Mae Jemison is a doctor, a Peace Corps alum, an Alvin Ailey–trained dancer, and, of course, an astronaut—becoming, in 1992, the world’s first woman of color to go to space. Eighteen years later, as the spokeswoman for Bayer Corp.’s Making Science Make Sense program, Jemison focuses her energy on improving science and math opportunities for young women and minorities. She spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jesse Ellison. Excerpts:
Bayer recently found that women and minorities are routinely discouraged from stem [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields. is this a surprise?
When my kindergarten teacher said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “A scientist.” She said, “Don’t you mean a nurse?” What was interesting was that as I was looking at these [survey] results, it brought back a lot of memories. You think some of these experiences are personal, but 44 percent [of those surveyed] said they were discouraged from pursuing a STEM career.
And the respondents were engineers themselves?
Yes, these are the ones who actually made it through. This is the reception they were getting. You can imagine what happened to the ones who didn’t make it through. Women and minorities fall through the cracks. I think a lot of women and minorities graduate in spite of, not because of.
How do you think discrimination affects women psychologically?
I remember one of my freshman science classes. I would ask a question, and the professor would look at me like it was the dumbest question he’d ever heard, and then move on. Then a white guy down the row would ask the same question and [the professor would say,] “Astute observation.” It makes you start to really question yourself. You start to think, “Am I stupid?” After hitting the wall so many times, it makes a difference in terms of your zest and your zeal.
What would you say to those who attribute the lack of women in stem fields to innate differences in aptitude?
Society’s expectation of women truncates their ability, but it also truncates our ability to hear them. You have to understand that intelligence tests, when they were first made and developed, were adjusted in order to conform to ideas of who was thought to be smart. There was an adjustment of the SATs so that boys would score better in English. Some of this is specious. Some of this is because people want to make it so.
Why do these stereotypes persist?
Sciences are still sort of steeped in mysticism—a lot of us aren’t comfortable with them. And I think in a lot of instances we don’t think it makes any difference who does the science—but it does.
[Scientists] get to choose the problem, interpret the data, and draw the conclusions. It’s not just about filling the pipeline with some folks. It’s the diversity of experience, thought, perspective that can make solutions much more robust.
What’s it going to take?
That question came up with some white, male tenured professors. They said, “Make the tenured guys responsible for increasing the pool. Make their funding contingent upon [it].” Right now, usually that [job] is [the responsibility of] the minorities or the women themselves. But these guys said, “You want it done? Make them responsible. [Because] right now they don’t have any skin in the game.”