Ideas for supporting Black women physicists

Title: Educational pathways of Black women physicists: Stories of experiencing and overcoming obstacles in life

Authors: Katemari Rosa and Felicia Moore Mensah

First author’s institution: Federal University of Campina Grande

Journal: Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12, 020113 (2016) [open access]

Did you know that there are fewer than 100 Black women with PhDs in physics? Not fewer than 100 working at universities but fewer than 100 awarded all time? And that most of them have been awarded after 2000?

In addition, while other physical sciences have seen increases in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black students by over 30%, between 2005 and 2015, the number of physics bachelor’s degree awarded to Black students increased by only 4%.

Typically, studies approach the differences in degrees awarded by race from a failure perspective: why do Black students not enter STEM fields or complete STEM degrees at the same rate as their white peers? However, today’s paper takes a different approach. Instead of focusing on negative outcomes, today’s study focuses on why Black scholars were successful in pursuing their physics degree.

For this study, the researchers interviewed six Black women who earned a physics PhD. The researchers focused on obstacles the women faced in their career paths as well as the strategies they used to overcome them.

To understand their data, the researchers used Critical Race Theory. While there are many elements of Critical Race Theory, the researchers focused on three. First, racism is a normal part of American society and racism is not only due to individual’s actions but also due to cultural messages and institutional policies.

Second, the researchers used counterstorytelling where minoritized people tell their own stories to confront the stories of people in power and that experiential knowledge is central. For this study, that means allowing the Black women to explain their experiences.

Finally, the researchers used the idea of interest convergence, which states that white people will support racial advances for Black people only when it also benefits them, to understand the Black women’s experiences.

When analyzing the interviews, the researchers found that all six Black women were invited to engage with science from an early age, often starting with after school programs, followed by college co-option by physics departments before starting college, and summer research programs during college. Through these programs, the women felt a sense of community and were exposed to a variety of careers.

When I was in high school, I did a lot of summer programs that were in math and science. And I would say junior year of high school, I went to the [university], and I did a physics program. And there were tons of experiments that we did, and that was like my first research experience, even though I was a high school student.


All six of women explained that they chose physics over a different STEM field due to more exposure to physics than other STEM fields or better funding packages by physics departments. For example, one of the women, Jane, selected physics over engineering because she was offered more grants to study physics while majoring in engineering would have required her to take out loans.

I really wanted to go into engineering. And I thought, but you know, their package was more loans than
grants. And [her college] was more grants. That’s the only way this is possible, financial assistance, you
know? Financial assistance is just a dream, right? (laughs) Who could afford, except for people who come
from a wealthy family, you know? Who can afford this kind of education?


Then throughout their undergraduate degrees, the women had opportunities to participate in actual science research. Many of the women had the opportunity to work at different universities, national labs, or research institutes through summer programs, such as REUs. The women reported that the variety of research experiences they had influenced their career choice. Through the research, they were able to test out various subfields of physics, learn about post-doctoral opportunities, and even learn about the type of places they might want to work. Most importantly though, these programs were funded.

The Black women’s experiences with physics were not without obstacles however. Many of the women described feeling isolated in their programs. In the departments they worked, there were few other women and they were often the only Black physicist in the department, both among the professors and the other graduate students.

When interacting with the other graduate students, the women felt excluded. Many mentioned study groups specifically. In STEM and physics especially, having a study group is essential to completing homework assignments and preparing for exams. Yet, the Black women were not invited to participate in such groups. Due to their exclusion, the women felt they were alone struggling in their programs, since other students didn’t seem to be having as hard of a time. Due to a lack of support within their department, the women discussed how they created support groups with other Black women from different disciplines.

It was very hard for me because I was struggling and I was feeling I was stupid. I couldn’t get it, and they’re
getting it and [I’m] not understanding how they’re getting it. Or they’re getting it because they had access
to previous tests, homework solutions, you know, from previous years from previous students.


What can you do?

Based on the experiences of the six women and their own as women of color in STEM, the researchers described actions departments and individuals can do remove the obstacles the women faced and promote the actions the women felt were helpful for them staying in physics. As all physicists contribute to the culture of physics, it isn’t enough for just some of the members of the department to be working toward an inclusive environment.

If you are an instructor, consider

  • the beliefs you have toward your students. Research has shown that a course instructor’s views toward ability can affect the student’s grades.
  • creating in-class study groups and putting students in contact with each other. Some of the Black women described needing to “show up” and invite themselves into groups. Instructors can help by removing the burden from Black students needing to invite themselves.
  • making old exams and practices problems open to all students. We know that some students will have old exams from past students. Rather than giving these students an unfair advantage, consider sharing your old exams with all students so that students who aren’t friends with senior students aren’t at a disadvantaged.

If you are a department chair or a research mentor, consider

  • encouraging the Black students in your department to join the National Society of Black Physicists AND fund the students to attend and share their research at NSBP conferences.
  • creating summer programs for both Black K-12 and college students. These programs are essential for showing students they can be successful in physics and can show what a career in physics looks like.
  • how your students are funded. Is it possible to offer scholarships or grants for Black students who major in physics? Do all undergraduate research opportunities within the department pay the student or are students expected to earn their income elsewhere?

If these sound good, but you don’t think your colleagues will support these, what do you do? Remember the idea of interest convergence? White people will support racial advances only if there is something in it for them. Recent work has shown that people from underrepresented groups in STEM are more innovative in their research. So if your department is reluctant to promote anti-racist practices because it’s the right thing to do, you can fall back on the argument that allowing all people to participate in science results in better science.

Header image is of Carolyn Parker, who is believed to be the first Black women to earn a physics postgraduate degree in the U.S. It is a public domain image. Learn more about her at

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