculous things.

My girl, Keisha the Beautiful, has that power.  It is a kind of magic.  Her magic has made me profoundly aware.  I am aware of the power of love and how it causes us to lock arms when danger is near.  It improves our eyesight so we can see more clearly what matters and what does not.  Her magic and her power are inspiring.  She is battling with such grace and power that she appears to be standing on the shoulders of a thousand other sisters who have walked through so many valleys and are cheering her on and pushing her through.

I am aware of breast cancer now and my girl is going to win.