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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

A Lifeline to Science Careers for African-American Females

Intervention strategies in two schools provided role models and supportive experiences that encouraged African-American girls to pursue careers in mathematics, science, and engineering.

In no academic area does the nexus between race and gender claim more casualties than in the area of mathematics and science—and no group has been more excluded than African-American girls. Research has consistently identified this population as virtually invisible when messages are aimed at motivating young people to pursue study in mathematics, science, and engineering fields.
A review of literature on women of color in the sciences concluded that these women (African-American, Latino/Hispanic, and American Indian) continue to be the most under-represented group in these fields. Decades after these findings, however, we know little about how to raise their level of participation. Studies of women generally overlook women of color, and studies of students of color de-emphasize gender difference.
Here, I'll examine why African-American females do not generally pursue careers in the sciences, and discuss two programs that are turning this situation around.

Going Against Tradition

One reason African-American females do not pursue careers in the sciences is that they lack the tools to negotiate the racism and sexism that undermine their belief that they can succeed in the sciences. A second, more powerful obstacle, is a world view in the African-American community that stresses the pragmatism of obtaining immediate employment. The reality has been that African-American girls must go to work early and be practical in career selection. Certain occupations (service and clerical workers, teachers, nurses, and other low-paying, female-dominated occupations) have become traditional choices.
It takes courage for African-American females to make nontraditional choices that might not lead them to achieve the valued goal of economic independence. The high number of single-parent homes, and statistics that conclude that more and more African-American women will never marry, speak to the importance of economic self-sufficiency. African-American females must also be practical in their academic choices to maximize educational opportunities and eliminate as many obstacles to career entry as possible. Without intervention, many African-American females will continue to select only the safest career choices.
At home, African-American females rarely receive support for pursuing nontraditional careers, because their parents may view certain careers as out of reach for their daughters. In addition, African-American families have traditionally been far more concerned with the social and economic survival of their male children, especially in view of statistics strongly suggesting the demise of the African-American male in America. Often African-Americans, like most other cultural groups, see family survival, community stability, and career success as fundamentally invested in their male children.
Acknowledging the strength of the African-American world view is critical to establishing strategies to improve academic choices of females. Respecting diversity means that educators must be willing to explore that world view as it operates within the community.

An Afrocentric Approach

The Omowale School—a member of the Independent Black School Movement in Pasadena—has adopted an Afrocentric program, designed to nurture the intellectual potential of the African-American child. Integrating this approach into the curriculum has tremendous potential to address racial discrimination. African-American students reclaim their self-esteem and recognize their potential to succeed in careers not previously considered appropriate.
Although African-American girls are sometimes incidental beneficiaries of programs targeting African-Americans in general (which translates as African-American males), addressing gender discrimination is critical. The Omowale School targets girls in a way that not only affirms that they can become scientists but also allows them to study with scientists in colleges, universities, and industrial laboratories.
The foundation of the school's approach was a partnership with mathematics, science, and engineering clubs for minority students at colleges and universities in Southern California. We recruited undergraduate participants of these clubs to provide high school girls with experiences similar to that achieved by reading autobiographical works. The approach was a kind of an "autobiography in process." The intent was to give students access to living examples of another reality for females; to connect them to the contemporary science tradition. Not only did these college students look like them, but they had had similar experiences, both educational and otherwise. By sharing these experiences in a structured interaction, college students assisted younger students to visualize themselves pursuing careers in the sciences.
Before the college students visited the classroom, the girls took science and mathematics courses that prepared them for college study. The integrated curriculum they studied looked at the history of African-American women, including the crucial role they played in the survival of the African-American community during and since slavery. The curriculum reflected their persistence, courage, struggle, willingness to move into uncharted waters, and to break with tradition to achieve positive ends.
Next, students developed discussion questions for the college visitors. The questions were designed to provide concrete information about how the college women had become convinced that they could achieve academic success in the sciences. What were their fears and reservations? How did their parents and others react? How did they overcome nonsupportive reactions? What obstacles did they encounter at the university, and how were they able to stay on course?
After questions and answers, the younger girls were able to talk informally with college students who were challenging the barriers to African-American women. An important by-product of this experience was a renewed commitment on the part of the college students to attain their degrees in the sciences.
Because parents can support or negate the experiences of their children, we involved them in our direct intervention approach. Parents helped as much as their capabilities and time would permit, both at home and in the classroom. Some participated in some of the same experiences that their daughters were having—for example, science projects assigned in the early stages of the program. Parents and students worked together to explore the historical and contemporary legacy of African-American women, and to study the historical development of a scientific concept that the students had selected for a class project. Together, the girls and their parents developed a mutual knowledge base that is critical to a parent's capacity to support a daughter's pursuit of a career in the sciences. The culminating experience was a Science Fair during Women's History Month, which highlighted women's contributions and set a precedent for holding annual fairs.
The intervention experiences at the Omowale School provided a lifeline to careers in the sciences for African-American girls. The girls were able to see that, with commitment and persistence, they could achieve careers in the sciences. Several aspects of the curriculum provided a powerful context for serious thinking and learning: a renewed look at the history of African-American women in science; guided interactions with role models; and the parental support systems to assist them for the long term.

