Olin College president discusses journey as a Black woman in engineering
By Katie Johnston Globe Staff, Updated November 30, 2023, 2:55 p.m.
Gilda Barabino, the president of Olin College of Engineering in Needham. JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF
I’ve gotten accustomed to entering spaces where I am the first, or the only. I was the
first African American in the chemical engineering graduate program at Rice
University, and the fifth Black woman to receive a PhD in chemical engineering in the
country. When you step into any space where you’re the “other” you are both
hypervisible and invisible at the same time. Another aspect of being “othered” is
isolation, because humans tend to be drawn to others who are more like them. You
start to notice when you are being invited in, and when you are not. It could be to a
group working on homework, or it could be as simple as being invited into a
conversation. And many times I wasn’t invited.
Gilda Barabino is the president of Olin College of Engineering in Needham. Here, she
talks about the challenges and responsibilities of being one of the first Black women
in the country to enter the field of chemical engineering — as told to Boston Globe
reporter Katie Johnston. Part of Inequality at Work, an occasional series of
personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area.
My family was a military family. We moved around a lot. When we were in Dover,
Delaware, there wasn’t a kindergarten where we lived, so I didn’t have the opportunity
to go to kindergarten. And I was more excited to go to first grade than any child you
have ever met. I was the only Black student in an otherwise all-white public school
classroom. The teacher asked us where we were born, and I stood up and said I was
born in Anchorage, Alaska. And she said, “You’re lying. Why would you make this up?”
And my thought was, “Yes, why would I make that up?” So here I was, this first grader
who could not wait to go to school, and my first interaction is with a teacher who
thinks that I’m not telling the truth. I knew enough to know that I was the only one in
the class who was Black, and I was the only one she didn’t believe – I assume perhaps
because she didn’t think Black people lived in Alaska.
When I was doing my PhD thesis, I wanted to investigate something that would allow
me to give back to my own community. Sickle cell anemia disproportionately affects
Blacks, and studying it allowed me to go beyond examining the science and physiology
of the disease to look at the intersection of race and health and politics, while
designing novel approaches to care and treatment for a debilitating disease. There’s a
concept called “equity ethic,” which is the desire to use STEM skills — science,
technology, engineering, and math — for social justice. Ebony McGee has written
about this, and showed that Black and Latinx students in particular are inclined to
enter fields where they can give back.
My first academic job was teaching chemical engineering at Northeastern University,
in 1989. I was the first Black woman to hold a tenure-track faculty position in chemical
engineering in the country. My first day of class held a certain level of excitement, but
also confusion. The students are congregating in the hall and poking their head into
the classroom and stepping back out. I went out and asked, “Are you here for Chemical
Engineering 1421?” And they said, “Yes, but the instructor’s not here.” Because when
they looked in and saw someone who didn’t fit their image of the instructor, they
assumed the instructor wasn’t there.
When you’re entering a space that people like you weren’t in before, there is a
heightened pressure to do well. If you don’t, then that opening might be closed for
someone who shares your background, so you’re carrying the load on your shoulders. I
wanted to be successful so that I could continue to change the environment and also
be able to bring others in.
Women of color also carry a disproportionate service load in academia. It could be that
you’re expected to mentor and take on advising for other women of color. You’re also
expected to carry out diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Do you want to diversify a
committee? If you add a woman of color, it’s a two-fer. That work is often unseen. It’s
unrecognized and it’s unrewarded. People like me want to give back, we want to help
others, particularly those from underrepresented groups. But that type of work often
gets overlooked and doesn’t generate any currency toward progressing your career.
I was the only woman of color when I was a visiting faculty member on sabbatical at
an institute at Georgia Tech. Students would seek me out, particularly women of color,
and they’d share their experiences and ask how I got to where I was. It got to the point
where literally there was a line outside my door every day. So I started having group
lunches. But I said, “This is not a session just to sit and complain about how you’re
being held back. What are you going to do about it?” I would assign readings. I
brought in a psychology professor, and we created focus groups that led to a paper in
Science Education about how women of color form professional identities as scientists.
Because I often felt invisible and isolated, I had to work harder at building connections
and forging relationships. So I would reach outside engineering to collaborate with
people who were in social sciences, women’s studies, and other disciplines. Connecting
with other women around the sociology and psychology of STEM careers enriched my
own experiences and also contributed to a broader understanding of the field.
During my academic career, there’s progress we can point to. In the Boston area, just
look at the number of other college presidents who are Black women: at Boston
University, Cambridge College, Harvard University, Mount Holyoke, Simmons
University, and Wellesley College. There’s clearly progress. But there are still cultural
barriers society is grappling with overall.
I cochaired a committee for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and
Medicine that just published a report about advancing antiracism. People have a hard
time creating inclusive environments where everyone can thrive. Sometimes we make
assumptions that researchers working in the same area will automatically collaborate,
and I don’t think this necessarily happens if you’re a woman of color and you’re “new.”
I once met with a group of researchers who used my ideas in the development of a
grant proposal but didn’t include me in the submission.
One of the official values we adopted at Olin last year is a commitment to “fight for
equity and justice.” One thing that attracted me to Olin was the founding precept that
engineering is something you do for societal good, such as developing affordable
Olin College of Engineering in Needham SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF
diagnostic tools that can screen for diseases in low-resource settings.
Under my leadership, Olin has increased our representation of women and people of
color among faculty and students. We speak about engineering for everyone, meaning
everyone has the opportunity to pursue engineering, and engineering is done in
service of everyone.
Still, no matter how much I’ve risen through the ranks, I realize that inequity is
ingrained. It doesn’t matter what level you are. I carry that with me as a reminder that
change is needed, change is possible, and the benefits of effecting change will serve
Gilda Barabino can be reached at email@example.com.
To tell your story, contact reporter Katie Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Explore the full Inequality at Work series.