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Less than a year after Teri Quinn Gray began working as a research manager for DuPont, the Wilmington, Delaware, chemicals manufacturer, she faced job uncertainty due to corporate restructuring. As anxiety grew among Quinn Gray and her colleagues, she was upset by a comment from one of her co-workers. A white male scientist said to her: “Your job is safe because you’re black and female.”
“I was shocked when my colleague said that to me. I think he felt vulnerable. We all did! I took it as an outdated misperception–that I had a leg up over him because of my race and gender and not an equal opportunity afforded by my skills and talents.” She currently serves as research/manager for Analytical Sciences in the DuPont Crop Protection department.
Even though that incident occurred 12 years ago, such stereotypes and biases still persist and hinder the advancement of minorities and women who are woefully underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). The March 2010 survey The Bayer Facts of Science Education XIV: Female and Minority Chemists and Chemical Engineers Speak about Diversity and Underrepresentation in STEM places a spotlight on the challenges of minorities and women filling the STEM pipeline from educational institutions to the workplace.
According to the survey, undergraduate and graduate students rate role models as one of the important factors for pursuing STEM careers.
Such support, however, seems elusive in the workplace: 62% of the survey’s 1,226 respondent pool maintained that lack of representation exists in their company’s workforce, citing bias, lack of professional development, a deficit of advancement opportunities, and isolation as major barriers. “The stigma is that women and underrepresented minorities are not able to cut it in science and engineering,” says Victor McCrary, Ph.D., president of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). McCrary explains that credentials are often questioned with colleagues and managers asking whether they have the “right pedigree to tackle these disciplines” or whether they are “coming from the right schools.” Even if a student has received a degree from MIT, he says, “there’s still the question: ‘Were you admitted through affirmative action?’”
In an anonymous anecdote from the survey, one respondent cited small disadvantages and biases as being overwhelming after the first decade of a professional career. Quinn Gray attributes this factor to some professionals who stay in an area too long and, as a result, hinder their mobility into the managerial ranks, especially in R&D.
To obtain skills they may lack, African American women were clearly more aggressive in finding professional development resources: 46% of African American women were likely to join a professional society or networking group, versus 37% of overall respondents. Quinn Gray took advantage of such training offered by her company and learned how to manage and communicate with various personality types. She also made sure to join professional associations like the American Chemical Society, Association for Women in Science, and NOBCChE.