Neil deGrasse Tyson on stereotypes, societal expectations, and women and minorities in science

I recently saw this clip from a panel on which Neil deGrasse Tyson sat, where he addressed the question of whether genetics can explain why there are fewer women in science, as was suggested by Larry Summers when he was the President of Harvard. In his answer, Tyson (an astrophysicist who is Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of Cosmos) talks about the obstacles he faced due to being black in science, the stereotypes society has about black men, and systematic biases preventing women and underrepresented minorities from succeeding in science. This fits in well with my recent posts on stereotype threat and the underrepresentation of women in NSF’s Waterman Award.

I’m transcribing it here because I think his response was great and I hope this leads to more people seeing it:

I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life. So let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as in the community of women, in a white male dominated society…When I look at, throughout my life – I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old on a first visit to the Hayden Planetarium…I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions. And all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of nature, the forces of society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, “Don’t you want to be an athlete?” I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. So, fortunately, my depth of interest was so deep, and so fuel-enriched, that every one of these curveballs that I was thrown and fences that were built in front of me and hills that I had to climb, I’d just reach for more fuel and I kept going.

Now here I am, one, I think, of the most visible scientists in the land and I want to look behind me and say, “Where are the others who might have been this?” And they’re not there. And I wonder, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because the forces of society had prevented at every turn? At every turn! To the point where I have security guards follow me as I go through department stores presuming that I am a thief? I walked out of a store one time and the alarm went off and so they came running to me. I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate. And that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him. That’s an interesting sort of exploitation of this. What a scam that was! …

So, my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences and you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.

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16 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson on stereotypes, societal expectations, and women and minorities in science

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  3. i am a WOC who fits into several “underrepresented” categories. i’ve had a fairly satisfactory and productive scientific career. i kept my nose to the grindstone & have no idea what others’ motivations were when barriers arose. there are a multitude of tactics and strategies for responding to challenges, whatever those challenges may be. finally, imho, noone trained as a scientist can discount the importance of biological factors for behavioral similarities and differences. whether biological factors impact representation in science has yet to be determined. to date, we don’t have confident methods for confident studies of pathways from genotype to phenotype relative to the environment; although, certain data, primarily from the Social Sciences, have documented consistent differences [means, variances] in performance within and between target groups x biological trait [e.g., sex, race, age, class]. all statements about causes and consequences of behavior are empirical statements subject to investigation and, imho, should not be driven by politics, belief, bias, or untested assumption. Science is a predictive industry. in short, as a WOC and as a scientist, “disadvantaged” by several measures, i have, on balance, no complaints.

  4. As Dr. Tyson points out, when he looks back, where is everybody else? Individuals who have enjoyed success are may not be prone to complain, but those of us in the community who wish for a more inclusive environment representative of the diversity of our country realize that we need to actively create the community we want. Thanks, Meg, for all of the posts this week that are equipping us better, to continue to work in that direction.

    • i hope that young people desiring careers as Scientists understand that Science is a ferociously competitive global industry often requiring uninterrupted, sustained focus without diversion to other interesting things.

      • Life is more than science and work. It’s okay to have other interests and goals once in a while, folks.

        I was trying to think about these words in context and stumbled on this site: but I don’t have the sustained focus to read all of it, and it was really disturbing.

    • it is easy, trivial, and untutored to dismiss “disturbing” points of view by going on the personal attack…as a final remark on the current thread, i hope that young people interested in Science as a career are not being set up for failure by activists…Science is a ferociously competitive global industry…sustained, undivided focus is required to produce work of a quality that can be expected to receive even moderate levels of recognition by mainstream scientists in one’s field…IMHO, becoming a mediocre scientist is at least as difficult as becoming a mediocre surgeon…all best…

      • I certainly agree that science is highly competitive, and I think I have a reasonable idea of what it takes to succeed in science. And while I know that some people undergo great personal sacrifices in pursuit of a career in science (and, from this previous ecolog post:, I would say that you have done so), I also know that it is possible to have a successful career in science while still allowing time for “other interesting things”.

        Moreover, I personally feel responsible, as someone who has achieved a certain level of success, to do my best to try to level the playing field. The last paragraph of Tyson’s remarks above really resonated with me, as did this post from Hope Jahren:

        You question whether young people are being set up for failure by activists. I’m not sure if I count as an activist in your opinion, but I don’t see how trying to encourage people to make the climate more favorable for people from underrepresented groups is setting anyone up for failure.

  5. I’m glad that Dr. Jones showed up here to put Dr. Tyson’s comments into relief. There are many reasons why people try to minimize the importance of discrimination, but the more actual stories of unnecessary hardship are shared, the more absurd it becomes to prioritize vaguely characterized “biological differences in performance” over the lived experience of fellow scientists. Thank you for posting on this!

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