A Magnet School's Strategy

Overcoming obstacles for African-American females who are not attending schools with an Afrocentric curriculum involves a somewhat different set of interventions. King Drew Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles—a college preparation magnet school for the health sciences—was attractive to parents who were already committed to their daughters' studying the sciences. Although early exposure to science in grades 6-9 seems crucial for developing scientific interests, the high academic motivation of these 10th graders counterbalanced their late entry into mathematics and science courses. The program provided extensive exposure to African-American women role models employed in the sciences, in science teaching, and in research at all professional levels.
Through after-school leadership workshops, the adolescent females learned to be assertive in calling and visiting their role models at the work site. Through an academic booster group, their parents gained influence over activities and provided material support for the school. The booster group filled a fissure created by lack of dollars to purchase supplies and helped teachers feel good about the tremendous job they were doing.
Parents actively participated in educational programs at the school, even creating some of their own. African-American science professionals served as mentors to students and also formed relationships with the parents. Through these experiences, students and their parents saw the relevance of science to everyday life and learned strategies for pursuing a career in science.
We also designed programs to help the girls develop persistence through strengthening their internal locus of control. Persistence will help these students maintain a positive self-concept if accused of intellectual inferiority and of being the wrong gender to compete in the sciences. Frequent guest speakers also shared their techniques for overcoming barriers. We encouraged the girls to respond positively to intellectual challenge, rather than withdraw or label themselves as failures.
The school built into the curriculum an academic development ladder that included science, mathematics, and practical applications at every grade. This curriculum, taught by exceptional teachers, was a tremendous help in developing survival skills in the African-American females.
Supportive parents and members of the school community were able to help these young women defeat their perception that they couldn't succeed in science and mathematics. The enrichment workshops—including field trips, use of community resources and reading materials, and summer precollege programs at prestigious universities—were made far more accessible than probably would be the case in a traditional comprehensive high school.

Needed: Effective Leaders

The strategies used in these two alternative models can be replicated in comprehensive high schools, but someone must assume leadership for them. Having just completed a two-year science and mathematics project for the National Science Foundation, I am somewhat discouraged, however, at the prospects of such programs being successful in comprehensive high schools. In large schools, adjustments in the parent and teacher support element and the time allotted are necessary.
On a positive note, high expectations and positive support from parents, teachers, counselors, principals, and peers at King Drew Medical Magnet High School and at Omowale School provided a strong foundation for these African-American girls that will serve them well as they pursue the university science curriculum that will lead to a career in the sciences.

Selected Curriculum Resources

  • Allport, G. W. (1954). The Nature of Prejudice. Menlo Park, Calif.: Addison-Wesley.
  • Giddings, P. (1984). When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: William Morrow and Co.
  • Gray, M. E. (1988). IMAGES: A Workbook for Enhancing Self-Esteem and Promoting Career Preparation, Especially for Black Girls. Sacramento: Circle Project, California Department of Education.
  • Hooks, B. (1981). Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.
  • King, C. (1983). The Words of Martin Luther King. New York: New Market Press.
End Notes

1 C. Clewell et al., (1990), Women of Color in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering: A Review of the Literature, (Washington, D.C.: Center for Women's Policy Studies).

2 At both schools, we assembled the curriculums. Teachers working with the university supporters (volunteers) incorporated the traditional materials in California's college preparatory programs in mathematics and science; the history and culture of the African-American experience (for females in particular); and survival skills for college and lifelong learning, for example. The curriculum materials are not in any marketable form.

3 The program at Omowale School is in its fourth year. At King Drew Medical Magnet High School, the program ended after two years, when the principal was transferred to another school.

T. Jean Adenika-Morrow has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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