In the field of mathematics, we are often told that we can only prove what is unequivocally true. When we’ve mathematically established something as true, it remains eternally valid. However, the converse is not as straightforward; we are not always equipped to prove every truth. Numerous truths exist that elude our ability to prove due to the limitations of our proof techniques. For instance, consider the challenge of proving the impact of microaggressions. Demonstrating the precise effect of certain statements and actions on an individual can be elusive, yet this doesn’t diminish the very real impact they have. This is something I know and understand first-hand.
My journey into academia as a mathematician is marked by uncertainty and the struggle to find my place. I wasn’t the first choice for my first tenure track position, and despite having colleagues in my research area in the department, I still grappled with doubts about my belonging. It became evident that many of my experiences were unique; I was the sole Black faculty in the department, perhaps the first they had ever hired in a tenure track role. While this “firstness” wasn’t unfamiliar to me — and to be fair for many Black women in academia — what compounded the issue was the lack of understanding and acknowledgment from my colleagues regarding the implications of this experience. I tried to convey the emotional toll of this ignorance to those I saw as allies, but I couldn’t prove it to them. They lacked the tools to comprehend my perspective. It seemed like the burden was placed on me to disregard these challenges, adapt, and assimilate into their world. There was a disconnect in recognizing the impact on me, and ultimately, I chose to leave the department within a year. But leaving is not the solution for everyone. I had the opportunity to start a tenure track position at a different institution, but this is because I had the support from others to do so.
I share this personal story to shed light on the prevalent expectation in STEM fields for marginalized individuals to assimilate into unwelcoming environments. The prevailing notion is that merely opening the door to diversity is sufficient, but the unspoken reality is that it initiates a lifelong process of proving one’s belongingness. It entails shedding the qualities that initially set you apart and conforming to the norms of the majority, even if those norms don’t adequately account for your truth. Despite these sacrifices, questions about your belongingness persist, leaving you mourning the person you once were and envious of the person you might have become. But when you look around, everyone is celebrating the idea that you “made it.” They are celebrating the idea that you are fitting into a role that feels like 3rd grader shoes on 5th grader feet.
As Carl Jung wisely said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.” This is the hidden challenge faced by many in STEM who yearn for authentic belonging.
Last summer, a student introduced me to the book “The Body is Not an Apology” by Sonya Renee, which explores how society perceives our bodies and how it interacts with us based on those perceptions. One statement by the author resonated deeply with me: “No one loses anything when people are allowed to step into the fullness of who they are.” While this was in response to a different context, it serves as a rallying cry for a more equitable and inclusive STEM world. We all benefit when individuals can bring their complete selves into the classroom, lab, boardroom, and their work.
So, what can we do to encourage people to live authentically and find their place in STEM where they genuinely belong? Sadly, this question often falls on the marginalized. We not only have to be the canary in the mine, signaling danger, we are also tasked with the repair. But this is a Sisyphean effort on our part. First comes the challenge of feeling comfortable enough to share our personal stories. These encounters, while affecting everyone, are experienced and witnessed differently. The next to find a solution that can be seen as a generic or one-size fits all. There is no clear map available to navigate these issues. There’s no universal answer, but I will offer some suggestions. Firstly, it requires a great deal of grace, patience, and introspection from everyone involved. We can work on strengthening these attributes. Another suggestion is to organize “Grounded Knowledge” experiences or panels, as pioneered by Dr. Valerie Joseph, the Director and Owner of Grounded Space Consulting. In a “Grounded Knowledge Panel” authentic and personal experiences related to specific topics or questions are openly discussed. Additionally, supporting programs in STEM that promote inclusion, such as the EDGE program for women and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), can be impactful. Lastly, endorsing websites that celebrate the contributions of marginalized mathematicians, like Mathematically Gifted and Black, Indigenous Mathematicians, Spectra: the Association for LGBT Mathematicians, and Latinxs and Hispanics in the Mathematical Sciences (LATHISMS), can serve as a powerful reminder that we all belong in the diverse tapestry of STEM.
In conclusion, fostering a sense of true belonging in STEM requires acknowledging the limitations of our proof techniques and embracing the diversity of perspectives and experiences. It demands a collective commitment to creating environments where everyone can thrive by being their authentic selves. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, we can take steps to make STEM more inclusive and equitable by valuing each individual’s unique contributions and experiences. In doing so, we enrich our community and empower the next generation of mathematicians and scientists to excel.