Four Black Women In STEM Careers Talk With ‘Ebony’ Magazine About Their Paths To The Top

June 3, 2013 ‐ By Ann Brown


Ebony has published a story on four African-American women who are not only close friends, but, also a rarity in the job market, are black females in STEM fields.

Blacks are 12 percent of the U.S. population yet they received just seven percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, four percent of master’s degrees, and two percent of PhDs according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Out of 5,048 PhDs awarded in the physical sciences, 89 went to blacks, reports the magazine.

But these all of these four women — Jessica Porter, 29, Marguerite Matthews, 29, Dahlia Haynes, 31, and Racquel Jemison, 27 — received PhDs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields before reaching 30.  And now each is thriving: Porter is a current senior sensory scientist at Proctor & Gamble; Matthews is currently doing a post-doc at Oregon Health & Science University; Jemison is a Morgan State grad and doctoral student Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) who will receive a PhD in chemistry this fall; and Haynes is a  post-doctoral research associate at CMU.

There are some surprising revelations in the piece. Among them, most of them women did not feel there were obstacles in their way as young students that would have [prevented them from entering STEM fields, though they agree there needs to be more support for black students.I, for one, have received great institutional support to excel in science based fields. I do believe however that it is because of the (White) people I had around me who were heavily invested in diversity,” said Haynes.

Added Matthews,I don’t think there are barriers preventing Black students from going into or excelling in the sciences, per se. But I do think there is a lack of support, encouragement, and proper education for many Black students – especially those coming from more disadvantaged economic backgrounds.”

Porter said she felt she was actually given more help because she is African American. “I do not think that there are barriers preventing Black women from entering or excelling in science based fields any more than there are barriers for White women. Science remains to be a male dominated field so the issues from my experience have had to do more with being a woman than being Black. In addition, as a Black woman, we check two boxes, which tend to be very important for funding especially at a time when scientific funding is being cut,” she explained.

All of the women agreed there needed to be more outreach to African American students to tell them about opportunities in STEM. And Matthews stressed a need for blacks in STEM to get involved. It’s hard for any kid to aspire to an occupation they may know nothing about. Kids want to emulate what they see. If they’re not seeing scientists and engineers – especially those that look like them – they’re likely not going to pursue those careers. And we all know it’s not just what you know, but who you know. So Black kids need to know STEM professionals and know the resources to tap into to get there,” she pointed out. Even past school, the foursome agreed it was important for blacks in STEM to support each other.  

Do you agree with these women?

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  • Penny

    Bingo. Kids will not pursue careers in fields in which they see no one WHO LOOKS LIKE THEM. Spot on. And on another forum I was called a “racist” for stating something along those lines. Personally I subscribe to the theory that just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. After all, who has ever seen a proton, neutron or electron – but in order to major in any scientific discipline we must believe they EXIST, now hadn’t we? Kids aren’t likely to grow up to be mathematicians or scientists if they don’t believe that people who look like them CAN major in those fields (and get into the more prestigious universities while we’re at it) just because they’ve “never seen any.” That mentality is definitely not going to lend itself to being able to major in science, and that is the problem. Black kids don’t believe something can exist if they don’t see it right in front of their faces. Well, no Physics or Chemistry classes for them, then. Ever. That is their problem. Native Americans, on the other hand, do believe in things we can’t necessarily see. That they’re “out there somewhere.” And yet there aren’t too many of US in the science or math fields, either, go figure.

  • Ruthmarie

    Demand for STEM workers is very fickle and cyclic in nature. I do not recommend these fields to young people because the educational pipeline is long and often the job market has changed dramatically by the time the student is ready for that job they worked so hard for. The pay is terrible in many cases and your “shelf-life” in these fields can be less than 10 years before you are “too old”. Prior to that you were training until your mid to late 30s. Further, these fields are easily outsourced and are being commoditized by guest worker abuse in this country. I have a doctorate in a STEM field…for the little good it did me. 8 years of blood, sweat and tears and I have a degree on the wall and the privilege of being called “doctor”. But that does not put food on the table or a roof over your head.

    • Penny

      And “only” a Bachelor’s in Math, Chem or Physics will REALLY get you nowhere, except for maybe qualifying for a state teaching license for 7th-12th grades which lends itself to a daily dose of insult and abuse along the lines of “do you even know Math” (because your skin is too dark to really be “that smart.”) Yeah, nice to know that even a PhD would have done me no good unless I was under-30 at the time — not well-over-40.