• August 23, 2014

Scientist or 'Whore'? Incident Symbolizes Familiar Struggle for Women of Color in Science

DN Lee

Danielle N. Lee, a biologist who blogs for Scientific American, was called an "urban whore" in an e-mail exchange with an editor at another publication. Such insults, according to several female scientists, come with the challenging territory of being both a woman and a minority in academe.

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Danielle N. Lee, a biologist who blogs for Scientific American, was called an "urban whore" in an e-mail exchange with an editor at another publication. Such insults, according to several female scientists, come with the challenging territory of being both a woman and a minority in academe.

A controversy over a blogger for Scientific American who was called an "urban whore" in an e-mail exchange has set off a firestorm of comments on social media and struck a nerve with science bloggers, who say the fracas points to the continuing difficulties facing women who make careers in the sciences, especially women of color.

The incident started last week, when Danielle N. Lee, a Ph.D.-holding biologist who studies rodent behavior and writes the popular Urban Scientist blog for Scientific American, received an e-mail asking if she'd be interested in becoming a contributor to the life-sciences blog Biology Online.

When Ms. Lee learned that the blogging assignment was unpaid, she declined the offer. The blog's editor, identified only as "Ofek" in the e-mail exchange, responded, "Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?"

Biology Online apologized to Ms. Lee on Monday and announced that Ofek had been fired.

Still, the exchange between Ofek and Ms. Lee underscored the common experience of disrespect and marginalization confronting many black female scientists.

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Several female scientists of color interviewed by The Chronicle, from graduate students to tenured professors, said they were not surprised to learn that a highly credentialed black female scientist had been called a whore. Such insults, they said, come with the challenging territory of being both a woman and a minority in academe.

Gilda A. Barabino, dean of the Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York, said in an e-mail, "This incident is indicative of the pervasive and well-documented devaluation and marginalization of women of color in science."

Ms. Barabino said the silence around those issues "is deafening."

Quinetta D. Shelby, an associate professor of chemistry at DePaul University, praised Ms. Lee's response to the incident. "She took the high road," Ms. Shelby wrote in an e-mail. "Her dignity is intact. She does not fit my description of a whore."

Dismissed as a Scientist

On her blog, Ms. Lee describes herself as a "hip-hop maven" who writes about urban ecology, evolutionary biology, and diversity in the sciences. In her first post about the exchange with Ofek, Ms. Lee said the unprovoked insult left her "spoiling for a fight." Her initial gut reaction was to say, "Aww hell nawl. Ofek, don't let me catch you on the streets, homie."

Being called a whore was bad enough, she wrote, but the editor "juxtaposed it against my professional being" and dismissed her as a scientist.

(Ms. Lee later posted her response to Ofek on a YouTube video in which she encouraged other scientists to recognize the value of their work and to contribute their services on their terms.)

The editor of Scientific American removed Ms. Lee's original post about the incident from the site last week, saying initially that the writing was too personal in nature and later that legal concerns were behind the decision. On Monday the post was back on the site.

In a post explaining her actions, Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief, said that Scientific American "takes very seriously the issues that are faced by women in science and women of color in science" and that the magazine was planning an article, with Ms. Lee's help, about the issues facing women in science.

As word spread about the incident, scientists and other commentators took to social media on the hashtag #istandwithdnlee.

Amanda Hess, a contributor to Slate wrote, "It was a racist, sexist comment—and a telling example of how one very minor cog in the science industry chooses to leverage his tiny bit of power to impede progress."

Kate Clancy, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who blogs about the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science, said on Scientific American's blog, "The 'urban whore' was blatant sexism and racism from an unknown person and company. This is the kind of drive-by stuff all of us who work online have had to deal with regularly. It rattles us but doesn't ruin us."

Deep-Rooted Issues

Some scholars say Ms. Lee's treatment highlights daily battles against racism and sexism that are exacerbated by the lack of meaningful diversity in academe. If such examples are an indicator of climate, they reveal why the sciences remain disproportionately white and male.

