For many of my friends and I, joking that we are “women in STEM” is something we toss around whenever we complete an assignment or figure out a new function on Google Sheets. We always hear that women and other minorities are underrepresented in the STEM field and might make silly jokes, but do many of us really understand the gravity of the situation? Today, we will dive into the demographics of the STEM field.
Name five scientists. Go!
Odds are, they were all white men. Those men are the ones you heard about in your high school science classes: Bohr, Newton, Avogadro, and Faraday, just to name a few. Those are the names we hear about when we learn new physical laws or a new constant to use in our equations. But what about the hundreds of thousands of other scientists and have contributed valuable discoveries to the field? The names of those individuals are never talked about.
And, even without realizing it, our students internalize what this means in terms of their future. When we don’t show students scientists and those in the STEM profession that look like them and share similar life experiences, they come to assume that people with their identities must not go into the STEM field. In this post, we will look at the state of women and minorities in STEM as well as what we can do to encourage all students to pursue STEM careers if they desire.
What does the STEM field look like today?
Both women and other minorities do not have proportional representation in the STEM field. According to PEW research, here are some statistics that can help give you a picture of what the STEM field looks like today:
- Women make up roughly 50% of the STEM workforce, although their representation varies greatly across “occupational clusters”- these are different categories of jobs within the STEM field
- Computer occupations is the occupational cluster with the largest job growth overall in STEM, but the percentage of women in the field has gone down by 7%
- 11% of the workforce is Black, but represent only 9% of jobs in STEM
- 16% of the workforce is Hispanic, but represent only 7% of jobs in STEM
- Women and ethnic minorities are concentrated in the lower paying STEM jobs, which are mainly in healthcare
- Women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the higher paying STEM jobs, like engineering and computer science
- Of engineering majors, women are less likely then men to actually enter the engineering workforce
Here is a graphic of the representation of women in various occupational clusters, as mentioned above:
And this is all just representation- we have not even gotten into the wage gap yet! Obviously, the wage gap exists to some degree because women and minorities occupy different jobs than men that pay different amounts. However, even when women and minorities occupy the same jobs as men, they are paid less. In engineering specifically, women are paid 13% less than men, according to SWE.
Below is an infographic from SWE that includes more interesting facts about women going into engineering (the STEM occupational cluster with the smallest amount of women, remember?!)
However, it is no accident or coincidence that minorities and women are underrepresented and under compensated in the STEM field. Our society and institutions have made many of these careers either inaccessible for people with these identities, or have systematically pushed them out. Let’s dive into the history behind all of this, as well as why things are still the way they are.
How did we get here?
Again, it is no mystery as to why the STEM field is the way it is. People of color face many obstacles in higher education in STEM, including:
- Social belonging: because the STEM field and STEM courses in colleges are majority white, BIPOC may have a more difficult time socially because there simply are not a lot of people that share their identities. The culture of these majors and this field may push BIPOC out or stop them from entering in the first place because of the lack of representation.
- Lack of affordability: BIPOC as a whole have less wealth than other groups. Because of this, higher education may be less affordable and they may have a more difficult time paying for college, especially if they have to work while attending college. The demand of STEM courses can at times make it impossible to work while being a full time student.
- Less access to AP and other college prep courses: It is no secret that not every high school provides its students with the same access to AP and other college prep courses. Schools with majority BIPOC students, in general, receive less funding than other schools with majority white students, meaning they also provide less of these courses. BIPOC students, because of this, would enter college less prepared, or may not be accepted into STEM programs at all.
There are also similar barriers keeping women out of the STEM field. These include:
- Gender stereotypes: Because of the stereotype that STEM fields are for men, teachers and parents can begin inadvertently treating female students differently in terms of their math and science abilities as early as preschool.
- Male-dominated cultures: The STEM field, because it is majority men most of the time, has a culture that is more masculine, inflexible, and therefore less attractive to women. Women, even if they have the skills or interest, do not want to enter a culture such as this.
- Fewer role models: Girls don’t grow up seeing a lot of people that look like them in the STEM field. Therefore, they may be less likely to choose this career for themselves.
- Math anxiety: This one is the most fascinating to me- according to the AAUW, “teachers, who are predominantly women, often have math anxiety that they pass onto girls, and they often grade girls harder for the same work, and assume girls need to work harder to achieve the same level as boys.” Crazy!
I also think that it is essential to mention intersectionality here. In the video below, Crenshaw discusses what intersectionality is. Watch it and consider how this would pose even more of an issue for those with multiple minority identities in entering the STEM field.
How can we change this?
I am not sure about you, but all of these statistics make me frustrated, upset, discouraged, but also ready to help bring about change. How can we do this, and how can I as a future classroom teacher do this?
I believe that it first starts in the mind of the teacher. Will I ignore my biases, or will I choose to confront them head on? For example, I may unwillingly instill math anxiety in my female students, having no idea that I’ve done so. But now, because I have done research, I understand what math anxiety is and can now be careful to not pass it down to my female students. Whether it’s related to gender, race, socioeconomic status, or a number of different identities, we as humans have biases. I have to choose to recognize mine and be mindful of the way I am treating all of my students.
Secondly, I can inform my students of scholarships and programs that support students with some of their same identities. Many scholarships exist for women, BIPOC and others who are underrepresented in the STEM field. Making my students aware of these may ease the financial burden that college can cause, and can potentially connect them with mentors and others who can support them through navigating the world of college.
I can also highlight scientists that share identities with the students in my classroom (as well as others). My hope would be that this shows my students that ALL people can and should be in the STEM field. Here is a website highlighting some important Black scientists: https://www.pbs.org/education/blog/ten-black-scientists-that-science-teachers-should-know-about-and-free-resources
Here is a website highlighting some important scientists with disabilities: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/diversity-in-science/scientists-with-disabilities
Talking about these scientists could be a once a week event in my classroom, and I could even develop a project where my students research these scientists for themselves.
There is much change that needs to occur at every level in our society if we are to help diversify the STEM field. It isn’t enough to simply tell my students that they should pursue STEM- I need to provide them with the right tools and advocate for equity at universities, in funding, and in the cultures of the STEM job field.
That’s all for today! Fighting for equity and representation is a lifelong battle that we all need to fight for all of our students. Every single student and all of their identities matter.
– Miss Karlock (@MissKarlockChem)