When women chemists of color talk about how they got to where they are now professionally, the conversation can be simultaneously funny and poignant. At the ACS Women Chemists of Color Summit symposium on Tuesday morning, Aug. 24, seven such women joined in a semicircle before a packed audience to share their experiences about overcoming hurdles unique to women of color. Moderated by Zakiya Wilson, assistant director for graduate recruitment and admissions at the department of chemistry at Louisiana State University and Gloria Thomas, an assistant chemistry professor at Xavier University of Louisiana, the session was frequently punctuated by laughter. As a person of color myself, I was inspired by these women’s determination to break barriers and claim their rightful places in their chosen professional roles on the basis of merit. Their example eases the path for other women of color.
Two stories about establishing credibility and credentials stood out for me.
Shu Shu (yes, her first and last names look identical when written in English, and they are pronounced the same, but they are represented by different Chinese characters, she explained), a chemical engineer with a Ph.D. from Georgia Institute of Technology and now working at Shell in Houston, recounted her first overseas assignment, to the Netherlands, to supervise the start up of a refinery unit that she had designed. The child of a Chinese mother and a Japanese father, Shu is soft spoken and almost delicate in appearance.
Most companies have diversity programs, Shu said, and in Shell the concept of diversity goes beyond the usual factors of sex, race, and age to diversity in personalities, ways of thinking, and ways of working. “I felt terrific because I worked with colleagues from all over the world,” she said, “until I got my first assignment to go to Netherlands to work in a refinery.”
On Shu’s first day at the refinery, the contract workers who would be starting up the unit—Dutch men who didn’t speak English–thought that Shu was a tourist. It didn’t occur to them that this Asian woman was going to supervise their work. “I asked a colleague to help with translation, but the contractors still didn’t respect me; they called me the girl engineer,” Shu said. So Shu studied Dutch words and learned how to say, turn on this valve, turn off this valve, and grudgingly the Dutch contractors realized that she is an Asian woman who knows this refinery stuff. Shu must have been the first woman engineer that they’ve ever seen, and she was not even 30 years old at the time. “When people don’t realize our credentials,” Shu said, “we have to prove to them our credentials.”
Kristala J. Prather, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at MIT, preemptively quashes doubts about her credentials with a simple prop that can be as conspicuous or inconspicuous as she decides: her MIT class ring.
In a world dominated by a certain group of people, the tendency is to think that the presence in that world of those who are different is due to some criteria having been relaxed, some policy having been altered, or some allowances having been made to accept them, otherwise they won’t be able to stand on their own merit, Prather explained to me. “That attitude can pervade on many levels, and so you have to position yourself to not be questioned. I wear my MIT class ring on the first day of class when I lecture to MIT undergrads as a sign that this is my credential, that I have been where you are and apparently did well enough to be invited back to teach you. And so you can ask me any question about science, you can question technical matters, but you can’t question my right to be here. You can’t question my right to instruct you, because I’ve earned it, it wasn’t given to me.”
At the beginning of her academic career at MIT, Prather had heard that some MIT students approach lecturers from minority groups with “a lot of attitude,” she told me. “I am proactive in terms of learning from others’ experience,” she said. “What can I do to minimize the chances of that happening to me? The MIT ring is a symbol in campus; all the students recognize it, it means I have been through the system.”
It would be a sure sign of great progress when women chemists of color won’t need to prove their credentials again and again except through the quality of their science and their demonstrated expertise.
The symposium received generous assistance from the National Science Foundation, according to Thomas, including travel grants that enabled several other women chemists of color to attend the ACS meeting. Those who were at the symposium are pictured here:
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