When Nola Hylton, a now-eminent University of California, San Francisco, research scientist, went to school, she didn't see anyone like her.
"I was certainly the only black student," she told Mic of studying physics in her hometown of Mount Vernon, New York. "That process, right there, was incredibly isolating."
The situation was roughly the same when Hylton pursued her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her Ph.D. in physics at Stanford University in the 1970s. "It was all close-knit and we knew each other," she said of her fellow black, female classmates.
Hylton, however, never realized just how unique she really was. According to the National Science Foundation, just 66 women received physics Ph.D.s during the 39 years between 1973 and 2012. Breaking down the numbers further reveals that between 1973 and 1994, there were only 14 such women in the United States — one of whom was Hylton.
The grim stats from physics are a canary in the coal mine for a much larger issue. With both black people and women historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields, black women are bearing a disproportionate brunt of the historical legacies that have kept these groups out of the sciences.
From 2002 to 2012, black women across multiple science and engineering subjects were consistently underrepresented in the number of advanced degrees awarded. In computer science, black female Ph.D.s doubled from eight to 16 between 2002 and 2012, the same period of time that saw white men jump from 198 to 436.
The pattern was roughly the same for mathematics and statistics as well, with black women netting between seven and 16 such degrees each year, while white men saw many hundreds during the same period. In 2012, black women took home a total of 684 STEM degrees. For white women, the number was 6,777 and for white men, it was 8,478.
"You have to start changing things at a young level," said Hylton. "There are lots of little places where certainly I was underestimated." Despite efforts to encourage minority women in STEM at the highest level of government, Hylton pointed to what she called a Catch-22 deficit of role models. With few people who look like them actively working in the field, young black girls are often discouraged from pursuing hard sciences that might otherwise interest them. "It's just an unnatural goal," said Hylton.
In the United States, black women often endure the routine impediments that come from being a minority. Like their male counterparts, they are more likely to come from impoverished families, more likely to have student debt and more likely to be raised in single-parent homes.
Women are also not immune to the often open hostility they can face when engaging with male peers. Divya Nag, a 20-year-old millennial biomedical entrepreneur told Mic her gender also led to challenges in her field. "I had to bring, like, male co-founders into [investor] meetings," she said. "People didn't take me very seriously."
Misogyny and racism are present even at the highest echelons various fields. In June, Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt told a gathering of the World Conference of Science Journalists he didn't particularly like working alongside women because he found them emotional and constantly falling in love with male scientists.
James Watson, awarded a Nobel in 1962 for helping to discover DNA, famously told the British Sunday Times he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really."
As a country built on diversity, everyone loses when U.S. institutions don't reflect that diversity. With STEM fields likely to play a critical role in 21st-century economies, it is more critical than ever that men and women of all races have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.