Skip to main content

Black Womxn, STEM Fields Need You! So Don’t Exit Stage Left When Things Get Hard.

Posted by on Tuesday, March 16, 2021 in Robert Penn Waren Center.

Nicole Joseph
Rena Robinson, (Vanderbilt University/Joe Howell)
Rena Robinson, (Vanderbilt University/Joe Howell)

Nicole M. Joseph is Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at Vanderbilt University.

Renã A. S. Robinson is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Vanderbilt University.

Hey, Sis, if you have been keeping up with anti-racist, racist, and diversity, equity, and inclusion talks in STEM then you might be feeling like we’re feeling. Tired. Over it. Overwhelmed. Angry. Discouraged. Frustrated. Numb. But somehow still motivated to be a change agent because Black womxn are silenced oh, too much, and are as rare in STEM as a bag of Grippos outside of the Midwest region of the country.

Black womxn account for less than one percent of STEM doctoral degrees according to the National Science Foundation (Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019 | NSF – National Science Foundation). Our decision to embark upon this journey is usually because we have been motivated by our love for science or a mentor that told us science could be a vessel to a rewarding career. However, take two steps into STEM fields that are dominated by a majority white male population and we are met with a resistance and tolerance that sucks the life from our very being. So, we exit left the first chance we get. Exit physically. Or exit mentally and emotionally to protect our very being.

We can’t keep leaving stage front because others are not ready for what extraordinary talent we bring to the table. We need you. STEM fields need you. The world needs your bold, innovative, daring, and unique ideas to solve problems. Therefore, we share six tools to ensure you stay the course and thrive in your STEM journey as a Black womxn:

1. Remember what motivated your journey. What motivated you to start this journey? When the noise and nonsense around you gets too loud, let’s turn up the voice that reminds you why you are on this journey. That voice will help you keep your eyes on the prize. You, and yes, you especially, Sis, have a specific calling for being in STEM, and this part of your journey is only a necessary means to the fulfillment of your calling.

2. Fight only the battles that are for you at a given moment in time. Determine if a given battle is one that you need to fight or one that someone else can fight for you. Or simply, should your fight be to walk away. Your best energies are needed for your brilliance in STEM.

3. Use your voice when it absolutely must be heard. There are times when our voices absolutely must be heard and when so, use yours boldly. But then there are times when our voice falls on deaf ears and will not be appreciated. Thus, know when you need to use your voice, and use it with all of its power and vibrato.

4. Seek council from ‘Seasoned Vets in the Game.’ To keep your sanity in this discipline, be humble and willing to seek counsel from established sistahs who are voices of reason. They have been where you have been (or worse) and they will validate you. They also will help you understand if your perspective is misconstrued or help advocate for you.

5. Secure mentors each step along your journey. Find both peer and aspirational mentors at every stage along this journey. Invest in mentoring relationships so that they can be of true benefit to you and your mentor. Mentors will share the secrets that others won’t.

6. Surround yourself with community and those that support you no matter what. It becomes easier to stay the course when you have community and support. Family can mean blood but also friends and colleagues in and out of your field that appreciate you as a person. Your family will remind you of your stardom and help you shine brighter when those days get difficult and dark.

If you have strategies that have worked well for you on your STEM journey, comment and let’s keep the conversation going.

Nicole M. Joseph is Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. Her research explores two lines of inquiry, (a) Black women and girls, their identity development, and their experiences in mathematics and (b) gendered anti-blackness, whiteness, white supremacy and how these systems of oppression shape Black women’s and girls’ underrepresentation and retention in mathematics across the pipeline.

Renã A. S. Robinson is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Vanderbilt University and an inaugural Dorothy J. Wingfield Phillips Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow. She has a nationally and internationally recognized research program and is an emerging leader in the field of proteomics for her work in aging, Alzheimer’s disease, and applications relevant to human health. Recently Chemical & Engineering News awarded her with the 2016 Talented Twelve Award, distinguishing her as one of the world’s brightest young minds in the field of chemistry.