Exploring the Long-Term Effects of Oppression on Marginalized STEM Workers

Does chronic exposure to workplace stressors and aggressions affect our neuroanatomy?

by Siobhán K Cronin on June 20th, 2016

My first job after college was at a neuroscience lab at Harvard Medical School. It was 2005, and the environment in the lab was emotionally toxic: in our weekly lab meeting, someone always broke down in tears or shut down in shame. It was hard to move through a single day without being affected by the microaggressions.

My strategy was to keep my head down. Queers were not overtly present in my corner of the science community, and I didn’t know a single fellow trans scientist. I felt the only way forward was to hide all parts of my identity that did not relate to conducting research. To become a data machine.

I learned strategies to cope, but in the last few months I could feel myself unraveling. I began having regular panic attacks. On the eve of submitting my first paper as a first-author, I quit. I told my boss I was pivoting into the culture sector. But in truth, I was running away. My decision baffled me. I believed in the promise of neuroscience to illustrate the wonders of the mind, yet I was unable to sustain my health in that environment. Sadly, I extended this feeling to the science community at large, believing that all labs must be toxic.

A science lab, with scientific equipment lined on the counters and open windows.

Photo CC-BY mararie.

It would take years for me to see my error, and the broader systemic issues at play.

The Weight of Fear

Ten years later, I finally came out as trans, yet found myself stuck in the metaphorical closet door. A lifetime of suppression, silencing, and fear had built up a gnarly network of cognitive scar tissue. Even after releasing a great deal of my own self-suppression, I still moved through my days with a sensory dullness and a general state of anxiety. On the recommendation of a family friend, I began working with a therapist who practices attachment-focused Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). The results were astounding.

EMDR was developed in 1989 by psychologist Francine Shapiro, and it has helped a lot of people suffering from PTSD. It is based on a recognition that traumatic memories are stored in parts of the brain not readily accessible by talk therapy. EMDR is somatic: it uses eye movement and tactile sensation to activate these tucked-away traumatic memories in the safety of the therapist’s office, allowing the patient to dismantle the core beliefs associated with them, to rewrite fixations and purge outdated beliefs.

An eerie, long shadow of a person reflected in fog, and superimposed over a driveway with cars; large trees in the background.

Photo CC-BY Bob Blaylock.

After several sessions, I experienced a cognitive rebirth. The fear that had gripped my brain for decades—that had caused me to freeze up when confronted with the cis-bias which saturates nearly all of society—finally subsided. As computer scientist Lynn Conway puts it, I experienced “a miracle of release”.

The cognitive shifts were dramatic. For example, I had never been able to memorize phone numbers before EMDR. My partner had tried to get me to memorize his number for years, but it never stuck. When asked to provide my emergency contact number, I would lie and say “my partner just changed it”, and look his number up on my phone. And yet, after EMDR I was not only able to memorize the numbers of everyone in my family, but became insatiably curious about math, moving through a period where all I wanted to do was study differential geometry and theoretical physics. It wasn’t simply that my interests had changed; I was experiencing for the first time the capacity of my mind to learn outside the clutches of fear, and was eager to see what it could do.

I began dusting off my data science skills, met with former colleagues to catch up on where cognitive science had expanded to since my departure, and set my sights on collaborating with teams working in network science and complexity. And that’s when it hit me: my extraction from science in 2005 wasn’t simply a choice to leave the industry, but a response to the microaggressions that had piled up day after day, leaning their weight into my publicly-targeted queer body and my inner repressed self.

How many others are pressed out of STEM this way each year? And how is this impacting innovation as a whole?

The Link Between Oppression and Trauma

Cartoon X-ray skull with the large pink brain circled.

Image CC-BY J E Theriot (modified public domain image).

A new generation of public health professionals are mapping the links between institutionalized oppression and trauma. In last summer’s New York Times Magazine feature, “Racism’s Psychological Toll”, Jenna Wortham interviewed Dr. Monnica Williams of the Center for Mental Health Disparities, who is advocating for the inclusion of racism as a cause for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the DSM-V (the manual for diagnosing psychological disorders). Her research suggests that the experience of being stigmatized and marginalized by society itself can cause PTSD.

