Overcoming the Layers of Obstacles: The Journey of a Female African American Physicist to Achieve Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness

Overcoming the Layers of Obstacles: The Journey of a Female African American Physicist to Achieve Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness

Helen C. Jackson (African Scientific Institute, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8870-2.ch004
OnDemand PDF Download:
No Current Special Offers


This chapter documents the experiences in the journey of an African American female physicist. They correspond to those in documented studies of other African Americans and females in both the specific field of physics as well as the broader area of all STEM. When scaled with the norm of these groups, there is a thread of consistencies in the obstructions and difficulties that seem to be common to the underrepresented. This writing, which is adopted from the author's previous contribution to a similar topic, seeks to continue to reinforce the challenges women of color have experienced in pushing for advances obtained thus far. The scientific Ph.D. community is an area that many have felt was immune to the difficulties faced by African Americans on the lower end of society. It is evident that our society is neither “post-racial” nor “post-sexist,” even on the higher intellectual turf. With a level playing field that is established by removing the obstacles that systemic racism creates—obstacles like unfair roadblocks—accomplishing one's dreams is attainable.
Chapter Preview


After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended. (Mandela, 1975)

Addressing sexism, women have had to wait on society to evolve in order to experience equity and inclusion, particularly in STEM fields. The recognition of scientific brilliance and high technical competence are characteristics African American women are gaining but are still fighting to have recognized as attributes. The book and movie Hidden Figures exposed to the world their brilliance, pinpointing the fact that Space Race successes were due to the computational genius of African American women like Katherine Johnson back in the 1960’s—who, by accurately calculating the correct flight trajectories, bears responsibility for the first American astronaut’s orbiting of the moon (Hidden Figures, 2016).

In the author’s field of physics, there have been only 3 female Nobel laureates in 117 years—none of which were African American—as opposed to 206 men. The most recent female is Donna Strickland (Nobel Media, 2018). Yet the author personally knows of Nobel-worthy African American females who have changed the course of science their fields—women like ophthalmologist and inventor Patricia Bath (A&E Television Networks, 2018).

Addressing racism: History is adorned with African American inventors and scientists who have made world-changing contributions despite the obstacles that surrounded them (McFadden, 2018). For women of African descent, the fight is against a double-edged sword. The anti-discrimination laws—laws which resulted from the civil rights movement of the 1970s through the 1980s, and which opened some doors—assisted in bulldozing down the locked doors of STEM. Now, there is still a big question mark as to whether there is equity once inclusion has been achieved. Despite a rich history of having been contributors in all arenas, African Americans—though many decades after Jim Crow formally ended—are poorer and have harder lives than do their counterparts in White society.

African Americans still face racism at every turn. They are not necessarily viewed with admiration, but rather as if under a magnifying glass that is expected to reveal some fault. There is no guarantee that they can count on the support of White females; as it is, often the contrary is the case. As former President Barack Obama recently stated in his speech on the 50th memorial of Bloody Sunday (as echoed in Mandela’s quote above), the Civil Rights movement did not end decades ago but is an ongoing movement—a work still in progress (Obama, 2015).

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: