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Why are there so few women of color in STEM careers?

Oct 13, 2016

Only 16 % of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Even when students pursue a college degree in a STEM-related field, only about half end up working in a related career.

Despite a lack of interest, STEM occupations are growing rapidly. And the number of STEM professionals the U.S. is producing to fill those positions is lagging far behind. America will be be short 1 million STEM professionals in the next decade, according to Forbes.

Yet, a resource that could help fill these jobs is largely ignored. Women remain underrepresented in these fields - especially women of color. Ruchika Tulshyan at Forbes wrote:

Just a quarter of the over 5 million tech jobs last year were held by women, but the percentage of women of color – particularly black and Hispanic workers – in the industry stands at single digits.

Research shows girls can excel in STEM subjects when they feel confident in their math and science skills. And African American girls actually begin showing an inclination toward these fields even earlier than their peers. According to Tulshyan:

The opportunity cost is huge – black girls reported being more interested in STEM subjects and careers than their white counterparts. More than double the number of African American girls surveyed by CompTIA said computer science was their favorite school subject (42% vs. 20% white respondents.) Half of the black respondents said math was their favorite school subject, compared with 34% of white girls. More importantly, 23% of black girls had considered a career in IT, compared with 19% of white girls. And of those who had considered it, 67% of African American girls vs. 40% of Caucasian girls responded that they were attracted to this career path because they understood how to use different technology.

In order to change the current trend, STEM employers need to do more to actively recruit women of color. That's according to a new study by nonprofit organization, CompTIA. Todd Thibodeaux is president of the nonprofit. He told Forbes:

Employers need to look beyond traditional job boards and want ads to find a broader pool. Then, there’s retention; a sustained commitment to ensure employees of color receive support and training in the first six months of a hire. Ticking off a diversity box only to have women of color leave soon after – and share negative experiences – would be counterproductive.

There also have to be changes to workplace culture. In addition to poor recruiting practices, black women have reported facing barriers to advancement in STEM careers, like discrimination and exclusion. Marietta Davis is a sales executive with an extensive technology industry career. She wrote for The Huffington Post:

The presence of women in STEM presents unique internal challenges. Women in these fields are faced with the issues of salary disparity, under representation, gender stereotyping, a sense that their ideas are not taken seriously, being overlooked for promotions, inadequate mentors and exclusion from informal networks. Women of color face additional challenges because of their race, gender, and cultural differences as well as questioning of technical capability and competence. Acceptance into organizational networks is important to long-term advancement. Being part of a network increases information and knowledge, resulting in an increase in the chances of advancement in the STEM disciplines. African American women are often excluded from networks and isolated in the work environment.

Diversity in the STEM workforce has remained almost unchanged over the past 15 years. And that has economic consequences given the higher than average salary that STEM careers provide. Getting more women and minorities in STEM fields could have a strong effect on persistent race and gender wage gaps.

It would also increase the quality of research, according to National Science Foundation director France A. Córdova:

Diversity of thought, perspective, and experience is essential for excellence in research and innovation in science and engineering.

And that excellence is something that ultimately benefits all of us.