Panel Addresses Difficulties for Black Women in STEM

A weekend panel discussion held at UTD addressed the practice of “code-switching” and its effects on black women in STEM. The panel featured several STEM professionals, all women of color, each discussing their own experiences with race in the workplace. Code-switching is described as the practice of minority groups changing their natural practices and behaviors to help guarantee success in workplaces traditionally dominated by non-minority men. Summer Wright Collins, Associate Vice President of Design and Innovation of the C1 Innovation Lab at Blue Cross Blue Shield, spoke about her personal experiences in education and her professional life as a black woman in STEM.

What has been your experience with code-switching in relation to your education and career?

I have had a journey of navigating through different cultures and different ecosystems my whole life. So, from an education perspective, what that looks like to have friends in different groups in elementary schools, people that you go to school with or have certain family networks, and those for me have always been very different. I think that has been an asset because I have an amazing network and people that are in all different spaces and places. At the same time, I know the values and norms for operating in those networks might not be the same. So it’s been about applying the way that I authentically show up in these places and letting people get to know me and letting that speak for itself and letting that be my north star.

As you navigate your various social circles, how do you maintain your authentic self while changing the way you might present yourself?

When you are communicating and maintaining your authentic self, it’s about finding those connection points with the people that you’re talking to. It’s not about changing who you are, what you believe or what’s important to you. So, when you are socially aware and empathetic you can find that way to connect with somebody. Obviously, somebody who wants to reciprocate that connection, but it doesn’t have to compromise who you are in any way. You do it in a way that is authentic to you, meaning that if feels okay, you can sleep at night and it doesn’t degrade you and make you feel uncomfortable. For me, speaking differently is not as much in play. I’ve gotten moments where I have multiple conversations with someone on the phone and then we meet in person and they say, “Oh! You’re Summer!” But it’s not really any different. I grew up in Colorado, which is a state that might be known for having no accent. You might not be able to tell, because I don’t really have any geographic exposure. People can’t tell who I am from the way I talk and that’s always been the case. So for me the code- switching has been more about understanding what the expectation is in the company and the peer group, whatever it might be. Like I mentioned in the panel, I’m dimensional. I have a ton of interests, a ton of talents and I have never found a person in which there isn’t that connection in some shape or fashion. It’s always been about, “Ok, what’s going to click for us?” Whereas over here in this circle it’s different. So it’s less of a switch and more about the dimensionality that exists within all of us.

In both your education and professional life, did you face any obstacles outside of having to code-switch that related to your gender or race?

I think when we use the word ‘obstacles’ it is, like maybe another word for obstacle is barriers, so there have certainly been those. But what’s been more of (a barrier) is the lack of opportunities. So that may not have been a ‘barrier,’ but the fact that there were things I didn’t get access to or as easily provided to me as with other people. Perhaps if that happened there would have been a faster pace or a different journey. So I think for me personally, absolutely, obstacles exist, but I think it’s especially now, and in the space I’m in, I make sure that opportunities and the sponsorship and the inclusion happen in an enabling way to people who, like me, didn’t receive as much attention as their counterparts.

In pursuing your multiple degrees, were there any education-specific issues that forced you to act differently in order to get accepted to or finish a program?

That’s an interesting question. No, I wouldn’t say it was about acting differently to get into programs. I think there was, like we mentioned before, a bias and an expectation that people may have had coming into the programs that I had to doggedly persevere through. At the same time, that was their journey not mine, so I was there to do certain things and worked hard to really get the most out of my experiences out of wherever I was. So I think that to me sort of, I won’t say insulated me, but I was on a mission. First of all, I’m super curious, definitely like combining seemingly unlike things, so combining different majors and graduate studies to further what I felt was interesting and exciting in a way that I felt could contribute to making and leaving a legacy and making the world a better place. For me, it was about, ‘I’m here to learn, I’m here to do something, and nothing is going to get into my way.’ I certainly don’t think that changed in terms of what I needed to do in order to get into the program. It was more about, ‘this is who I am, this is what I’m going to absorb in my environment,’ and sort of steamroll through a lot of things for lack of a better word.

How do you approach topics like code-switching with your children, as well as any other challenges they may face due to their race?

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve said the word ‘code-switching.’ I won’t say never, but it’s not something I commonly say, like, ‘tonight at dinner we’ll have a code-switching conversation.’ That’s not at all how it works. I think my responsibility, both my husband and I, we want to enable our children to thrive and to be the amazing individuals we see them as today and we know what they’ll have to contribute to society tomorrow. So, what that means is to equip them, equip them with food, shelter, water, all the basics, but also education. We think about education more formally, like K-12 and maybe undergraduate and graduate schools, but there’s also an education around who they are and how to navigate. I think that is not as formal as even using the word ‘code-switching’ but talking to them about where we are and what society is like and how that’s going to be different for them. I’m preparing them for a world that wasn’t mine. I didn’t grow up in a world dealing with what they are now. I have a 6th grader, 4th grader and a 2-year-old. I know that I need to equip them with skills and ways of thinking so they can handle things that don’t even exist yet. That to me is what my husband and I really use as our framework for preparing them.

What can the more socially advantaged, such as white men, do to help the situation?

I think, listen. Listen. It’s in moments where people who are different than you, like you’re in a team with someone who has a background that’s not like yours. But it’s also showing up in the networks that you might be in when those people are not around and being able to be an amplifier of the message that you are hearing after you have spent authentic time listening. Listening is 100% the first step.

If you could say anything to black women studying STEM or any other program here at UTD, what would that be?

Your gifts are needed. Your voices are needed. Your brains are needed. There’s so much opportunity and so much necessity for thinkers and STEM professionals, so keep on with the journey and look forward to seeing the fruits of the hard labor that I know everyone is putting in. It is not easy but that’s really going to be such an anchor in terms of how our world operates.