Posted on June 23, 2015

In 39 Years, US Physics Doctorates Went to 66 Black Women–and 22,000 White Men

Sonali Kohli, Quartz, June 21, 2015

From 1973 until 2012, a total of 66 black American women earned physics doctorates–mostly PhD’s–in US colleges. During that same amount of time, 22,172 white men earned their doctorates.

These totals only include US citizens or permanent residents who earned their doctorates in the US, not Americans who received a PhD from another country or international students in the US. The vast majority–97.9%–earned PhD’s, though a small number earned other kinds of doctorates, like education.

The double minority problem

There are a lot of reasons why the numbers are so low for women of color, particularly for black, Hispanic, and Native American women.

Girls are often pushed away from math and science at a young age, and people of color, especially black and Hispanic students, have fewer resources than white students to get into college in the first place, let alone excel in the sciences. Once they reach the college or doctorate level, these biases continue.

LaNell Williams graduated with a bachelors in physics from Wesleyan University in 2015, and will start a masters/PhD bridge program in the fall. As a physics student from a middle class Memphis background, Williams told Quartz it’s hard for her to fully relate to many of her peers. While upper class white women can’t understand her experience as a middle class black student, men of color can’t understand the sexism she faces.

“It was hard . . . to find study groups, it was hard for me to keep up with my work with the lack of preparation and also it was hard for me to find a community.”

Put even more simply: “It was hard, especially as a woman of color, to sit in my classes and not have anyone look like me.”


The good news is that while the number of black women with physics doctorates has remained largely stagnant over the last two decades, it has increased marginally since the 1990s–it is no longer common to see a year with 0 black women earning physics doctorates, for example.