I am Chicana, and I have three degrees in environmental engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, two of the premier engineering schools in the world.
I have been invited to collaborate nationally and internationally. I sit on government advisory committees and have received federal funding. I have tenure at a major research university and have been honored with multiple awards and honors, including from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.
And I am only 39 years old.
So why have I not hung up my degrees and awards until recently?
I worked really hard to earn them. Yet there they sat for nine years, wrapped up in a plastic bag in the corner of my office out of sight.
I could attribute this to good training from my family to be humble about my successes. But in reality, it probably has more to do with a few senior male colleagues telling me that only pretentious people would hang up their diplomas.
Yet these distinguished white men, many of whom do have their diplomas on the wall, live in a world that is different than mine, most without even being aware of it.
People believe them and take them at their word because of the simple fact that that they were born white males. This is a privilege, no matter what circumstances they came from. They also don’t have to contend with concern that people may find them threatening just because they’ve decided to hang up their diplomas.
As I probe deeper, I begin to realize that there is more to it than that.
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Maybe not hanging up my diplomas is a symptom of imposter syndrome, too—my own endless worry that someone is going to figure out that they let me in by accident and that I do not belong here. I have to constantly take a step back and remind myself that, even though there are very few role models for me, I do belong and should be taken seriously as a scientist.
I didn’t defend my Ph.D. or get tenure by accident. I earned my place at the table through blood, sweat and lots of tears, but also by never giving up.
It is not surprising that I suffer from imposter syndrome when all too often I am the only Chicana in a room dominated by older white men.
When you are already the elephant in the room, you want to do as much as you can to draw attention away from yourself, even if that means not highlighting your accomplishments. You want to avoid giving people any reason to think that you are a stereotypically “angry” and “emotional” Latina professor.
You want to minimize your differences and blend in. This is partially in hope of reducing the constant stream of microaggressions committed by your well-meaning colleagues who are “trying to help you fit in.”
“You don’t look like an engineer,” I’ve been told.
“You don’t sound like a Mexican.”
“But you are one of the good ones.”
Yes, I have heard statements like these over and over, and I’m exhausted.
Although women of color make up 15% of the U.S. population, we make up less than 2% of the tenured faculty in science & engineering. There are few of us, but luckily I am not alone.
Professional, successful women—and particularly women of color—have the responsibility to be more vocal about our accomplishments so that girls feel empowered to become the thought-makers and scientists of tomorrow.
We need to highlight our successes so that we can serve as role models, grow our numbers, build resilience and change the climate in academia for the women of tomorrow.
I challenge all of us to highlight our successes for the next generation. #hangupyourdiplomas
¡Claro que si se puede!
In loving memory of Maria Teresa Velez, a true revolutionary.
Paloma Beamer is an associate professor of public health and chemical and environmental engineering at the University of Arizona.