Meet the New Minorities in PhD Programmes – It’s Men

Thank goodness I am doing a PhD at mid-life. I don’t have to worry about trying to find a husband among the fellow graduates. As it is, I am having a hard time trying to find the men in the seminars. They are outnumbered, almost five to one, by women.

This was surprising to me as I had expected the reverse. I guess a lot has changed since the days of my first degree, where women were the minority in most subjects. From the latest Statistics Canada report the majority of graduates are now female, from the first all the way up to the third degrees. We have left the men behind. They are struggling, trying to dust themselves off as they face the new competition – the one dressed in heels and pink lipstick.

Female graduates dominate the traditional feminine fields of health and education – so that explains why there are so men in my education department. The number of female science graduates is increasing faster than the men are able to hold the line. Engineering is the last area where men are a clear majority, outnumbering women three to one. But even here women are making slow but steady gains.

Back in the day, way back when I was doing my first degree, my friend and I stood out in the faculties. There were about 120 male undergraduates in her department. She was one of only three women studying physics. And she was the only Black person there as well. I had better odds, as there was another Black woman finishing a chemistry degree. And there was a Jamaican guy doing his PhD in the department. They did their best to mentor me.

Why are women doing so much better in universities today?  A century ago, we were not allowed to even enter the buildings. Our brains were supposed to be so feeble that an abstract idea could permanently ruin them. Women were first allowed to enter university in Canada in 1877. In Britain it was 1878 and in the USA it was 1831.

So what has changed? Over the century, have women gotten smarter and men dumber? That can’t be right as evolution does not move that fast – usually.

It seems to be a combination of reasons. Women are better at learning: we know how to sit still, listen to the teacher and we do the homework. All of this leads to higher grades and therefore a better chance of getting into university.

The job market has shifted from brawn to brains, increasing careers options for the educated, and decreasing it for those who are not. This means women have an incentive to stay in school and profit from the knowledge-driven economy.

The third reason is sex. Women can have the fun without the risk of getting knocked up thanks to the contraceptive pill. As they can control their fertility and have fewer children, it leaves more time to get an education and pursue a career.

We will need an equity programme for the next generation of PhD students; to ensure that the men, the new weaker sex, will have a chance to sit at the academic table.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Spot the Black PhDs in the Class

‘Thank God I am not the only one.’ That was my first thought when I entered the seminars in my PhD programme. In both classes people of colour were the majority. It was not what I was expecting.

Ages ago, and it was not in the time of the dinosaurs, when I did my first degree I was the only Black person in my class. I was not the only person of colour, or ethnic minority as we said in Britain, I recollect that there was a South Asian student there as well. We were the second generation of post-World War II immigrants in the mother country, so it was not surprising.

And I was studying for a degree in chemistry, an ultra-nerdish choice for a working-class Black girl from a small-town.

About a decade later, I came to Canada and did my master’s degree. Things were supposed to be different here. In Toronto, I had met a lot of middle-class Black professionals who did not think it was odd that I had a degree. They did not accuse me of being a sell-out or ‘acting White’. Yet, as I entered the classroom I groaned. Different country, different decade and I was still the only Black person in the class.

Fast forward another two decades. I was shocked when I saw so many faces of different hues in my PhD seminars. And half of them were Black Canadians, not foreign students. I wondered if it was due to being in the education department, and the narrow speciality of social justice education. Then I remembered that Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, where half of the population are people of colour.  Still, it was surprising to see so many of us in an elite setting.

How many Black PhDs are there in Canada? I don’t know.

In Canada we pride ourselves on being a multicultural country. We welcome diversity. Therefore, race-based statistics are rarely collected. It’s a nice way of avoiding discussions on racism. We don’t measure it, therefore it doesn’t exist.

Things are more transparent in the USA. Some seven per cent of African Americans have a PhD, from the US National Centre for Education Statistics, 2012. The number is increasing each year, but needs to double to reflect their 13 per cent share of the population.

Women outnumber male PhD graduates across all racial groups. What was striking was the huge gap in the Black community: some 65% of African American PhD graduates are women. This is amazing news. But why are the Black men falling so far behind?

