A Room of One

This commentary was submitted by Rochelle Newton, a senior manager of information technology at the Duke University School of Law. Dr. Newton is a graduate of North Carolina Central University, where she double majored in English and psychology. She holds a doctorate in higher education administration from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

Information technology (IT) is one of the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Several publications suggest STEM fields are expected to outpace all other industries in the coming decades. STEM fields experience less unemployment turbulence than other fields. Much of the research suggests STEM is a robust and possibly infallible domain.

However, STEM masks several concerns. Many of those who work STEM fields are rapidly aging. A 2016 National Science Foundation report found those working in the STEM fields are lingering well into their 60s. With the current ensemble of aging STEM workers and fewer students in the academic STEM pipeline, engineering, science, and technology experience appreciable turbulence. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2015 referred to it as the taxicab queuing:  “If the number of employers searching for employees is greater than the number of STEM workers, we have a queue of taxis, which manifests itself in the real world as a STEM shortage.  Several studies have concluded colleges and universities are noticing a decline in STEM retention across all races.  However, for minorities, the decline is appreciable.

To further exasperate the STEM conundrum is the lack of diversity.  The movie, Hidden Figures, chronicles the lives of five women who impacted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space race. The contributions of these women were unrecognized for many years until Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures was made into a film. Shetterly’s book is a classic example of STEM for many people of color. People hidden in the shadows of those who are recognized for their great contributions to a business, an industry, and an organization while people of color toil in the backgrounds unheard, unnoticed, and unseen.

As a woman of color with more than 30 years of information technology experience, I, like many of my colleagues, am a hidden figure. I am often the only person in a meeting that looks like me. I have been categorized as passive aggressive and strident. I may have the answer but those in the room look to the White male or female for the answer or confirmation. I am the angry Black woman. Thoughts and words can be attributed to me because I stand alone. There are few who come to my side. My mistakes are highlighted but when others make mistakes, their flaws are excused or mollified.

I am not paid equitably because my White peer is more experienced. When I ask for raise, I am told you are not as technical as he is. When a position in leadership becomes available, I apply but am not hired. I am not selected for promotion because I am likely not qualified. I did not go to the right school; did not write the right article, or did not sit on the right committee. The response is always cloaked in the secrecy of human resources. When the larger organization is confronted with the issue of diversity, the answer is ‘we did not receive any candidates’.

Hidden figures is not just a movie or a metaphor. It is a reality for many in STEM fields who look like me where diversity is simply a convenient buzz word. People of color are hired in the lower ranks or lower management but the important decisions are left to those with less melanin in their skin.

Filed Under: DiversityWomen's Studies


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