For a while now, the movement to get more women—especially women of color—into STEM has been gaining traction in America. Yet at multiple entry levels of interest, such as K-12 education, higher education, and eventually, the STEM workforce, statistics prove that there’s still a lot of work to be done. While girls seem just as interested as boys in STEM during high school, it’s in higher education that they begin to leave the fields: “In 2012, 11.2% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, 8.2% of master’s degrees in science and engineering, and 4.1% of doctorate degrees in science and engineering were awarded to minority women (NSF, 2015)” (The National Girls Collaborative Project, 2016). What goes wrong?
Before I jump into this analysis, I want to make clear that I don’t have all the answers. A lot of my data, though not all of it, will be qualitative data and some might even come from the “I” perspective. This isn’t to say that this data is any less significant, but it’s a different way to break down
a problem to its root causes. Now, let’s begin.
For starters, I pointed out that at an early age, girls demonstrate an equal level of interest in STEM as do boys. K-12 females actually take precalculus/analysis and algebra II at higher rates than males, though males are 6 times more likely to take engineering ( The NGCP, 1, 2016). When I was in elementary school, I was actually very involved with my science classes, and I would spend hours after-school observing different rocks and trying to understand what animals were “reptilians.” I must have been slightly aware that my gender identity and ethnicity were not well represented in STEM, but at that age, it’s hard to be that sophisticated about one’s identity. I was already undergoing a tomboy phase at the time so I already felt like the “rules” didn’t apply to me, anyway.
Later on, I would go on to compete with my brother in a series of competitions called Science Olympiad. In addition to Science Olympiad, my brother participated in a robot competition called Bot Ball. I secretly thought Bot Ball was really cool but a part of me told myself that I just wasn’t interested. I still don’t understand this part of me. Was it society’s voice speaking to me (i.e. the Generalized Other)? I mean, we can internalize voices, can’t we? Why did I hesitate to involve myself in Bot Ball?
In any case, I found the cry for diversity (both ethnic and gender diversity) within STEM to be very prominent at the next level of education. In my high school science and math classes, it wasn’t that the teachers were only acknowledging females and minorities as students, but they definitely recognized the lack of our representation within the STEM field. By having frank discussions about the obstacles preventing women and minorities from further pursuing STEM, my fellow underrepresented classmates and I came to understand what lied before us. For example, discussing why women—who hold half off all the jobs in the US economy—fill less than 25% of STEM jobs can invigorate them to higher that statistic; this really depends on the student, though (Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, 1, 2011).
Another great illustration would be unpacking sexist comments about women in the STEM field. What does Lawrence Summers mean when he says that the “different availability of aptitude at the high end” is why women are underrepresented in STEM? When Tim Hunt calls women distractions in the lab because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry,” how do we push back against such gender bias? At the high school stage, teachers need to be diligent about counteracting these comments, otherwise they reach women interested in STEM at a very subconscious level, leading to less female engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and overall technology enthusiasts.
At my end, I believe that the affirmative action programs that many institutes have in place are worthwhile. When applying for an internship at Salk Institute my junior year of high school, I vividly remember demarcating my ethnicity and gender while reading a statement on the institute trying to get more underrepresented minorities and women into the lab, and eventually, into entry level positions. By specifically stating this as their goal, the Salk Institute conveyed to me that I was not only welcomed there, but wanted. I ended up not getting the internship, but I held the institute in high regard for their efforts.
On this note, I should emphasize that feeling welcome into a certain space plays a huge role in creating diversity. A lot of people may think that inclusivity is just a sham term where everyone gets a plastic trophy for simply existing, but I view inclusivity as an effort to make space for everyone’s personal narrative and background. Promoting inclusivity for women in STEM is not going to be easy, but it must be done in order for the statistics of female STEM majors to improve: “…[women] receive far fewer [bachelor’s degrees] in the computer sciences (18.2%), engineering (19.2%), physics (19.1%), and mathematics and statistics (43.1%)”(The NGCP, 1, 2016).
Inclusivity in STEM is not viewing us as distractions to lab research. Inclusivity is allowing us to game and play with new gadgets without making sexist comments about our abilities to use such technology. Inclusivity is understanding that we are just as able to computer program as you are, given that we are allowed equal resources and opportunities. Inclusivity means judging us for our STEM skills, not by our appearance. Inclusivity in STEM is viewing us like human beings who are able to have interest and talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
What goes wrong is that many institutions and individuals violate the above standards of inclusivity for women, which alienates them from their passions and leads to lost potential. If you are in a position of influence, take it upon yourself to fully come to terms with these standards. If you are a woman, especially if you are a woman of color, then know you are more than the negative comments and gender bias. You are someone interested in STEM and you have the ability to change the world with your knowledge. Change the statistics, and inspire others who are watching you.