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?
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.