Radioactive Representation: African American Women and Nuclear Energy

Paula Small
May 3, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Introduction: Intersecting Identities

Fig. 1: 7th US Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The gender imbalance within the field of Nuclear Energy is not a secret; a majority of individuals that graduate with a degree in Nuclear Engineering are males. [1] This trend has held true for years, decades even, and has been perpetuated by the negative impact of gender bias and stereotypes, male-dominated work environments, and lack of female representation on young girls and women who are interested in STEM. [2] What's even more alarming about this imbalance, though, is how stark it becomes when other identities, such as race, are also taken into account.

The simultaneous acknowledgement of race and gender pulls upon the concept of intersectionality - a theory which proposes that different aspects of our identity interact in ways that inform and influence our experiences. As such, it serves as a means to better understand the lack of representation in nuclear energy, not just of women, but of women who identify as African American.

The Forgotten Few: A History of African Americans in the Field

To begin to understand the current climate of racial and gender diversity in nuclear energy, we must first acknowledge the history of African Americans in the field.

One of the most well known nuclear undertakings in American history, the Manhattan Project was an effort during World War II to develop the atomic bomb. When commemorating the efforts made during the project, white males are often the center of the narrative. However, a handful of African American males were also contributing to the efforts. Men like Edwin R. Russell, George W. Reed and Moddie Daniel Taylor who contributed years of work, but are generally unknown to the public. [3]

Fig. 2: Shirley Ann Jackson. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In the case of the Manhattan Project and other nuclear energy related projects throughout American history, providing recognition for African Americans' contributions has been retroactive. The uncovering of African Americans' efforts has also highlighted the lack of narratives around African Americans who identify as female.

Slaughter et al. provide a modern view of the racial imbalance within the field of Engineering, as well as quick look at its intersectional implications in regards to gender: [4]

  • In 2013, there were a total of 584,816 baccalaureate level students enrolled in Engineering studies.

  • Of those students, 56.6% identified as White, while 4.9% identified as Black.

  • In taking a closer look at the intersection of race with gender, black males and females represented 3.7% and 1.2% of all baccalaureate Engineering students, respectively.

Considering the likelihood that only a fraction of these Engineering students were specificially studying Nuclear Engineering during that year, the disparity between these numbers is jarring. Somewhere along the trajectory of education into a career, students who identify as female and African American aren't particularly involved or interested in nuclear energy.

African American Women Breaking the Mold

Fig. 3: Dr. Njema Fraizer, physicist in the National Nuclear Security Administration. (Courtesy of the DOE)

Despite this, though, there are women who have prevailed against the difficulties associated with falling outside mold of the White male-dominated field.

The first of these women is Hazel R. O'Leary (Fig. 1), who was the U.S. Secretary of Energy from 1993 to 1997. [5] Her time as the Secretary marked the first, and last, time that a women and African American individual held the position. [5] Taking a different approach to the role than her predecessors, she was known for declassifying important data and documents about nuclear energy, testing, and weapons. [6]

Second is Shirley Ann Jackson (Fig. 2), whose long term career in physics and nuclear energy began with a well-nurtured interest in science throughout her childhood. She earned a Bachelor's, Master's and Doctorate degree at MIT, and was the first African American woman to do so. [7] In following years, she continued to take on positions that were both firsts for women and African Americans. She served as the chair of Clinton's U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1995, helped found and chair the International Nuclear Regulators Association in 1997, and continues to push for nuclear safety while inspiring youth to delve into STEM. [7]

Lastly, Dr. Njema Frazier (Fig. 3) has earned a BS in Physics, Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics, and currently holds a physicist position within the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. [8] During her career in nuclear energy, she has been recognized for her dedication to STEM education and outreach through The Grio's List of 100 History Makers in the Making, Essence and Black Enterprise Magazines, and as a feature in the PBS Profile on the Society of Black Engineers. [8]

Looking Towards the Future

These three incredible African American Women aren't the only ones to have made their mark on nuclear energy. There are many who are currently contributing to the field, and even more young African American women who will soon join in.

In order to make going into such a field both more accessible and engaging for African American women, though, there needs to be more visible representation in the work force and excitement in the classroom.

© Paula Small. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] S. Cheryan et al., "Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others?," Psychol. Bull. 143, 1 (2017).

[2] C. Hill, C. Corbett and A. St. Rose, "Why So Few?," American Association of University Women, Feb 2010.

[3] K.R. Manning, "Science and Opportunity," Science, 282, 1037 (1998).

[4] S. Y. Atwaters, J. D. Leonard, and W. Pearson, Jr., "Beyond the Black-White Minority Experience," in Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience, ed. by J. B. Slaughter, Y. Tao, and W. Pearson, Jr., (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), p. 149.

[5] "History Maker Biography - Hazel Rollins O'Leary," American Association of Blacks in Energy, May 2007.

[6] J. Christensen, "Can Hazel O'Leary Reinvent the Energy Department?," High Country News, 14 Jun 1993.

[7] A. Schaffer, "The Remarkable Career of Shirley Ann Jackson," Technology Review, 19 Dec 2017.

[8] "Alumna Recognized as One of the Top 100 'History Makers in the Making'," Michigan State University, March 2011.