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Underrepresentation in STEM: Analyzing the Plight of Female, Racial Minority, and LGBTQIA+ Individuals in the United States and Offering Recommendations for Improvement
Across the United States, there is a dearth of women, underrepresented racial minority (URM), and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and many other terms (LGBTQIA+) community members in STEM-oriented academic majors and careers. While prior research has tended to focus on these demographics in isolation with respect to their participation in STEM fields, this paper offers a comprehensive overview of the problem. Background information is provided which draws upon statistical data to demonstrate the insufficient representation of the aforementioned groups in STEM areas. In addition, this paper proceeds to illuminate a significant pay gap in STEM workplaces that besets these populations. This section is then followed by an in-depth analysis into why female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ disparities exist in STEM disciplines through the lenses of stereotypes, belonging and academic self-efficacy, as well as financial strain. Thereafter, this paper explores the importance of addressing these disparities and offers recommendations for improvement in educational, career-oriented, and organizational domains. It concludes with insights about progress to date and promising revelations that can foster inclusion for female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ individuals in STEM fields.
To date, there are over 10.8 million workers in STEM occupations across the U.S. (U.S. Census Bureau). The STEM field includes the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These disciplines can include, but are not limited to, physical science, medical science, biological science, medical science, medical services, social sciences, applied mathematics, computer science, engineering, mechanics, and electronics (Su and Rounds). Furthermore, these areas can contain a variety of sub-disciplines and hybrids that qualify as STEM. “Even within a sub-discipline of STEM, we may still identify occupations that are heterogeneous in terms of their occupational characteristics. For example, economics and psychology are both nested within social sciences…” (Su and Rounds).
Within STEM fields, women are disproportionately represented nationwide. In fact, they comprise over 50% of college-educated workers, but only 28% of STEM workers (McBride). In 2019, the STEM workforce was made up of 73% male workers leaving women only 27% represented (Martinez et al.). To illuminate this statistic, it is important to understand the ways in which the term “woman” can be defined. “[G]ender identity exists on a spectrum and…more than two genders exist in the human experience. In addition, even individuals that identify as women do not all share a common experience” (Eddy et al.). From this vantage point, gender can be considered a relatively complex way to define a person’s identity. This understanding is also derived from people’s internal experiences. “Individuals can vary in the degree to which they identify with a particular gender, how important gender is to their identity, the gender roles associated with their gender, and how their gender identity influences their experience in different settings such as a classroom” (Eddy et al.). Furthermore, gender can be considered merely one of many socially constructed identities that help shape how people think of themselves.
In addition, The Pew Research Center has emphasized how race can play a powerful determining role with respect to STEM engagement. Underrepresented racial minority (URM) populations in the U.S. constitute Blacks, African Americans, Latinxs, Hispanics, and Indigenous peoples (e.g., American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians). Collectively, these individuals form over 26% of the U.S. population, yet they only account for approximately 10% of STEM workers (McBride).
Unfortunately, “Blacks in STEM jobs tend to report experiencing workplace discrimination due to race more than do blacks in non-STEM jobs (62% vs. 50%).” A similar trend is evident among Hispanic populations across the nation. “Hispanics in STEM and non-STEM jobs…say they have experienced workplace discrimination because of their race or ethnicity” (Funk and Parker). Approximately 45% of all URM workers in STEM fields indicated that they have had someone treat them as incompetent because of their race at least once in their careers (Funk and Parker).
Like the other groups mentioned previously, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and many other terms (LGBTQIA+) community members are also severely underrepresented in STEM fields. “About 3.5 percent of Americans, including about eight million people in the nation’s workforce, identify as LGBT” (Moran). Unfortunately, recent estimates suggest that LGBTQIA+ people are 17-21% less represented in STEM fields than expected (Freeman, “LGBTQ Scientists Are Still Left Out”). This statistical underrepresentation is compounded by the fact that LGBTQIA+ individuals leave or consider leaving STEM disciplines at an alarming rate. “[O]ver a third of LGBTQ+ physicists have considered leaving their institution in the past year and 15% of trans people have left school due to discrimination and harassment according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey and the American Physical Society” (Boustani and Taylor).
