Fionnghuala “Fig” O’Reilly, an engineer, became viral on Twitter earlier this month after sharing 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 emphasized the importance of diversity in STEM, earned over 100,000 likes. People reacted, sharing their job experiences with natural hair. “I was extremely thrilled to see that so many people were proud and joyful and felt encouraged,” O’Reilly told Yahoo Life. Those were the messages that meant the most to me since they reached so many people.”
According to Yahoo Life, the 29-year-objective old’s is to recruit and mentor Black women pursuing jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). O’Reilly, who was born in the United States to an American mother and an Irish father, became interested in STEM after a high school teacher encouraged her to apply to a summer academy at UC Berkeley for students of color who were inner city and from low-income homes.
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 though her colleagues thought she was unsuitable for the course, she graduated with a systems engineering degree. As a result of this incident, O’Reilly says she is very deliberate about her decisions as a Black woman in STEM, including her looks, 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.
She wore her natural hair as the first Black woman and first woman of color in general to represent Ireland at the Miss Universe competition in 2019. She claimed the pageant taught her a lot about the power of representation on young people and young ladies.