There Are Virtually NO African-American Women in STEM: And Here’s Why

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By: Ariana Bailey

Copy edited by: Amanda Hirsch and Maggie McPherson

Research edited by: Sean Cotnam

Format edited by: Arthur Carlton-Jones

Working in STEM allows you to figure out ways to enhance the future of technology and medicine. The field is also known to be financially stable with low unemployment rates. STEM is a field that provides the perfect combination of practicality and innovation. Other fields of work usually can only provide one or the other.

That’s why I decided to major in animal biotechnology when I enrolled in college. I knew that this major wasn’t a popular choice. However, when I sat down with my academic advisor and learned that you could count the number of black girls with the same major on one hand, it’s safe to say I was quite surprised. It wasn’t just my major that had an extremely small amount of black female participation, this trend permeated throughout all fields of STEM and at all levels of higher education. The number dwindles even more when looking at the amount of women with higher-level positions in STEM jobs.

The Numbers

The National Science Foundation (NSF) released a survey conducted in 2014 on American college freshman who were attending 4-year universities and intended to major in science or engineering. Out of all the African American/black females who were surveyed, only 5% were planning on majoring in engineering and only 2% were planning on majoring in math or computer science. These percentages are pretty low in comparison to those of African American men, among which 14.6% were planning on majoring in engineering and 6.8% were planning on majoring in math or computer science.[1] Based off of this sizeable gap, it is clear that African American women are reluctant to pursue STEM at a college level.

The NSF also released data in 2016 showing that black women comprised 10% of all women who earned a bachelor’s in science or engineering[2] and 9% of all women who earned a masters in the same areas.[3] The proportion decreases significantly when looking at all women who have earned doctoral degrees in science or engineering, with black women comprising less than 3% of that population.[4] Black women with STEM doctorates also comprised less than 4% of all women with STEM doctorates in the STEM workforce.[5]

Why So Few?

I am an African-American woman who plans on having a successful career in biotechnology. When I retire and look back at all of my achievements, I want to be able to say that I not only changed the face of science and medicine, but also opened doors for other black women who wanted to do the same. But before I do that, I must understand what factors are causing so few black women to pursue STEM in the first place.

Of course, the first factor that comes to mind when determining how to be successful in STEM is educational attainment. However, in the case of black women in America, educational attainment truly isn’t the problem. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, African-American women are one of the most educated demographics in the United States. Between 2009 and 2010, black women earned 66 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of master’s degrees and 65 percent of all doctorates awarded to black students.[6] We can see that educational attainment isn’t the reason why black women aren’t moving forward in STEM, many other individual and environmental are at play here. I believe that the classroom and workplace environments are greatly implicated in the deficiency of black women in STEM.

The Culprit

Black woman are definitely tokens in the STEM field and will often be in environments where they are one of a kind, and much like any other environment with a major and minority population, stereotyping and discrimination are bound to occur. Stereotyping isn’t just stressful on a personal level, but can also implicate a person’s ability to establish the networks necessary for doing well in difficult classes or advancing to higher positions at work. Stereotyping can also cause the ideas of black woman to be overlooked in the classroom or workplace. Majority groups tend to over-scrutinize the behavior and performance of a token classmate or employee.[7] Being black and a woman in a white-male-dominated field like STEM can be extremely stressful because you are constantly trying to prove that you are just as knowledgeable and innovative as your co-workers or classmates, even though you are obviously qualified. The combined stress from a discriminatory workplace and a strenuous workload of STEM could cause any person to decide to pursue other endeavors.

It’s up to people like me, the of black women in STEM on campus and on the job, to speak up about tour personal discriminatory experiences, and promote an inclusive space for future black female scientists and engineers.

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