I feel like an island: women from ethnic-cultural minority groups at faculties of science

At last! After years of toil, you reach a position at a university, within sciences, as a woman. You fought against prejudices and stereotypes, subtle and overt sexism, worked hard and claimed your place. Women in STEM are the future say policies, campaigns and organizations. You did your best and became a woman in STEM, you should be welcomed with open arms, no? Unfortunately, the reality is not so unequivocal.

What is going wrong anyway?

Flemish universities fail to retain competent women on their way to higher academic positions. Researchers observe a ‘leaking pipeline’, as it were. The inflow of men and women starting an academic career is almost equal, but as the career progresses, inequality arises between the number of men and women in higher positions.

Figure 1: Evolution of the proportion of men and women in the career stages of academic staff at Flemish universities in 2021 (Vlaamse Interuniversitaire Raad, 2021)

There is already a lot of research on the phenomenon of the leaking pipeline, also in Flanders. What struck me from previous studies is that researchers saw ‘women’ as a homogeneous group. However, the theory of intersectionality states that experiences of discrimination can be different depending on the characteristics of a person.  For example, women from ethnic-cultural minorities experience discrimination based on their gender and/or ethnic-cultural background.

From my thesis research about gender and diversity, in which I interviewed twelve women from ethnic-cultural minority groups at various Flemish science faculties, it appears that almost all participants have at least one experience with discrimination in their work environment. About half of the participants have experiences with racism, a majority cite experiences with sexism and about half cite experiences with discrimination at the intersection of their gender and ethnic-cultural background. These experiences of discrimination are very diverse and include micro-aggressions, overt sexism and racism, institutional discrimination and may be a barrier in these women’s careers. Based on this small-scale research, I formulated three essential tips for universities and diversity policies.

Tips for universities and diversity policies

1. Provide clear and accessible help channels

Reporting discrimination does not appear to be easy from the results of this survey. About half of the women feel that universities lack a clear structure to report discrimination. Furthermore, they do not know where to turn with questions about mental well-being. Since the majority of the participants indicate to have experiences with discrimination and experience high stress and work pressure, it seems important to provide structures where these women can go to.

So, most of my ideas usually get shot down during my meetings because he (the promotor) interrupts me every time I’m talking. (…) It ends up in the larger image where I don’t put forward anything and then only my supervisors are shooting me down and correcting everything that I’m saying, so it’s not very encouraging to continue under the supervisor.

Doctoral student in applied sciences

Because I’m the only girl in the like, in the room where we stay. And at the lunch table when we go to eat. And if you go out for a drink, I’m just, just the only girl. And it was quite difficult to deal with that. (…) Like I said, when I was in like a group setting and and yeah, everyone’s talking and don’t really have anything like, I don’t really have, the courage to speak up then… Yeah, I feel like an island.

Doctoral student in applied sciences

2. Strive for diverse research groups with more women, members of ethnic-cultural minorities and more women from ethnic-cultural minorities

This research also shows that the presence of role models and diversity in the STEM environment are important for the sense of belonging of women from ethnic-cultural minority groups, their self-confidence, and their mental well-being. Striving for diverse research groups, with more women, more members of ethnic-cultural minorities, and more women from ethnic-cultural minorities, can possibly make women from these groups feel better, which may make them less likely to be discouraged or want to quit their academic STEM careers.

You feel like you’re different and also the pressure… I still feel it because it’s like I’m the first woman they hired, so, if I don’t manage to achieve something and then it’s like I’m failing my gender.

Doctoral student in applied sciences

There was one conference that I could attend because that was the only thing that happened before covid, and there were some comments about… I don’t know. It was something like: okay, so you’re the only girl, you’re like a diversity hire in your group, or something like that. But, yeah, maybe it was a joke?

Doctoral student in applied sciences

3. Recognize intersectionality of experiences

Finally, this research shows that women from ethnic-cultural minorities may encounter barriers unique to their position as women from an ethnic-cultural minority. If universities and policy want to close the leaky pipeline and keep competent women in academia, they will need to pay attention to the experiences of these women.

So there’s been a couple of incidences where people have been invited to engage in dinners and photos and things, to try and flesh out the diversity of other people’s groups. So like, there’s been one incident where someone said to one of their students in an email: it would be great to have you here to add a splash of color! It’s just like… Well, wait, what are you doing?

Doctoral student in exact sciences

I wouldn’t have to worry about getting angry or like or emotional. And then that being used against me also something that I think worry about a lot as a black woman. I don’t wanna be the angry black woman because that’s a big stereotype. And so I have to feel like I have to check myself so much more often. And I don’t think that happens to white guys, you know, I feel like they’re encouraged. Like we live in this, you know, white, heteronormative, patriarchal society and, like, men get encouraged to do, live as they want, as loud as they want, as big as they want. And women and especially people of color are just not.

Doctoral student in exact sciences

If universities want to fix the leaking pipeline of competent women, they need to make sure they don’t lose them along the way. Universities need to support these women and be aware of the barriers they may be experiencing.

Who am I?

My name is Ella Nevelsteen, a teacher of nondenominational ethics and physics. I continued my studies after my teacher training and obtained an interuniversity master’s degree in gender and diversity. I have always been interested in women in science and education. Combining the two as a theme for my master’s thesis seemed incredibly interesting. I wanted to hear and document women’s experiences in order to better understand the problem of the leaking pipeline in Flemish higher education. To do this, I conducted twelve in-depth interviews with women in different scientific disciplines, they were doctoral students or postdoctoral researchers. In this way I try to contribute a little to the position of women in the academic scientific world. My current focus has shifted to secondary education, where as a science teacher (among others) I can motivate and interest children in sciences.