In the field of education, the push for sending students into STEM fields has become more prominent now more than ever. Schools encourage “women in STEM” through offering extracurricular activities and advanced math and science courses. There is a real need for more diversity in people pursuing careers in computer science, engineering, and healthcare. But why is the field lacking diversity? And what can be done?
Let’s take a closer look into the current state of diversity in STEM and how we must approach this as teachers in order to implement real change.
Where We Are NOW –
There is no doubt that in the past 25 years, women have been more represented in the STEM workforce. However, women are still very much underrepresented in some STEM job clusters. As seen in the graphic to the left from PEW Research Center, while women dominate 3/4 of health-related fields, such as careers as dental hygienists, nurses, and speech language pathologists, women are strongly underrepresented in engineering and computer jobs. Since 1990, women have made significant gains in some STEM occupations, specifically as life and physical scientists (13% and 17%), while growth in women’s representation in engineering has been less significant (2% in 10 years).
On the other hand, when you look at the research for minorities in STEM careers, you will find that Hispanics and blacks are underrepresented and Asians and white are overrepresented. Similarly to women, the STEM workforce has increasingly become more racially and ethnically diverse over the past 25 years. However, it is evident in the Pew Research Center analysis to the right that these fields are still very much white-dominated, relative to their share in the total workforce.
Another important minority that is underrepresented in STEM is the LGBTQ+ community. According to a 2020 Vanderbilt study, men in same-sex couples are 12% less likely to have a STEM related bachelor’s degree compared to men in different-sex couple. While there is not a lot of data available on LGBTQ representation in STEM fields, campaigns such as the 500 Queer Scientists and associations like the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals are great resources for making improvements in their representation in diversity measurements in the future.
But, why is this the way it is? The STEM field clearly has a lot of work to do. Minorities, including BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+, are faced with more obstacles in entering the STEM field, as well as once they are in it. Some examples of these are:
- Implicit and Explicit Biases
- Discrimination & Harassment
- Wage Gaps
- Lack of representation & role models in media:
- Unequal Access to funding
Finally, understanding intersectionality is key to understanding the current state of the STEM field and STEM professions.
Individuals with multiple minority identities, such as African American women, face unique and complex challenges that are found at the intersection of multiple social dynamics such as racism, sexism, ableism, classism and more. To learn more, check out this well-known Ted Talk about intersectionality by Kimberlé Crenshaw below.
Moving Forward –
While the statistics may feel discouraging on their own, change can still occur. There is hope for growth in minority representation for the future generations. How, you may ask? In order to change the proportions of minorities in STEM careers, we need to start with implementing equitable STEM education and opportunities in the classroom. Teachers can play a very valuable role in impacting diversity in the STEM field by encouraging students to pursue careers in STEM.
First, although it may seem simple, teachers can start by embracing the diversity in their classrooms. Simply acknowledging students’ differences that make them unique culturally, academically, socially, ethnically, and experientially would show students that their differences matter. Cultivating a classroom of inclusivity and acceptance changes the way students see themselves, others, and their ideas about their self-worth and potential. The Ted Talk below goes into more depth of the importance of diversity, it’s worth the watch!
Another way to encourage BIPOC, women, individuals with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students to pursue careers in STEM would be to educate students on scientists, mathematicians, scholars, physicists, and influential figures that share students identities. Because a major issue is the lack of representation, where students don’t often see people that look like them in the STEM field or media, we can start correcting this in the classroom. Some practical ways of doing this may look like:
- Invite guest speakers to come to the classroom to talk about their careers in STEM. Showing students that there are real people in their community that are successful in a STEM field is so important for building their belief in themselves – if they know someone can do it, then they can believe they can too!
- Highlight a “scientist of the week,” where students research influential people that have made significant contributions to a STEM field of their interest and write a reflection on what they learned.
- Provide students with resources and materials that include diversity, whether that is in reading materials, websites, or media.
- Teach students about impactful scientists that break their stereotypical ideas about scientists. Scientists aren’t all white males with crazy hair, but so many meaningful contributions to science have been made by women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and BIPOC. Help show students that there is not one “correct” image for what a scientist looks like.
- Provide students with seminar opportunities, virtually and in person, for them to learn more about ways to combat underrepresentation in STEM fields.
- Connect students with resources in their community for college scholarships, especially ones that are offered for students of specific minorities. This could help them have more equal access to higher education.
Thanks for reading this week! The power of diversity is one of the most valuable lessons we as teachers can impart to our students. Keep going and making a difference in your classrooms.
Until next time,