Women make up just one-quarter of the U.S. workforce in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The number is even lower for women of color — fewer than 1 in 10 women of color are employed scientists and engineers, according to a report by the National Science Foundation.
There is a national push for more women in STEM fields, but educators can also do more to elevate women of color in these fields, according to Terrell Morton, the Preparing Future Faculty postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri and co-author of a new study.
“Some of the biggest hurdles facing women of color in STEM fields include being treated fairly and equitably when it comes to recognizing, honoring and supporting their voice, work, interest and capabilities,” he said.
“STEM fields, as a whole, have a very racialized and gendered notion of ‘who is recognized in STEM,’ ‘who is deemed credible in STEM’ and ‘who should be part of STEM,’ ” he added.
But this can start to change if educators begin creating inclusive learning environments and prioritize activities that intentionally and meaningfully incorporate students’ personal identities and experiences, he explained.
Understanding the barriers
Beyond simply looking at the numbers and culture of male-dominated STEM fields, Morton explained that women of color — particularly black women — are at a disadvantage because workplace environments often see them as either a member of their racial group, or a member of their gender group.
These insular definitions often lead people to believe that if black women are included in either group, then their voices and perspectives are automatically being heard, he believes.
“We know that this is not true, as many scholars, particularly within the black feminist and womanist domain, describe how being a black woman or woman of color places them at a unique intersection where the totality of their experience cannot be classified or reduced to insular notions of their identity,” said Morton.
He attributes this to an embedded layer of sexism and racism within American society, which ultimately leads to an underrepresentation of women of color within the workforce.
“Because of these structures and insular perspectives, black women and women of color are underrepresented within the workforce, their experiences and stories and interest are underrepresented in the problems and solutions generated, they are underrepresented in the curriculum taught and provided and are therefore positioned as ‘other’ within the culture creating barriers that alienate and oppress,” said Morton.
For the study, Morton and co-author Eileen C. Parsons, a professor of science education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, interviewed 10 black women pursuing STEM degrees at two southeastern universities to understand their perspective in the white, male-dominated fields.
Many of the women reported having alienating and isolating classroom experiences, but they all firmly expressed that they wanted to continue within their field.
One woman even expressed being told by a fellow church member to have a “backup plan” in case a STEM career wouldn’t work out for her.
This highlights that black women recognize that society feels a certain way about them, but they are still able to stay resilient and thrive, explained Morton.
However, if these barriers can be broken, then more women of color will feel comfortable and included, and be encouraged to pursue a career in STEM.
Creating more inclusive environments
STEM education is currently promoted as being apolitical, acultural and objective, but this is impossible since our knowledge of STEM comes from humans who are products of historical, political, social and cultural ideologies, according to Morton.
Since human development and learning are social processes, this means that we recognize, understand and adopt beliefs and principles based on where we are from, who raises us, and what we are exposed to, he explained.
So, by creating environments that include an individual’s identity and experience, we can foster a space that communicates to women of color that they belong, matter, and are recognized within STEM.
“Such messages, in my opinion, would foster continued and sustained engagement and interest in STEM fields, particularly for black women and women of color,” said Morton. “I say this because the research shows that black women and women of color are just as interested in pursuing a STEM education as other students.”
“It is only when they start receiving messages about who is ‘supposed’ to be in STEM through their learning experiences that you start to find their attrition. These messages occur as early as elementary school,” he continued.
Ways to promote inclusivity
To provide more inclusive classroom environments, Morton suggests that educators can start by being mindful of the images on the walls of classrooms and labs, as well as the readings used, problems investigated, and solutions generated in courses, so they understand whose voice(s) and communities are either represented or not.
Additionally, Morton suggests that asking students to share their stories, backgrounds and goals with the class will encourage community support and help all students succeed.
“This type of inclusion will positively affect college students seeing as how the current STEM education in college promotes antiquated notions of learning and engagement (e.g., large lecture halls where faculty just speak to students),” he said.
“Our current method only targets a specific type of person and learner and does not take into consideration different learning styles, abilities, exposure or capabilities,” he continued.
Other ideas include creating community-based learning environments where students can engage in work within their home communities. This would allow students to work on projects that are relevant and meaningful to them.
Morton is currently involved in three funded research projects seeking to build inclusivity in STEM education and higher education as a whole.
“All three projects are supported by my college, the different Deans from other colleges (e.g., Arts and Science, Human Environmental Sciences Health Professions) and the Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity,” he said. “I have some pretty phenomenal colleagues supporting me.”
Natalie Colarossi is a journalism major and global studies minor working toward her bachelor’s degree at Ohio University. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.