Unfortunately, people who identify in terms of more than one of the aforementioned demographic categories can face extremely elevated levels of ostracization in STEM fields. This can result in double or triple jeopardy depending on the number of identities with which people associate. One example can be the experience of double jeopardy that occurs when women of color confront stereotypes about STEM across two social identities: gender and race. “Thus, women of color may be more likely to encounter situations where they are made to feel like they do not belong in STEM. In a recent study of 60 female scientists of color, 100% said they had encountered gender bias while another study on black female scientists found 80% reported encountering racial bias” (Eddy et al.). Furthermore, within the LGBTQIA+ community, certain identities can experience more severe marginalization in STEM fields than others. For example, recent trends indicate that transphobia is on the rise in the U.S., in some places upwards of 37% (Boustani and Taylor). In short, people who experience a confluence of marginalized sex, race, and/or gender orientations are less likely to remain in STEM fields.
STEM careers are among the highest paying professions in America. According to the World Economic Forum, “...the top 25 college degrees by pay and demand are all ‘STEM’ subjects” (Masterson). In 2019, the median earning of STEM jobs was $77,400, significantly higher than the median income for all jobs at $50,900, and non-stem jobs at $46,900 (Fry et al.). However, there are significant pay gaps within STEM fields due to gender and race. In regards to gender, females receive an immensely disproportionated salary compared to their male counterparts. The median income of male STEM professionals is $90,000, while their female counterparts earn $66,6000 – leaving them with a 26% deficit, equating to thousands of dollars lost annually for female STEM professionals (Fry et al.). In fact, “...among the 70 detailed STEM occupations the Census Bureau reports on, women earned more than men in only one STEM occupation: computer network architects. But women represented only 8% of those in this occupation” (U.S. Census Bureau).
Pay deficits among female STEM workers are also persistent in the field of engineering. To illuminate this issue, it is vital to examine it with respect to individual states. The vast majority of states possess staggering pay gaps for female engineers. In some states, female engineers are paid salaries as low as 75% of those of their male counterparts. While progress is evident in three states – Nevada, Utah, and Delaware – the majority of female engineers across the U.S. earned 80-90% of male salaries in 2021.
This biased payment system in the STEM field is often blind to workers’ capabilities. Frequently, when equally capable male and female candidates are considered for STEM jobs, studies have shown that male candidates are judged by interviewers as being more favorable. As a result, males are more likely to obtain such positions. This phenomenon is demonstrated by a study that was conducted at Stanford University and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Researchers surveyed a group of 559 engineers and computer science graduate student job applicants from two dozen U.S. institutions between 2015 to 2017. From the results, “...they found that women earned $61,000 in their first jobs compared to $65,000 for men, despite having the same degrees and grade point averages” (Binns). Furthermore, a recent study selected millennial students to role-play a hiring interview and unearthed a disturbing finding. Even though math performance was identical between candidates, people were more likely to hire men for a math-related job than women and profoundly undervalue the contributions of women on a monetary basis (Eddy et al.).
Similarly, URM populations within STEM fields are subject to severe economic deficits in their salaries compared to white males nationwide. In 2019, African Americans earned an average salary of $61,000 as STEM workers in the U.S. (Fry et al.). However, African Americans tended to earn merely 78% of white male salaries in STEM fields across the country (Fry et al.). Additionally, the average Hispanic male income in STEM fields in 2019 was $65,000 nationwide, constituting an average salary of 83% of their white male counterparts (Fry et al.). It is important to acknowledge that, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Asian American STEM workers earn a significant salary boost compared to white males in this field across the country. In 2019, Asian males earned on average $99,100 in STEM, constituting 127% of white males’ STEM salaries (Fry et al.). People who belong to multiple URMs are subject to double economic jeopardy. Considering race, ethnicity, and gender, it is evident that there is a wide spectrum of salaries in the STEM workforce. On one end, Asian men receive the highest typical earnings for STEM workers, while, on the other end, Black and Hispanic women earn the least (Fry et al.). In STEM fields, “...black women earn about 87% of white women’s salar[ies] and about 62% of white men’s salar[ies]. Hispanic women earn about 85% of white women’s salar[ies] and about 61% of white men’s salar[ies]” (“Earnings Gap”).
Unfortunately, there is a glaring lack of available data in the public domain with respect to pay gaps that impact LGBTQIA+ community members who work in STEM fields. Nevertheless, it is important to mention that – across all fields – LGBTQIA+ workers “...earn about 90 cents for every dollar that the typical worker earns. LGBTQ+ people of color, transgender women and men and non-binary individuals earn even less when compared to the typical worker” (Human Rights Campaign). Additional research is needed to both monitor and catalog precise salary and organizational advancement histories for this community within STEM fields.
