Celebrating Black Women for Black History Month

We are so excited for Black History Month, where we take time to recognize the history of the Black community around the world! In celebration, we’re focusing on the experiences of Black women in STEM, Black women who have shaped the field, and how we all can support Black women in STEM.

Reflect: Why Should We Talk About the History of Black Women in Science and Tech?

As a part of the complex web of violence and disenfranchisement that comprises white supremacy, the erasure of the work, lives, and stories of Black people (especially Black women) reinforces a racist hierarchy by erasing the rich intellectual history of the community. In higher education, this element of white supremacy manifests in the way that certain spaces create a hostile environment for Black students, scholars, and workers. This hostility is entrenched in the barriers causing Black women to still be fighting for “firsts” in higher education, such as Lindsay Davis, PhD being the first to receive a chemistry doctorate from UTA in 2021. In STEM, Black women’s capabilities, accomplishments, and needs are diminished under the field’s widespread “survival of the fittest” mindset (Carlone & Johnson, 2007; McGee & Bentley, 2017; Ong et al., 2011; Robinson et al., 2016). Identity-safety cues that signal support for Black women’s success are instrumental for Black women to feel supported (Johnson et al., 2019) – such as empathetically listening to Black women discussing their experiences, sharing and advocating for their work, and ensuring they are never left out of the conversation in your office, classroom, and beyond. Doing so can fight the attrition of these women from STEM (Lewis et al., 2017) and can positively change the underrepresentation of Black women in STEM degrees and beyond.

Learn: The Role of Black Women in Tech

Black women have been at the center of many technological and scientific advancements, from things we use in our everyday life to revolutions in our position in the universe. Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, who filed 5 patents over her lifetime, invented a version of the sanitary belt that would become the precursor to modern menstrual pads, but was passed over by marketing companies who did not want to invest in a Black woman. Dr. Shirley Jackson, current president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is a renown physicist whose research contributed to the invention of things such as Caller ID. NASA’s advancements in space-going technology, including for our first trips to the moon, would not exist without the work of Black women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. While the intellectual work of Black women has been central to many advancements, science and technology have also insidiously benefitted from the bodies of Black women. Henrietta Lacks’ “immortal” cells (called HeLa cells) were given to researchers without her consent and became instrumental to future cancer, immunology, and infectious disease breakthroughs (including COVID-19). Black women have contributed in countless ways to the science and technology – taking the time to recognize this history is an incremental step to support the work of Black women in the present day.

Change: Supporting Black Women in Tech

  • Stop Commonplace Erasure: There are many ways that erasure happens in our everyday life. The first is the “idea pirate,” which happens when women offer ideas that are downplayed, only to have a man share those ideas and be celebrated. Knowing that this happens in every aspect of life, from informal to professional conversations, call out “idea piracy” and begin a conversation about listening to and respecting the opinions of everyone equally. An additional way erasure occurs is the uneven rate at which women are interrupted while speaking (Hancock & Rubin, 2014; Zimmerman & West, 1975). To combat this, encourage people to pause before attempting to speak while another person is speaking and reflect on how interruptions create a power imbalance on who is allowed to speak and contribute. These small steps can begin to destabilize environments where Black women are not listened to.
  • Engage and Share the Work of Black Women: When you are considering what movies to watch, articles to read/assign, or any other kinds of content in your day, ensure you include the voices of Black women. When you consider bringing in these voices, always cite these women properly (which includes appropriately compensating them when you are inviting them to speak or partaking in their services). Furthermore, encourage others in your life to engage the work of Black women, such as promoting the inclusion of Black women at (paid) speaking events. Engaging, sharing, and crediting Black women’s work not only encourages those of us who are allies to step outside our own perspective, it also helps deconstruct gaps in wages (AAUW, 2019) and important promotional benchmarks like tenure (Rucks-Ahidiana, 2021).