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.