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Study: half of black and Latina women scientists have been mistaken for admin or custodial staff

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Nearly half of black and Latina women scientists say they've been mistaken for administrative or custodial staff in the workplace, a study published in March found.

(Harvard Business Review)


Forty-eight percent of black women and 47 percent of Latina women said they'd had this experience. The numbers for white and Asian women are lower but still disturbing, at 32 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

Those are just some of the findings from the new research, which was summarized by the Harvard Business Review. The takeaway of the study, by Joan C. Williams, Katherine W. Phillips, and Erika V. Hall, is that personal choices aren't the only reason women decide to leave STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. The bias they face in the workplace once they enter these jobs plays a huge role, too. And unsurprisingly that bias is especially intense and takes different forms when it comes to women of color.

The researchers interviewed 60 female scientists and surveyed 557 more, and confirmed Williams's previous findings that there are four major patterns of bias women face at work:

  1. Having to prove their competence over and over again
  2. Walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent and too masculine to be likable
  3. Having their commitment to their work and their competence questioned after they start families
  4. Navigating the tense relationships between women that result from the gender bias they all face

They also uncovered a fifth pattern that applied mostly to black and Latina women: isolation. These women said they were excluded from social events with their STEM colleagues (or excluded themselves because of negative experiences or fear of being judged), and that they fielded offensive comments and assumptions based on their identities.

Things like being mistaken for custodial and administrative staff understandably contributed to this experience.

The research also revealed other patterns based on race: For example, 37 percent of Asian women (compared with 26 percent of white women and 8 and 9 percent of black and Latina women, respectively) said they'd been encouraged by colleagues to work fewer hours after having children.

Williams used the findings to argue that those who are interested in retaining women in STEM careers need to listen to women — including women of color, specifically — about what's happening to them and why they're leaving, and develop objective metrics for eliminating this bias.


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