Still Invisible

Bug Girl is citing a new report (pdf download link), “A National Analysis of Minorities in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities”, in which 100 departments representing 15 disciplines of engineering and science (including social science) were surveyed. As we might expect, the results suck. Actually, the results suck even worse than the authors (Dr. Donna Nelson, supervising Christopher N. Brammer and Heather Rhoads) probably realise. But before I get ahead of myself, let me share some of what they had to say.

The U.S. population is increasing in Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, known collectively as underrepresented minorities (URMs). Also, the women’s share of the general U.S. work force continues to increase. Together, URMs and women constitute almost two-thirds of the U.S. population; as their representations increase in the work force, underutilizing their talent and potential in science and engineering is not only impractical, but also detrimental to the nation’s future success.

There are several factors to look at when examining such statistics. These include the percentage of the minority in the overall national population, who complete an undergraduate degree, who complete a graduate degree, who apply for faculty positions, and who are hired as faculty. The authors do a nice job of going through these steps in their paper. Let’s take this step-wise. (Note: For easier reading, I removed the citation numbers that were in the original text, as indicated by ellipses within or between sentences.)

The percentage of the minority in the overall national population.

Although the representation of Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans in the 2006 U.S. population was estimated … to be 12.8%, 14.8%, and 1.1%, respectively, their representation at almost each point in academia is lower.

The percentage of the minority who complete a graduate degree.

Between the years 1986-1995 and 1996-2005, the percentage of Ph.D. recipients who are URMs increased by about 2.5%, a growth rate below that of females (5.9%). This increase in representation among Ph.D. recipients is much less than the 7% increase in URM representation in the U.S. population from 1980-2000 (18.8 % to 25.9%). … Most of this 7% increase can be attributed to a rise in the Hispanic population (from 6.4% to 12.6%).

The percentage of the minority who complete an undergraduate degree;

On average, URM representation in Ph.D. attainment drops from that in B.S. attainment by a factor of 2 to 3.

The percentage of the minority who apply for faculty positions;

Comparing representations of URMs, shows a disparity between their representations among 1996 – 2005 Ph.D. recipients (the hiring pool) versus FY2007 assistant professors (faculty most recently hired) at the top 100 departments of most disciplines (Table 4).

The percentage of the minority who are hired as faculty.

As seen in Table 1, the few minority faculty members present in academia are usually concentrated in the lower ranks, chiefly as assistant professors. For example, in sociology all URMs combined represent 19.2% of assistant professors (newest hires), 11.1% of associate professors, and 10.8% of “full” professors in FY2007. In only 3 of the 15 disciplines surveyed in FY2007 are the majority of URM faculty at the rank of associate professor. In no discipline surveyed was the highest percentage of URMs at the rank of “full” professor. The opposite is true for White males.

Unfortunately, in the past twenty years the number of graduate degrees in the biological/medical sciences has doubled, but the number of faculty positions is roughly the same. (There are plenty of recent PhD graduates in these sciences who end up as post-doc researchers for some years before getting hired as professors, or eventually move out of academia into industry for better wages et cetera.)

Okay, so we know that college degrees and the number of professors among ethnic minorities lags behind population averages. Alas, not shocking news. This doesn’t bode well for overall employment levels, and also means a lack of role models for college students, as the authors point out:

If minority professors are not hired, treated fairly, and retained, minority students perceive that they will experience the same. This will not encourage them to persist in that discipline.

But here’s the kicker: what kind of person is considered to be of a “minority”?

We know that today’s students are more diverse than they used to. In fact, the fresh-out-of-high-school student is no longer the main sort of person filling all those lecture hall seats. Over 73% are “Non-Traditional” students (over 25 years old, and/or married, and/or with children).

Still, aside from ethnic background and age, we’re still missing a large segment of the population from studies. What is the largest minority in the US?