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Hidden Figure: Race and Space on Film

Computers used to wear skirts, heels and lipstick. Hidden Figures is a gorgeous drama about three African American women, the human computers at NASA in the 1950s.

Black women mathematicians working on the space programme seems so far-fetched. And yet NASA employed hundreds of them. The film excavates their story, bringing back into the light the geeks who made space flight possible.

As I am interested in how race and space intersect, I will focus on these here. The outdoor and indoor shots in the film capture the American racial-spatial dynamic. There is a classic film scene of people stranded on the side of the road as the car has broken down. The scene takes an unexpected turn, as the legs sticking out from under the car belong to a Black woman, wearing heels. Octavia Spencer is beautiful as Dorothy Vaughan the mechanical genius who get the car going. This skill comes in handy later, as she figures out how to programme the first mechanical computers, when the white male experts could not do so.

African Americans in the outdoors tend to be wary – on guard waiting for something to happen. In this case it is the white policeman, hand on gun, with all the subtlety of an elephant, demanding to know who the women were and what they were doing.  The wide open road ahead, is suddenly not so wide nor open.

The church picnic, a staple shot in African American films, gives another perspective on being Black in the outdoors. The church in the background of the scene, is large, stolid and comfortable. Much like its congregation. The picnic in the church’s garden is an excuse for food, gossip and the first smiles of a romance. In the domestic confines of the church’s garden, outdoors is a safe space for Black people.

Hidden Figures switches between the lives of the women at home and at work. At home they are surrounded by children and loving husbands. This point is worth noting, as it is still too exotic to see Black men as tender, loving figures.

Work life was so much harder. The USA lost the space race to the Russians as they could not figure out how to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. The mathematics for that had not yet being invented. When all the white men failed to work out that calculation, NASA put out the call to find ‘a genius among the geniuses.’ No one expected that it would be a Black woman. Taraji P. Henson steals the film as Katherine Johnston. She strikes the right balance between developing as an intellectual powerhouse and staying humble so that she would not be lynched on the job.

NASA was also short of talented engineers. The department opened up the gate to these top paying jobs, and promptly tried to shut it again when the best applicant was Mary Jackson, an African American women (Janelle Monae).

Watching the work battles of the women is so familiar. The signs for the segregated coloured toilets, water fountains and coffee pots have long gone. But the invisible ones are still cemented into place. Black people are the last hired, the first fired, and need to be twice as goods to get half as far.

Hidden Figures is set against the backdrop of the space race, Civil Rights and the dawn of the computer age. The women had the audacity, not just to hope, but to demand to be part of that new future.  Katherine Johnson went on to do the maths, enabling the US to win the race to put the first man on the Moon. A new $30 million computer research lab at NASA is named in her honour.

Hidden Figures has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. It has made about $123 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films of 2016. This challenges the stereotype that dramatic films about Black people don’t sell. Hidden Figures is required viewing for all those trying to get more girls into science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields. The film shows that being a woman and being a geek is a recipe for success.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

 

 

Teaching at the Swingers’ Convention

“I can make some extra money teaching at the swingers’ convention and that will pay for the side trips,” said my graduate classmate.

“Swingers’ convention? Who goes to those?” I said.

“Swingers.”

“What do they do there?”

“Swing.”

“But. Okay. So. I am liberal but maybe not as open-minded as I thought. Conventions are for business, not for… Really? Are you kidding me? What are you going to teach them?”

“Sexuality workshops. In other words how to stick fingers up butts for sexual pleasure. White Republicans love that kind of stuff, never mind what they say in public. There are the swingers’ cruises and weekend get-aways. If I can teach at a few of those I will be set for the summer. I did a 45-day road trip last year from Toronto to Florida and L.A. All of it was paid for by doing swingers’ seminars.”

“I want to go backpacking in Central America. I thought that was adventurous but the swingers’ convention is something else.”

“As a sex health and sexuality teacher you get to see all kinds of interesting stuff. The academic conferences are one thing, the fun and the money are in the swingers workshops.”

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love