Though women's participation in doctoral programs in science has increased in the past 40 years, national data show that only small numbers of black women earn degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM fields.

A 2009 report by the National Science Foundation looked at the top 100 American research institutions by race, ethnicity, and gender, and found that women of color in a number of science disciplines, including chemistry and engineering, were rare. The report showed that there were 23,052 male and 3,829 female faculty members of all races at those top institutions. The raw numbers for women of color were even more telling—100 were Hispanic, 55 were black, and only five were Native American.

According to research by Donna J. Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, only four black female tenure-track physics professors were employed at the top 100 American research universities in 2012.

A 'Feeling of Being Used'

Lauren D. Thomas, who earned a Ph.D. in engineering education at Virginia Tech and now works as a program coordinator for science education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in an interview that black female scientists were often sought out to make universities look as if they were achieving campus diversity.

"Despite how good you are or how impressed people are with you, on some level, all of us have this feeling of being used," Ms. Thomas said. "We are the one or two people on an NSF report. Our professors talk about diversity, point to us, and say, 'Hey, we have one.' Those of us out here earning Ph.D.'s and doing research are often objectified and used by universities while there's no concerted effort to take us seriously as professionals."

Among the many challenges facing black women who pursue science careers are isolation, lack of mentors, limited access to financial resources, and time-consuming duties like serving as the voice of color on countless university committees and responding to media inquiries on race and gender, assignments they take on in order to challenge negative stereotypes and to demonstrate that they are "team players."

Many say they face bias in the tenure-and-promotion process. Some doctoral students also report problems with their white faculty advisers and say that when it comes to getting support for their research and career goals, they are often on their own.

Especially irksome, those scholars say, is the constant presumption by students and faculty members that they are incompetent because of their gender and skin color.

"When people talk about the lack of diversity in STEM fields, they often say that blacks and Hispanics are not prepared," Ms. Thomas said. "And when you do achieve, people will always question whether you did it on your own capacity. Journal editors say things like, 'I think you fabricated that data' or 'Did you write that paper?'"

Being 'the Only One'

One biology Ph.D. student at Columbia University, who requested that her name not be used because she is in the early stages of her career and fears being seen as a "rabble rouser," said that because women of color are not well represented in labs, among the professoriate, or on the editorial staff at science journals, it's not surprising that Biology Online demonstrated a lack of racial sensitivity.

"Black women scientists face a great deal of self-preservation," she said. "To be a scientist in America right now is a huge challenge because of the sequester and now the government shutdown. You are competing against a huge number of people for limited money. As black women are fewer seen, there's a greater weight of responsibility in terms of our character and how we present ourselves. Everything we do matters."

Adanna G. Alexander, a Trinidadian who is pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said that the first time she walked into her lab to get her ID and keys, a department administrator assumed that she didn't belong there. At past conferences, attendees "treated me like I am an usher or was there to clean," she chuckled. "They don't expect that I'm here to do science."

Being "the only one" is a lonely experience, those women scholars said. They rarely encounter other women of color in their day-to-day experiences; there's no comfort zone for them to retreat to and discuss issues; and their interactions with white colleagues are often uneasy. They use conferences to seek one another out. Sometimes they share war stories, but most often they focus on supporting each other and talking about their research.

They applaud Ms. Lee for speaking out, as they often wrestle with whether to speak up or stay quiet about racism and sexism.

"They keep talking about diversity, but I don't see it," Ms. Alexander said. "Every year I'm the same person doing the diversity events, and when I speak up, they say, 'We're trying.' Sometimes I say, 'Let me be quiet,'" because she doesn't want to be perceived as "the angry black woman."

Correction (10/15/2013, 7:48 a.m.): This article originally misidentified the source of a quotation asserting that the incident illustrated the "pervasive and well-documented devaluation and marginalization" of minority female scientists and noting that the silence about such issues was "deafening." The source was Gilda A. Barabino, dean of the City College of New York's engineering school, not Christine Grant, an associate dean in North Carolina State University's engineering school. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

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