It’s not a racial group. The authors are only considering racial or ethnic groups as “minorities”. Hmn … when I searched my state’s universities’ Web sites for “minority” I got links for “multicultural”, meaning “African-American, Native American, Hispanic and Asian”. Searching for “diversity” yielded more information about minorities, and clicking on enough links would lead me to a smattering of other links for religious studies & organisations, disabled student access office & organisation, and if I dug far enough, links for the local LGBT organisation.

Certainly students with disabilities who take longer to complete degrees, and students who experience great difficulties in higher education and are not diagnosed with special education needs until they are adults, are also in the Non-Traditional category.

Despite Tony Attwood’s half-serious joke about the number of people with Asperger’s in engineering departments, the number of people with various disabilities are still highly under-represented in higher education. Per a 2002 Census Bureau report, 18% of the US population has a disability. Of all Americans in the 25-64 year age range, 43% were college graduates, but only 22% of those degreed adults had severe disabilities and 33% had non-severe disabilities. However, the numbers for current disabled students is much lower, comprising only 11% of the undergraduate student body.

The points that the report by Nelson, Brammer & Rhoads makes about transitions from secondary school to college, and from undergraduate to graduate school, and to employment as professors, and then having diversity in the faculty to encourage further minority graduates, are very important points. I included them here because they are important, and because they also apply equally well to people with various disabilities.

Reports like this one are necessary, not only for the data results tracking trends, but also for the analyses that describe issues. But when they focus only upon racial background and sex, they not only miss identifying the largest yet most under-represented minority population, they also perpetuate the cloak of invisibility.


  1. Tori said,

    2 December 2007 at 3:19

    I am attempting to beat the odds. First, I am female. Second, I am multi-racial (part Native American), Finally, I am considered to have a disability by law since I have implanted medical devices that restrict me from engaging in some physical activities. As if those things weren’t enough, I am also a cancer survivor and a Mensa member (which doesn’t always garner brownie points from others when they find out).

    So, why am I writing? I am constantly finding myself in situations where superiors would rather work me to death to try and pressure me into leaving than attempt to fire or expel me outright. Everyone is happy enough to have me on board, but once they discover my medical history, all those open doors of opportunity slam shut on a dime. I never volunteer any information but it can be difficult to hide my restrictions or the small programmer I must wear on my belt each day that I cannot always conceal beneath my clothes. My strong will prevents me from quitting and if I am unable to reduce the unreasonable demands placed upon me, I attempt to compensate.

    I envy my colleagues who do not have to live this way and continue to take so many of life’s simplest pleasures for granted. I have no life of my own beyond work because I am locked into this vicious cycle where I run myself into the ground trying to prove that I am just as capable as anyone else only to suffocate beneath a mountain of growing demands. Despite the fact that I carried workloads two and three times what was normal, nothing I did was ever quite good enough. I was once a bright-eyed doctoral student with a promising future in science but now… I am lonely, broke, unemployed, and exhausted with life.

    Professors in my doctoral program spent 3 years forcing me to accept montly disability payments or menial labor instead of pursuing a career in science until they shuffled me out of the department before terminating my degree entirely (with an A- GPA). There is no tolerance for students like me where I am now (a continuing education program at a top-tier school) and the research center where I used to work did not have anyone else working there with disabilities of any sort. There was just 1 African-American in the entire building.

    I often question my purpose in life now because it is so vastly different than what it once was. I honestly do not know why I fought so hard for a life that was already gone. I have been saving an important model that I planned on contributing to my field later in my career… I have been hanging on for six years as I searched for a way out of this life. Now, that work that would have been my crowning achievement, may be all I ever leave behind. I cannot help wondering just how much wasted talent is scattered across this nation; thrown to the wind like ashes of what could have been.

    Some of the most brilliant people I have ever met were, in fact accepting disability in lieu of a career which they were more than qualified to have. While I never expected to find anyone else in this place who experienced precisely the same things I did, it would have been nice to have a fair chance. I would love nothing more than to have a real mentor who could help me find my way through the glass ceiling… It doesn’t even matter whether or not they shared any common experiences with me– all I ever wanted was someone who could evaluate my aptitude based on merit and not in terms of my physical characteristics and give me good advice.