Why These Disparities Exist
Stereotyping is an important issue that can partly explain the marginalization of women, URM, and LGBTQIA+ populations in STEM disciplines. Stereotyping can be defined as “...situational pressure posed by the possibility that poor performance will be judged through the lens of a negative group-relevant stereotype” (Steele). Gender stereotyping has perpetuated a perception in the U.S. that white males are best suited for STEM-oriented fields. This stereotype creates a social stigma that upholds white men as superior in science, math, and related disciplines to other U.S. demographics. A manifestation of this stereotype occurs in adolescent television shows. Across many of them, male scientists appear 1.6 times more frequently than female scientists (Eddy et al). Due to this relative lack of female scientists in such programming, the message that men are more “fit” to be scientists is conveyed to young, impressionable audiences.
Male-centric stereotypes are also persistent in STEM-based higher educational settings nationwide. Often, women have normalized this stereotype and even endorsed it. In turn, a “stereotype threat” (Steele) has manifested throughout the country. The stereotype threat is defined as “…situational pressure posed by the possibility that poor performance will be judged through the lens of a negative group-relevant stereotype” (Steele). In a large sample of female STEM majors, 300 females associated STEM with the concept of maleness, and, in a smaller study, 25% of female STEM majors endorsed the stereotype that men are better at math (Eddy et al.). Moreover, college women often associate math with maleness regardless of their major. Unfortunately, this association can be injurious to females in STEM disciplines and cause them to feel inferior to males. In fact, females who hold the belief that males are superior to them in mathematics consistently underrate themselves – especially with respect to quantitative-based standardized test performance (Eddy et al.).
Racial stereotypes also pose a challenge to equity in STEM disciplines. Indeed, many anti-URM stereotypes are based upon the assumption that “...if you aren’t White, Asian or Indian, you aren’t an engineer” (Lee et al.). A study of more than 4,800 students of color (with a STEM major subsample of 1,688 students) attending a large public university in the U.S. suggests that such stereotypes can be not only widespread but deeply rooted. The study found that anti-URM stereotypes “...are not isolated incidents but are ingrained in the campus culture, including interactions with STEM instructors and advisers and with peers…” (Lee et al.).
In addition, heterosexist stereotypes can disadvantage LGBTQIA+ community members in STEM fields. There are a number of recent studies that reflect upon such disturbing stereotypes. For example, studies concerning the LGBTQIA+ climate in physics has uncovered numerous related issues that impact sexual minority STEM professionals. These issues include, but are not limited to, the propagation of “...a heterosexist climate that reinforces gender role stereotypes in STEM work environments” (Hughes). These anti-LGBTQIA+ stereotypes both implicitly and explicitly encourage such individuals to remain closeted at work for fear that they may be deemed less competent than their heterosexual male counterparts. “This has clear negative consequences; for instance, studies of the general workforce find that sexual minorities who do not disclose their identities at work have considerably lower rates of job satisfaction and higher rates of self-reported anxiety” (Freeman, “Measuring and Resolving LGBTQ Disparities in STEM”).
Belonging and Academic Self-Efficacy
The concept of “belonging” is an important factor when accounting for the lack of STEM representation among marginalized communities. “Belonging” is defined as an “...experience of feeling accepted as a member of a group” (Eddy et al.). In fact, this phenomenon can refer to a sense of acceptance across multiple different groups. For instance, “...one can belong to a discipline as a whole (e.g., belong in science), belong in a major (e.g., physics major), belong in the classroom or other communities (e.g., Physics 101 class), or even belong to a small working group in the context of the larger class (e.g., one’s lab group). The connection between belonging and retention has been demonstrated…” (Eddy et al.). Indeed, a strong sense of belonging is not only critical for employee retention in STEM workplaces but also for academic self-efficacy in STEM subjects. This is because a sense of belonging can influence one’s confidence in being able to master STEM coursework (Eddy et al.). The psychosocial element of belonging can prompt students to develop efficacy in difficult STEM subjects and encourage collaboration on complex problems.
