Reflections: Breakfast @Harvard, White Privilege, Kyla McMullen’s Sexy Black Female Scientists List, & Bringing Women in STEM to the Table

Over the last two weeks I’ve given a talk at MIT, had meetings at Harvard, and I’ve given a presentation and participated in a plenary panel at the International Forum of the American Society of Engineering Education conference (ASEE) (My talk was titled “Bringing Women in STEM to the Table.”) I also gave a talk in a session at the general ASEE conference . When you are away, there is time to create and reflect. These last two weeks have been significant within the community of Black women in STEM, because  Dr. Kyla McMullen (an African-American Computer Scientist) wrote a blog that profiled 73 “Sexy Black Female Scientists” … and the blog went viral! It was picked up by several online media outlets.


 Read the article that profiles young, Black, female scientists on Kyla’s page here:


Kyla and I had talked about the pending list before she posted it, and I salute her in going forward with her vision! Kyla boldly mentioned her pending list at the Society of STEM Women of Color Conference earlier this month, and so many of us are happy that she posted. Since the posting,  many people have asked me about the list, and I haven’t been able to answer everyone, so I hope that this post will provide my perspective. Please note that Dr. McMullen was not intending to objectify women, nor was she downgrading their scholarship. She was making a statement … an important statement about presence in STEM environments … where we are visible minorities in our scientific spaces, but remain invisible to most of the world . Given that nearly 10,000 people have already shared her article on Facebook, I think that she is making her point.


Those who have “White Privilege” don’t need to prove their existence


After having breakfast at Harvard, hearing Wellesley’s Dr. Peggy McIntosh talk about her papers on “White Privilege” (and having wonderful indepth discussions with her), and after giving talks at a conference, I want to say that Kyla’s list is important because so many people don’t know that black women scientists exist! To those who have programs dedicated to underrepresented science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) recruitment and retention, or to those who are part of the mentoring or administrative structure of a National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health program to promote minority achievement: you know that we exist. Thank you for your mentoring, your training, your investment, and your respect. However, there are so many others in the United States, not to mention the world at large, who don’t know that there are women of color who are scientists and engineers. We may be underrepresented, but there are many of us!


Professors from underrepresented backgrounds, still seen as students


One of the men of African descent in the audience of Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s talk expressed dismay at regularly being asked if he was a student. He is in fact, a professor. He noted that despite his age, he is regularly asked if he is a student, as if he could not be one who would be a giver or “professor” of knowledge for his campus. I am regularly asked if I am a student when I am at universities outside of my home campus. People will say that it’s because I “look too young” to have my position. That is acceptable in some cases, and can be considered a compliment, but it is unacceptable when people who are obviously younger that I are addressed as “Dr.” or “Professor” at the onset. Some of my black female colleagues have discussed cases where they are addressed as the student, and their white male (and sometimes female) students are addressed as the professor.


Visible, yet invisible


For those who are hearing this for the first time, you might be incredulous. But for those to whom it has happened, this is part of our lived experience. Dare I discuss times where I am ignored, even when I look a person in the face and say hello, and then the same people change their tunes once they call my name and I get up to be the speaker? Dare I discuss the time when an older white woman yelled at me in the hallway at a conference in Chicago because I couldn’t tell her where the restroom was located, and she berated me for not “doing my job” and being a bad hotel worker? Apparently, it never occurred to her that I could be a participant in the conference. Apparently, the fact that I was dressed in business attire, and that I was wearing a conference name tag (complete with university affiliation) didn’t matter. Sigh.


Justifying existence


This situation brings me back to the other list, Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s list. Her list identifies some of the “daily effects of white privilege” in her life. Here is an example, from one of her papers, and one that she used in her talk earlier this week:


McIntosh Quote3 postupdate


Sometimes we get tired of explaining ourselves, or justifying our existence. Sometimes we are tired of trying to re-explain that these kinds of things happen when well-meaning colleagues of other races try to tell us that we’re imagining  each and every occurrence of racism, sexism, and bias. We’re here, we stand on the shoulders of many who preceded us,  and more of us are coming. We have stories to tell. We will make strong engineering contributions, we will make scientific discoveries, and we will contribute to the good of the world. Thank you Dr. McMullen for pushing your vision forward, for opening the conversation, and for showcasing a new generation of beautiful young women! As time progresses, I look forward to seeing more women at the table.


With Women covering Grace Hopper


(Top Left: With Dr. Peggy McIntosh (Wellesley Center for Women), author of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,”   and newly minted PhD and Engineering Equity Educator, Dr. Meagan Pollack (Purdue); Top Right: With Dr. Maria Larrondo Petrie, Executive Director of the Latin and Caribbean Consortium of Engineering Institutions (LACCEI), following our plenary at the 2014 ASEE International Forum; Bottom: Outside of the Grace Murray Hopper Conference Room at Harvard (Grace Hopper was a female Computer Scientist, the Anita Borg Institute’s world-wide “Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing” conference is one of her legacies.))




(Breakfast at the Harvard Faculty Club.) On a lighter note, this photo provides an inside smile for anyone who has ever worked on my teams for the PROMISE AGEP or UMBC Graduate Student Development, because  I rarely “do lunch.” Instead, we have 7:30 AM breakfast meetings. Similarly, when I speak on GRAD LAB tours for the National GEM Consortium, I meet with Dr. Marcus Huggans and Dr. Howard G. Adams in various cities across the country for 6:00 AM breakfasts before we depart to take the stage. My family will also smile because they know that in the midst of my efforts to eat healthy meals, I have written about my weakness for pancakes,  and  my love of cake  in general, including excuses to indulge.


Dedicated to all of my STEM sisters, of all races. 


(Updated: June 22, 2014)

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