LIFESTYLE

Black and Hispanic women scientists frequently confused for janitors, study finds

Laboratory of wine A woman works in the laboratory of wine of the Bodegas Protos in Penafiel. Valladolid province  (Photo by JMN/Cover/Getty Images)

Laboratory of wine A woman works in the laboratory of wine of the Bodegas Protos in Penafiel. Valladolid province (Photo by JMN/Cover/Getty Images)  (AnalÛgico)

When you think of a lab coat, what kind of person do you imagine wearing it? Male or female? Black or white?

Studies have shown that by the time children reached second grade the one image engraved in their mind is a white lab coat that belonged to a scientist with glasses. That is, a white male scientist with glasses.

The frequency of this stereotype has caused a huge problem for all female professionals in science, technology, engineering and math – fields collectively known by the acronym STEM – and especially black and Hispanic ones. 

The authors of a recent study published by UC Hastings – the law school at the University of California, San Francisco – entitled “Double Jeopardy?: Gender Bias Against
Women of Color in Science,” conducted an online survey of hundreds of female scientists of all races and interviewed 60 who are black, Hispanic and Asian-American. All the interviewees reported that they had experienced some form of gender or racial bias.

"Several of them were actually being treated as admin, expected to fill out other people's grant forms, coordinate other people's meetings, and they couldn't get out of it," Joan Williams, a law professor at the UC Hastings and one of the authors of the report, told the Science Times.

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In fact, nearly half of the Latinas (48 percent) and African-Americans (46.9 percent) said they had been mistaken for administrative assistants or custodial staff. 

One Latina interviewed told the scientists, "First they assume I am the secretary for all the faculty ... Second, sometimes they assume I am the janitor, even during office hours.”

Many of the Latina women say they have to deal with the added pressure try to overcome the stereotype that Hispanics are lazy, angry or too emotional.

“I have actually heard people discuss Hispanic people as being lazy,” one Latina told researchers. “I immediately tell them that my mother is Mexican-American, and that usually make them very uncomfortable. At which point I’ve even had people say, ‘Oh but you’re just half.’”

Women make up half of the general workforce but the Washington Post notes that in STEM fields women only represent one-fourth of the labor pool.

Janet Koster, executive director of the Association for Women in Science, told the Post that only 10 African-American women and 10 Hispanic women in 2012 received Ph.D.s out of a total of 852 granted in mathematics and statistics.

“The numbers have just not moved in all the STEM disciplines in the last 10 years,” Koster said. “Women start out, but seep out of the pipeline when they go into early careers or academic education. For people of color, we’re not even getting them into the pipeline in the first place. That has to change.”

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