Black engineer shares why she deliberately wears braids in the lab

Mildred Europa Taylor December 16, 2022
O'Reilly wears braids while in the lab. Photo: Twitter/@figoreilly

Engineer Fionnghuala “Fig” O’Reilly went viral on Twitter earlier this month when she shared a photo of herself wearing braids while working in a lab.

“As a Black woman on a national science show, I intentionally wear braids and my curly Afro to normalize Black hair in stem. In this pic, I’m wearing cornrows to study plants being sent to space at NASA,” she wrote.

Her tweet, which was to emphasize the need to have representation in STEM, received over 100,000 likes. People commented, sharing their experiences rocking natural hair in their workplaces. O’Reilly told Yahoo Life that she “was very glad to see that so many people were proud and happy and felt inspired. Those were the messages that meant so much to me, because it did reach so many.”

The 29-year-old’s mission is to recruit and mentor Black women pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Yahoo Life said. Born in the U.S. to an American mother and an Irish father, O’Reilly got attracted to STEM after a teacher in high school asked her to apply to a summer academy at UC Berkeley for students of color that were inner city and from low-income families.

O’Reilly, coming from a “relatively food insecure house”, felt she could not access such a program so she brushed it aside. But the teacher pushed her to apply and she ended up being accepted. “And for the next three years I was exposed to nothing but STEM and other students of color who had similar backgrounds. And that was what inspired me to become an engineer to begin with,” she said.

O’Reilly then went on to study engineering at George Washington University, where she was usually surrounded by white young men. Some of her fellow students also had issues with her hair. “I remember being told more than once I’m ‘blocking’ someone’s view with my hair because I had it in a curly afro,” she recalled.

Even when her colleagues thought she was not fit for the course, she proved everyone wrong, graduating with a systems engineering degree. Thanks to this experience, O’Reilly said she is very intentional about the decisions she makes as a Black woman in STEM, including her appearance, particularly, her hair. 

“I intentionally make the effort to show up in these spaces where we’re not often seen at all. We’re underrepresented in this field. If you Google a scientist, I can promise you, you’re not going to get pictures of a Black woman with cornrows in her hair popping up,” she said. “Right now, this is for our community.”

Per a 2021 Pew research study on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Diversity in STEM, women make up 15% of engineering jobs. Black people make up 5%. O’Reilly wants to change this with her startup called Space to Reach, whose mission is to bridge the tech industry with qualified Black and brown women who work in STEM to help them get job opportunities and mentorship.

Besides her engineering job, O’Reilly is a correspondent on CBS’s Mission Unstoppable with Miranda Cosgrove, a show about women working in STEM.

“The goal of this show is to show women across various fields of STEM and what it looks like to work in their job and one thing that is important to us on the show is showcasing women of a variety of backgrounds. So I do intentionally show up as myself as I normally would with my hair in a wide array of natural hair styles, because that’s how I show up in life,” said O’Reilly.

In 2019 when she became the first Black woman and first woman of color, in general, to represent Ireland at the Miss Universe pageant, she wore her natural hair. She said the pageant thought her so much about the impact that representation can have on young people and young girls. 

Last Edited by:seo zimamedia Updated: December 19, 2022


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