Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Sisters in Science

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Sisters in Science

Article excerpt

SPEAKING OF EDUCATION: Sisters in Science

More African American women participate in higher education than African American men, and the gap is widening. In 1995, there were 556,000 African American men enrolled as students in all institutions of higher education at all levels of matriculation, compared to 918,000 African American women. The growth in the number of African American women also exceeded the growth rate among African American men.

While the enrollment imbalance does not translate into a wage gap -- primarily because of the participation of women in typically female jobs -- the enrollment gap has socioeconomic consequences for students and for African American society at large.

Because more sisters are enrolled, more are also earning degrees at every level and in almost every field. But the gaps are narrower in some fields than others, and reflect the stereotypes and pipeline challenges that sisters face in some fields -especially in engineering and the sciences. For example, while African American women -- recipients of 53,000 bachelor's degrees in 1994 -- received 72 percent more of these degrees than the 31,000 degrees awarded to African American men, in just the biological and life sciences, the gap -- at 53 percent -- was smaller.

Is it simple propensity that has more Black women seeking degrees in education, the social sciences, and the health professions, or are sisters being subtly guided away from the sciences and into more "typically female" fields? Given the fact that African American women receive five bachelor's degrees for every three that men earn, why do they receive just two undergraduate engineering degrees for every three that men earn?

The gap is even wider for engineers at the master's level, where 682 degrees were awarded to African Americans in 1994 -- 493 to men and 189 to women. Overall, African American women receive two-thirds of all of the masters degrees awarded, but in engineering we receive just 28 percent of the degrees.

Gaps are as wide at the Ph.D. level, where just a handful of African Americans are receiving science and engineering degrees. In 1995, according to the American Council on Education, there were 102 Ph.D. degrees awarded to African Americans in the physical sciences and another 102 in engineering. In the life sciences, 290 African Americans received Ph.D. degrees.

In contrast, almost 500 degrees were awarded in social sciences and humanities, and more than 660 degrees were awarded in education. Although a gender breakdown is not available by field, it is not difficult to extrapolate from master's degree gaps that African American women collected few of the hard science degrees.

Many women who pursue science education experience isolation both in their graduate departments and in their communities. To whom do they speak of their work? Who are their mentors?

A sister who is junior faculty at a liberal arts college recalls that she often declined to discuss her work with other African American graduate students in order to avoid the description that her work was "too heavy" for them to understand. Yet, sisters like this need to be celebrated, not treated as brainy aberrations. When the notion that African Americans can master scientific concepts is more widely accepted, more African American men and women will feel secure in pursuing science careers. …

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