As I thought more about the potential links between oppression, stress and trauma, it reminded me of the construct of stereotype threat, documented by social psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson in 1995. Stereotype threat shows that our performance of a task can be impaired by our knowledge of negative stereotypes associated with our identity groups. For instance, if people in our social category (race, gender, ability) perform poorly on math tests, being reminded of this stereotype can impair our performance when taking a math test. Researchers have narrowed down three reasons why: elevated levels of stress that impair the prefrontal cortex and one’s ability to access memory centers, increase in behavior monitoring, and increased suppression of the negative stereotype (Schmader, Johns & Forbes 2008).

In her TEDx talk, Amy Edmondson at Harvard Business School imagines a nurse working the night shift who, looking at a patient’s chart, puzzles over the unusually high dose listed for a medication. She wonders whether to call the attending doctor at his home. She remembers how he insulted her abilities last time she called him at home. So she skips the call and administers the dose anyway. This is stereotype threat in action.

There are decades of research on stereotype threat, yet in my literature review, I did not find teams consistently connecting stereotype threat with longer-term mental health consequences. Could there be a connection between the elevated stress levels documented in stereotype threat and the development of chronic stress disorders like PTSD? What would happen to a person exposed to situations that trigger stereotype threat repeatedly, hour by hour, day by day, year after year?

Going beyond stereotype threat, how might other realities of STEM environments — like gendered and racialized devaluation, erasure, harassment and abuse — have far deeper impact than we now recognize? Could such chronic exposure to workplace stressors and aggressions affect one’s neuroanatomy? Could it adversely affect our ability to think and act? Ultimately, could it lead to the kind of trauma we see in PTSD? How might all of this affect our behavior at work? And why aren’t techniques like attachment-focussed EMDR and other therapies more widely available to help those surviving institutionalized oppression?

A stack of stones on a rocky beach.

Photo CC-BY LadyDragonflyCC – >;<.

I believe these are fundamental questions for the world of STEM. Many of us have to get out of bed in the morning, show up to our respective jobs, and deliver value while knowing we live in a society that questions our fundamental worth. STEM workers from marginalized communities experience harassment and microaggressions on a daily basis. And, as the stereotype literature presents to us, even non-overtly aggressive reminders of one’s membership to a stigmatized social group can trigger stress responses that impair performance.  

Managers and directors can do a lot to foster what Edmonson calls a “psychologically safe” environment. These are environments where all voices contribute, where errors are readily surfaced, as the desire to learn prevails over the desire to shame.

Edmondson suggests three primary actions managers can take to foster such environments:

1) frame the work as a learning problem,

2) acknowledge your own fallibility, and

3) model curiosity

We are far from having a cohesive picture of the psychological toll of oppression on the population. When we stack up the research on chronic stress caused by race, gender, sexuality, and physical and cognitive diversity stigma, we soon discover that the majority of the available American workforce is implicated.

We need to see scientific research translated into corporate policy, and it is my hope that the incentives are stacked in the right direction for corporate Diversity & Inclusion research teams to lead the charge. It is my hope that while we continue to address the egregious abuses of power and privilege in STEM (and in society at large), we will continue to work to free ourselves and our colleagues from the patterns of stress caused by such abuses. This will not only foster much-needed psychological and physical relief, but will free up greater capacity for us to show up to the task of dismantling systemic oppression.


Lynn Conway’s Story

Building a psychologically safe workplace: Amy Edmondson at TEDxHGSE

Schmader, T., Johns, M., & Forbes, C. (2008). An integrated model of stereotype threat effects on performance. Psychology Revue. April: 115 (2): 336-356.

Steele, C., &  Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 69, No. 5: 797-811.  

Wortham, J. (2015). Racism’s psychological toll. The New York Times Magazine.