Learning from black women in physics

This week more than 500 physicists gathered in Baltimore for the 2015 annual conference of the National Society of Black Physicists to advance the success of black physicists and thereby to enhance the scientific leadership of the United States. It is inspiring to meet students from all over the country who are passionate about physics or astronomy, to hear their research presentations, learn from their experiences, and celebrate their successes.

Being comfortable as a triple minority requires great self-awareness and is made much easier if one has ascended Maslow’s pyramid. As a white male senior professor, I had exactly this experience during a remarkable workshop session about the experience of black female students in physics. Hearing their stories gave me a lot to think about.

I heard that too often, faculty members fail to recognize how difficult it is to ask for help when one is excluded from study groups or advised that maybe she does not belong. To be the only black woman, Native American woman, transgender person, or other minority among a group of people who are blind to the effects of privilege is already hard enough, almost impossibly hard. To then be told, “you should take an easier class,” “we don’t expect you to do so well,” or to be given no encouragement while others are encouraged creates a significant handicap.

Hearing about these experiences and internalizing them so as to guide one’s actions are two very different things. “Physics culture” does not make much room for a life or identity outside the laboratory. It was especially moving to hear the impact this has on a black Muslim woman or a young mother. What do we say to a woman wearing a burka, or a black mother carrying an infant, when she enters the physics building? Do we recognize that here may be the next Einstein?

It’s very important for those in leadership positions, and those who might ever become leaders, to understand the power of perception. I should not have been surprised to hear that every woman who spoke in this workshop experienced Impostor Syndrome, but I was. Every one had also received discouragement from faculty, peers, or both. One impressive astrophysicist described how difficult it was for her to ask for supplies from the department office, until she observed a white male carelessly demand the same. She then copied the behavior and found, to her surprise, that it worked.

How can we change this picture? I see three requirements: empathy, experience, and accountability.

We should not hire faculty members or other supervisors without empathy. This may anger those who disagree, but I don’t want someone without empathy teaching or supervising my child, or anyone else’s child. There are other positions for brilliant individuals who cannot work with people.

Experience means both learning from those who are different from oneself and learning from one’s mistakes. Most faculty members have had the experience of feeling like an outsider, whether it be as a student, a visitor to another country, or a junior faculty member wondering how to get tenure. It is easy to forget the discomfort of being an outsider when one is surrounded by people of similar experience and background. My advice is to renew your experience by listening with empathy to students who are very different from yourself. I have made mistakes as an advisor and find the surest way to identify and correct these mistakes is to listen with empathy.

The final requirement is to hold universities and their leaders accountable for the success of their students and employees. Not eventually, not maybe if we achieve our other goals, but now. Are our black students as satisfied as white students? Are women and men equally stressed by all they have to do? Are people shown the same basic respect regardless of their rank? Not at MIT.

Those universities that empower all of their community members to feel respected and supported, so that the greatest possible diversity of talent and perspectives is available for problem solving, will thrive. Until we can embrace our diversity, exercise empathy, and advance caring and respect, we will never achieve our full potential as individuals or as an Institute. Is MIT up to the challenge?

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