Who do you think of when you think of a scientist? An engineer? A mathematician? It is probably a person that resembles maybe Albert Einstein, or Charles Darwin. If you google “famous scientists” or “famous mathematicians” or something similar to that, you are going to find a lot of old, white, men. Where are the women, the people of color, the people with differences? In STEM fields, minorities are underappreciated, underrepresented and weeded out by a number of societal and stereotypical standards.
This image that comes to mind when people, children included, think of scientists, is only reinforcing the idea that that is what scientists look like. It is too often a white male, and this only reinforces the idea that women and minorities do not belong in science.
What should the representation of women and minorities be?
Theoretically, the demographics of people in STEM should be representative of the population. For our purposes we will look at demographics of people in the United States from the US Census Bureau in their 2019 report.
According to the figure above, and the idea that STEM fields should be representative of the population, more than 40% of STEM professionals should hold one of the above identities. Similarly, about half of them should identify as a woman. Unfortunately, women and other minority groups are underrepresented in the STEM field.
What are the demographics within STEM?
In April of 2021, the Pew Research Center published a report outlining the uneven progression of racial and ethnic diversity in STEM. Their reports are based on employed adults over the age of 25 and during the time period of 2017-2019.
As we compare the pie charts above, we can conclude that the STEM field is not representative of the populations in the United States. White people are significantly overrepresented in the STEM field, and those who are Hispanic, or black/African American are significantly under represented.
Women in STEM has made progress toward being representative of the population. As discussed previously, women should theoretically make up about half of those in the STEM field. We do see this represented in the statistics, but within the STEM fields, women are drawn to health related fields more often than their male peers, holding 74% of the positions. However, women are severely underrepresented in engineering, physical science and computer science fields.
Diverse experiences and points of view in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields is so incredibly important. It allows for new perspective in creating new products and researching existing ones, and gives more insight into the consumer population. Women and minority groups can provide important insight that can allow these fields and industry to cater to more diverse audiences, increasing diversity and inclusion overall.
The question we are aiming to answer, is what can we do to combat this? How can we foster equity in the classroom, to encourage every student to pursue STEM if that is what they want to do?
Each and every day, there are biases and stereotypes that are so prevalent in society. Children see them, they know them. Often they contribute to their spread without intention, simply because it is what they know! It is important in the classroom to be aware of these biases and stereotypes, and to combat them when able.
There are several ways this can be done in the classroom.
- After school programs – these programs allow students who wish to pursue fun STEM activities. They also remove pressure and reduce performance anxieties that might be present in a classroom setting.
- Student clubs – student clubs can highlight real world applications of STEM, and can draw further interest to the STEM fields in students who might have otherwise been uninterested. Fun extracurriculars allow students to connect their education to real life, giving more meaning and increasing motivation and desires to know more.
- Local Science Centers – field trips and visits to museums and science centers can fuel interest and the desire to know more. Exciting trips and experiences spark curiosity!
- Mentorship / shadow experiences – There are mentorship programs and labs and offices that allow students to experience the science they read about in text books in real life. Students can get hands on experience at a doctors office, or in a lab or research project and get to apply what they have learned.
- Be aware of biases and stereotypes that women and minorities may encounter. Address these situations in the classroom and equip students with knowledge and confidence to do the same.
- Show students diversity in STEM professionals in the classroom. We know that old white men are not the only scientists out there! Show them women, people of color, those with different physical and cognitive abilities! Science comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities and that should be evident in the classroom.
There are so many more ways that students in the classroom can be empowered to pursue STEM if that is what they wish to do. There are always scholarships and internships, new experiences and more that students can and should be encouraged to pursue.
If the post was too long, and you would rather just get a summary, this section is for you! I’ll be summarizing what I have discussed this far.
- Women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM fields while white men are overrepresented in much of STEM.
- We can encourage students to pursue STEM in a variety of ways, including after school clubs, field trips to science centers, providing resources for mentorship and shadow experiences.
- We must be aware of stereotypes and biases that students face in society, in the schools, and at home and educate them and their peers to combat them.
- Showing students that scientists are a diverse group of people, not just Albert Einstein, can be powerful! They can see people that might look like them represented in a lab or other STEM related environment.
In my own classroom, I hope that I can foster curiosity and a love for science and learning. I hope that each and every student feels that they can pursue STEM if that is what they choose to do. The fact of the matter is, what students see and hear in the classroom has a huge impact on their confidence and how they view their futures. We need to do our part in encouraging diverse people and helping them to maintain interest in STEM.
In my own classroom, I plan to show students regularly what scientists look like. I hope that this can combat the idea that scientists have to be white and have crazy hair, or that they are evil and dangerous. I also hope to start or contribute to a science related club after school, where students can participate in fun STEM related activities outside of the pressure of the classroom. I plan to continue in my education of social justice issues, and to keep up with the social and political climate that students will inevitably face. In doing these things, I hope to instill a confidence in every single student, because science truly is for everyone!
That is all for now, see you next time! – McKenna Miller