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Thirty-Five Years after “The Double Bind,” Obstacles Remain for Minority Women in STEM

Women of color have made enormous progress in science-related fields since AAAS released the landmark “Double Bind” report 35 years ago, but today they are facing a new generation of challenges, according to a symposium in the Harvard Educational Review.

Many of the overt prejudices and obstacles that once blocked minority women from science and engineering careers have ended, or significantly eroded. Now, however, they must navigate more subtle obstacles that endure at many U.S. colleges and universities: An undercurrent of questions about their skill, a lack of support at their institutions, a sense of professional isolation.

Shirley Malcom, the director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, was the lead author of the influential 1976 study “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.” In the opening article in the Harvard Educational Review symposium, she and her daughter, Lindsey Malcom, an assistant professor of higher education at George Washington University, conclude that universities and other institutions need a deeper, more consistent commitment to full opportunity.

“The next-generation women, the Double Bind Daughters, face different challenges from those faced by their mothers,” they write. “Now it is less about rights versus wrongs and more about support versus neglect; less about the behavior of individuals and a culture that was accepting of bias as the ‘natural order of things’ and more about the responsibilities and action (or inaction) of institutions.”

The Harvard Educational Review symposium—”Unraveling the Double Bind”— includes an introduction and four articles in the Summer 2011 issue. In addition to the Malcoms’ opening article, the work surveys research on undergraduate and graduate-level women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and assesses the experience of community college transfers and undergraduates in those fields.

Why return to the issues of the “Double Bind”? The intention is to “contribute to the knowledge base on women of color in STEM and bring this issue to light for our readers,” the Review editors wrote in their introduction. “In doing so, we hope to be a catalyst for conversation and change.”

The 30 women who met for two days in December 1975—the first Double Bind symposium—had a similar objective. They came from fields as diverse as aerospace, psychiatry, mine engineering, and zoology for a meeting that was unprecedented: Never before had a group of African American, Native American, Mexican American and Puerto Rican women in scientific fields come together gather to assess the culture and environment in which they studied and worked.

“Most of us experienced strong negative influences associated with race or ethnicity as children and teenagers but felt more strongly the handicaps for women as we moved into post-college training in graduate schools or later in careers,” they wrote in the original Double Bind report, released by AAAS in April 1976.

From that panel came a blueprint for change, and looking back over 35 years, it seems clear that their efforts had a dramatic scientific and social impact.

In their article for the Harvard Educational Review, Shirley and Lindsey Malcom say that many of the old barriers have been removed. Today, women of color express strong interest in science and engineering, and their numbers in STEM fields have grown steadily.

In 1975, minority women earned just 0.6% of nearly 16,000 science and engineering doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents; by 2008, women from under-represented minorities earned 6% of more than 20,000 Ph.Ds.

Census data from 1970 show that just over 1400 minority women taught in STEM disciplines in U.S. colleges and universities; in 2003, minority women held just under 9000 full-time and about 6000 part-time faculty positions.

But other numbers show “disturbing patterns” that progress is uneven and, the authors say, that institutional and cultural gravities still work against women of color.

They have made broad gains in social and behavior sciences, but lag badly in other fields. In computer science, for example, 2.1% of 2008 Ph.Ds went to minority women scientists—just 14 women, in all. While records show that no women received engineering Ph.Ds in 1975, the number in 2008 had risen only to 91, or 2.9% of the total.

“The relatively small gains in computer science, engineering, and other math-intensive STEM field reflect the fact that many of the barriers faced by minority women pursuing science and engineering degrees are department- and discipline-specific and originate from the rigid cultures, structures, and lack of faculty diversity in these fields,” the Malcoms write.

Shirley Malcom

While minority women hold far more faculty positions now, they write, those positions are concentrated in community colleges and four-year institutions that do not grant Ph.Ds. Women at these schools typically spend more of their time in student instruction, with less time available for the research that can propel career advances.

Numerous studies show women of color in STEM disciplines face a host of challenges, the authors say. Among them: “feelings of invisibility and isolation in their home departments, challenges to their authority, teaching competency, and scholarly expertise in the classroom, and the emotional toll of negotiating a landscape of obstacles for minority women.”

In recent decades, analysts have evaluated these challenges using the metaphor of a “leaky pipeline”; students are seen draining out of the system at the junctures between high school and college, for example, or between undergraduate and graduate school. But in the Malcoms’ view, that metaphor does not recognize the many paths by which minority women come to STEM studies.

And while individual students do have responsibility for their own success, the authors write, institutions where women study and work are often at fault for failing to provide a more supportive environment.

“The struggle has now shifted to institutions’ lack of response to this growing interest [expressed by women of color], specifically their failure to take advantage of it and retain this pool of talent.”

Others articles in the Harvard Educational Review symposium:

  • “Inside the Double Bind,” by Maria Ong, Carol Wright, Lorelle L. Espinosa, and Gary Orfield, surveys research on underrepresented women minorities in STEM fields. They question whether current initiatives that support women or minorities are effectively supporting minority women. They call for more research on how families influence decisions to pursue STEM studies; institutional characteristics and environments; and on the experience of minority women at the graduate and postdoctoral levels.
  • “Pipelines and Pathways,” by Lorelle L. Espinosa, explores pre-college and undergraduate experiences that contribute to STEM success, including peer relations, the role of faculty, and the curriculum. She concludes that new policies and programs are needed to support women generally—and especially, at colleges and universities, to “create learning environments that promote peer-to-peer interaction, co-curricular involvement, and access to undergraduate research opportunities.”
  • “Unique Challenges for Women of Color in STEM Transferring from Community Colleges to Universities,” by Marie-Elena Reyes, finds that the transition is often a difficult one for minority women students. By a variety of means, Reyes writes, the culture at the four-year institution signals to them that they don’t belong. “Recruitment strategies to increase the numbers of women of color in STEM are only half the answer,” she concludes. “A focus on retention is also critical, and, to be successful, we must understand the unique challenges that women of color transitioning from community colleges to universities in STEM will face….”

Despite the challenges ahead, the editors of the Harvard symposium hailed the accomplishments of past years and the possibilities for the future.

“The thirty-fifth anniversary of The Double Bind is an occasion to celebrate and honor the women of color who came together to acknowledge and address inequities in the science community,” they write. “It is also an occasion to expand this original sisterhood, to broaden our own perspectives and knowledge about the differential attainment of success in STEM, and to commit to unraveling the double bind these women face.”


To order a copy of the Summer 2011 issue of Harvard Educational Review, phone 1-800-513-0763.

See an introduction and abstracts of the articles in “Unraveling the Double Bind: Women of Color in STEM,” a symposium in the Harvard Educational Review summer 2011 issue.

See a PDF of the original 1976 report, “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.”