March 6, 2016

Panel Examines Issues Facing Women of Color in STEM

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Women of color in STEM face obstacles including sexism abundant in the field and bias from peers, Iyore Olaye ’16, president of the Cornell National Society of Black Engineers stressed at a panel Friday.

Olaye and four other panelists spoke to undergraduate women of color at the First Friday Dinner, an event which she said encourages discussion of the challenges women of color struggle to overcome.

Rebecca Rabelo ’16 said many professors use a “color-blind approach” to assigning group work in STEM classes, while others intentionally assign diverse groups.

“Your group can’t be all the same gender, your group can’t be all the same ethnicity,” Rabelo said. “I appreciate that and I realize from … those moments that a lot of my professors don’t do that.”

Ogechukwu Anyene ’18 said that to dispel biases, she often has to contribute more than other students when she works in groups.

“When you can’t choose your own group, I’ve sometimes found that I have to work twice as much,” Anyene said.

Alicia Cintora ’19 added that students she works with will typically delegate less challenging work to her.

“Usually all of the paperwork and the ‘Oh, you take the notes’ get handed off to me,” Cintora said. “The actual science and engineering part is done by them, and I’m handed off the project of ‘Oh you work on the presentation, you put it together, you make the poster.’”

Women of color face additional gender bias, because assertiveness is seen as a sign of leadership in men but is associated with rudeness or bossiness in women, according to Rabelo.

“Finding that balance is much more difficult,” Rabelo said. “In group projects, my positive and negative feedback is always the same. The positive is ‘you speak up’ and the negative is ‘you speak up too much.’”

The stereotype of the “angry black woman” makes it difficult for women of color to speak freely, according to Korie Grayson ’16.

“You don’t want to cross that line,” Grayson said. “I’ve been called ‘ratchet’ and ‘ghetto’ in a professional environment and often I can’t give the reaction I want to give … because you don’t want to be seen as ‘sassy’ or having an attitude.”

Olaye offered the audience advice on celebrating their successes, encouraging them to maintain and cultivate a strong sense of identity.

“Remember who you are,” Olaye said. “You deserve to be at Cornell. You deserve to be in an environment and space that’s conducive to your success, and you have to speak up if it’s not doing so.”