Being cheerful and good-natured, and thus perhaps deflating the stereotype of the grim and grumpy scientist, Sônia Guimarães overcame many obstacles to become the first black woman to hold a PhD in Physics. She is also the first person in her family to have attended college. In this article, she shares her thoughts and experiences on her life and accomplishments.
Speaking on overcoming obstacles in the job market for black women, she stresses the necessity of study and dedication:
“They have to study and specialize in something, and become highly qualified, because being black women, everything will be more difficult, thus, they have to be the best. “When I started as a professor at the Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA, Technological Institute of Aeronautics), I was the only black woman in the Department of Elementary Education. Being the only black was a situation that repeated itself in my academic life. This road can be a bit lonely, but it is very important to keep in mind that the reason that loneliness is never a lack of competence or intelligence.”
She goes on to explain that the investment in education can increase the participation of women in certain areas of power.
“We need more black women choosing, making personnel selection. It’s no use being the only one. If there were many of us in many hierarchical positions, this will change.”
In her view, on a daily basis, manifestations of racism will intertwine with those of sexism and it will be confusing to know which is more pernicious.
“It’s difficult to know if it is because I am a woman or because I am black, but men never believe in my capacity or intelligence. They always expect for me give up, say something wrong, or always trying to correct me; correct things that I already said correctly, only saying it in a different way, but it would be the same thing that I already said.”
On the existence of an unwritten policy on race, she says:
“There is, however, a policy of exclusion of people with black skin, it is a centuries-old politics – and very effective. We have fought with a century of injustice. In my academic career, things were not easy, and perhaps for many black kids today it’s not.”
As life can be very difficult for black Brazilians, she goes on to explain how she has managed such success in her professional life:
“Higher education, even being closer to reality because of quotas and programs like ProUni*, still it is the ceiling for many people. It shouldn’t be like this. It is possible to have a successful academic career and go beyond college. I can tell you a little to my experience. Who knows, maybe it will encourage other young black people from families who cannot afford for you’re their education?
“I had some luck. During high school, I worked part time. The rest of the time I was studying. What I earned, I used to pay for courses for college, however anymore money that I needed I had to resort to my mother, who had a buffet. She also managed to keep studying since the day I set foot in college.
“I graduated in Physics at the Federal University of São Carlos, I did my Master’s in Applied Physics of Solar Cells at the University of São Paulo in São Carlos (city within state of São Paulo) . I did my doctorate in Bologna, Italy, in super-shallow junctions, with applications in microelectronics. I completed my PhD in Manchester, England, in semi conductor materials. Today, I am a professor of physics at the Electronic Engineering Division of the Department of Microwaves at ITA. I am a Project Manager for Infrared Radiation Sensors at the Institute of Aeronautics and Space (IAE).
“In my career I attended 17 national conferences, 5 international, I have 11 publications in international scientific journals. Two of my articles earned citations from NASA.
“All these years I have been dedicating to research and teaching. With all this, you must be wondering: ‘And the fact of being female and black did not hold you back at all?’
“During the time I was a student I didn’t pay much attention to this, no. What is very noticeable is the miniscule presence of blacks in the university environment. From pre-school until the day I defended my doctoral thesis, I don’t remember one black teacher.
“In college there were five in a universe of 1,500 students. Outside of Brazil it’s like that too. At the last conference I attended in Utah, in the United States, the other black person was French. In England, where I did my doctorate, three were black Brazilians. In 1993, the first year that I taught in ITA, I had three black students. This year, I only had one black student, and even then, she had to drop out for a period.
“If you are black, following a career path will not be easy. But posing as a victim will not attract anyone’s sympathy. It is important to think that the more difficult it is to walk, the greater will be the value of success. And when all seems lost, keep on fighting. Success could be closer (than you think).”
Concluding her thoughts from her position as researcher and professor, Guimarães believes that science can improve everything.
“With knowledge you can overcome situations, react, fight, go after what you want and have new ideas. In the end, we can have a black president here also as there is in the United States, within 40 years. But we need to start now. The diversity of ideas will only increase the know-how.”
* – Programa Universidade Para Todos (University for All Program), is a program initiated by the Ministry of Education that distributes partial or full scholarships to students throughout Brazil.