Visibly Invisible: Stigma and the Burden of Race, Class and Gender for Female Students of Color Striving for an Academic Career in the Sciences

42 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2009 Last revised: 11 Feb 2014

Date Written: November 18, 2009


Discussions around post-racialism inevitably lead the question of whether affirmative action remains a relevant tool in a colorblind society. Those in the post-race paradigm raise the concern that affirmative action stigmatizes students of color. Similar to the tired adage, guns don’t shoot, people do, one might argue that affirmative action doesn’t stigmatize, people do. While recent research (Bowen 2010) demonstrates that greater stigma occurs in states that ban affirmative action, the reality is that stigma is present in all institutions of higher learning, colorblind or not.

With the move in institutions of higher learning to recruit and create mentoring programs for students of color, particularly in the sciences, (perhaps only in the name of marketing one’s school as diverse), it is worth critically examining how stigma operates for these students within an intersectional framework. This study aims to do just that.

The intersection of race and gender creates additional burdens for women of color in the scientific field. While females generally are at greater risk for exiting the science and engineering pipeline at every stage more so than males, women of color experience isolation and stigma more so than white women or minority males. They carry the double burden of two master statuses.

Women of color must overcome the stereotypes associated with their scientific and mathematical abilities based on their race and gender. However, schools tend to address gender and race as two separate attributes that force women of color to choose one status over the other. Race becomes much more salient because gender issues are centered on a white female construct that alienates women of color. Thus, women of color are limited in their ability to confront their multidimensional identities in an academic setting. And for some women, navigating the additional burden (or privilege) of class creates even greater complexity in how they confront stigma.

In this national quantitative and qualitative study of over 300 students of color, I offer a comparative analyses and new insight into how stigma operates and is mediated through the intersection of race, class and gender for African American and Latina students. Specifically, how female students perceive (and how others engage in) both internal and external stigma is heavily influenced by race/ethnicity as well as the socioeconomic status. While prior research has examined the intersection of race and gender in college experiences, this work specifically examines stigma and demonstrates the importance of considering the intersection of race, class and gender. The study concludes that future strategies in confronting inequality in higher education must carefully contemplate the social status that students occupy based on their gender, race/ethnicity and class, as we examine the losers and beneficiaries of diversity in our allegedly ‘post race’ world, generally. And those working to create effective science minority mentoring programs, specifically, must tailor them to fit the multidimensional identities that students possess and with which they interact in the in academy.

Keywords: education, gender, race, class, STEM

JEL Classification: J78

Suggested Citation

Bowen, Deirdre M., Visibly Invisible: Stigma and the Burden of Race, Class and Gender for Female Students of Color Striving for an Academic Career in the Sciences (November 18, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Deirdre M. Bowen (Contact Author)

Seattle University School of Law ( email )

206.398.4289 (Phone)

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