    I am hoping that by sharing my thoughts here, I might, in some small way, contribute to change. If not for me, then perhaps for someone else. Certainly if I am fortunate enough to find a path out, I will return to post it here.

  2. 4 November 2007 at 3:00

    Not really related to this post, except in an elliptical way (if that’s the word I’m looking for…oblique? tangental?):

    In the field of deaf education, deaf people of color and other concerned individuals often complain that there are almost no DEAF TEACHERS OF COLOR teaching deaf children of color, even at schools for deaf children where you’re more likely to find deaf teachers generally. (Deaf teachers at HEARING schools–I mean, schools primarily meant for hearing children–are nearly non-existent. Which is a problem for the 80 or so percent of deaf children who are mainstreamed because it often leaves them with no deaf adult role models–ESPECIALLY for the 90 to 95% who have hearing parents. Which is a little more relevant to this article I guess, and still a very important problem in its own right, but a separate issue.)

    You CAN find plenty of WHITE deaf teachers, at least at some schools for deaf children. (Again, usually not in mainstream settings where most deaf students in the U.S. tend to be these days) You can even find some hearing teachers OF COLOR, usually meaning African American. But a DEAF TEACHER OF COLOR is so rare as to be nearly non-existent. Heaven forbid if you’re in a racial minority that is even more under-represented than African-Americans. Or if you’re not just a deaf child of color but a deaf child of color (or a white deaf child, for that matter) with additional disabilities. You MIGHT find a few role models who have ONE of those characteristics. Which I suppose is something. But the emotional resonnance tends to be far weaker than when you’re able to meet someone who looks that much more “like you.”

    I know I’ve certainly appreciated looking up to deaf adult role models when I was growing up. And when I discovered as an adult that I have ADD, I did appreciate “meeting” and talking with hearing ADDers on line. But I felt like something was still “missing” until I was finally able to start meeting a few DEAF adults with attention deficit disorder. In one case, I met a woman whose life trajectory (vis a vis finding out about our ADD and dealing with it etc) was so similar to mine–except about 10 years ahead of me because she’s older–that she sometimes jokingly calls me her “twin”. The experience of meeting women who knew what it was like to be BOTH deaf AND to have ADD was just irreplaceable for me. So I can imagine that the experience of meeting adults who are both deaf AND of the same racial/ethnic background as a deaf child of color would be just irreplaceable for him/her. Getting half the equation wouldn’t be quite enough, especially if that’s ALL you ever get.

  3. Alethea said,

    3 November 2007 at 15:02

    Right on. I have already noticed that there are NO candidates for apprenticeships even, who acknowledge any sort of disability one way or another. My Ph.D. student told me a while ago that she was born with a congenital malformation (my daughter, too, which sensitized me) – but it’s not a disability now. There is absolutely no reason a person hard of hearing couldn’t perform very well in lab, and I have never crossed paths with a SINGLE one. I think potential scientists are getting weeded out very early in France, in any case. I recently had a young man in for a lab apprenticeship as well, and as he is half African I realized also that in all my time in lab in France (some 12 years), I know exactly TWO black women: a PI and a tech. And no black men. So I was a little embarrassed to even vaunt the merits of a science career – it sucks to be the very first. Anyhow, the kid was only 15… but I doubt things will change in the next 5 years, and there goes another bright candidate… what a waste this all is.

  4. Bug Girl said,

    3 November 2007 at 12:21

    Oh, this is a very nice breakdown of the paper!! (better than mine, I think.)

    I suspect their focus has more to do with the funding of the project than anything else, but you are absolutely right about disabilities being underrepresented too.

    Frankly, it was my epilepsy that made me leave my tenure-track post. (and my fellow faculty totally freaked out when they found out I was epileptic, and couldn’t let go of the idea that I would be flopping like a fish 24/7.)

    Because I had to hide that fact that I had a disability, both on the job and during the job, I don’t know that the issue of visibility and mentoring will ever be addressed :(

    Of course, I have an *option* to hide it, which isn’t available to many.

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