An analysis of 38 studies relating belonging and academic self-efficacy in STEM areas found that incoming male engineering majors rated their confidence in their basic engineering skills higher than female engineering majors (Eddy et al.). Correspondingly, other STEM-related studies conducted on first year students demonstrate that men hold higher academic self-efficacy than women (Eddy et al.). In light of this, a lack of self-confidence among women in STEM fields often ensues. A recent study revealed that surveyed women who were applying to engineering and computer science jobs “...reported feeling less sure of themselves when designing a new product or project, conducting experiments, building prototypes and models, as well as other skills hiring managers look for in potential employees. Yet, in actuality, these women possessed the same skills as the male applicants” (Binns). This lack of self-confidence may also explain part of the staggering pay gap issues between men and women that were previously mentioned. This is because unconfident women are less inclined to negotiate salary offers than their more confident male counterparts (Binns).
In addition, URMs and members of LGBTQIA+ communities frequently report low levels of belonging and academic self-efficacy ratings throughout their higher educational experiences in STEM fields. “The idea behind the connection between…psychological factors and the observable factors is that students will be more motivated to achieve, engage, and persist if they feel as though they can be successful and if the value they see in their major is worth the cost of remaining in it” (Wang et al.). Without possessing a strong sense of belonging and academic self-efficacy, URM and LGBTQIA+ students are more prone to lacking foundational psychosocial support systems necessary to remaining in competitive STEM classroom environments and workplaces.
There are multiple reasons for these findings that encapsulate the domains of education and discrimination. Some 52% of those with a STEM job report that a major reason for this underrepresentation is because blacks and Hispanics are less likely to have access to quality education that prepares them for these fields, while 45% attribute these disparities to a lack of encouragement at an early age to pursue STEM-related subjects (Funk and Parker). Along a similar vein, “LGBTQ retention shares common psychological processes with female and racial minority retention such as STEM identification and belonging” (Freeman, “Measuring and Resolving LGBTQ Disparities in STEM”). As is the case with females, URM and LGBTQIA+ community members tend to experience low levels of self-confidence and academic preparation that prevent these marginalized populations from undertaking STEM-oriented careers. In addition, discrimination plays a significant role in this problem. “A major reason why blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in these jobs is because they face discrimination in recruiting, hiring and promotions; by contrast only around a quarter of whites (27%) and Asians (28%) say this. Hispanic STEM employees fall in between these groups, with 43% citing this as a major reason for these disparities” (Funk and Parker). Furthermore, LGBTQIA+ individuals have often cited similar issues related to their sense of belonging and self-efficacy. One illustration of this occurs in the realm of computer science. LGBTQIA+ individuals in this domain “...were more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to have thoughts of leaving STEM, which was explained by their reduced sense of belonging” (Freeman, “Measuring and Resolving LGBTQ Disparities in STEM”).
Financial strain is another contributing factor to the lack of female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ participation in STEM fields. “Financial strain is defined as a specific stress that arises from economic challenges, including financial insecurity, high debt, and poor credit” (Marcil et al.). Economically disenfranchised individuals tend to lack the stability and support required to excel in STEM fields. “Poor students, whether enrolled full time or part time, are more likely to work, resulting in less time to study, do internships in research laboratories, participate in STEM organizations, and attend summer STEM preparation programs” (Estrada et al.). Female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ community members are especially subject to these issues. In addition, females face further financial obstacles to excelling in STEM because of steep costs related to child-bearing. This is especially true in the cases of single mothers who lack the support of financially solvent families. Indeed, “Financial strain significantly affects women with young children. Women identify pregnancy as a particularly salient trigger of financial strain [and] struggle with tradeoffs because of insufficient resources” (Marcil et al.).
URMs are also subject to extreme amounts of financial strain that can prevent them from successfully participating in STEM fields. “There is strong evidence that URM undergraduate students are more likely than white or Asian students to come from low-income households, be first-generation college students, and experience financial strain while attending college or university” (Estrada et al.). Unfortunately, this trend is especially prominent among URM STEM students. This is because they are statistically more likely to be raised in family environments that are enmeshed in systemic poverty. These factors can exert a significant negative impact on URM student performance in STEM academic and career-related settings.
Furthermore, LGBTQIA+ individuals face numerous financial strains that may hinder their active contributions to STEM-related endeavors. Many LGBTQIA+ individuals have ongoing relationships with their families that can be characterized by conflict. This is especially true in instances through which relatives hold heterosexist and cissexist beliefs (Bosley-Smith et al.). Since family members can often serve as prominent sources of economic support, conflictual relationships can financially burden LGBTQIA+ people. LGBTQIA+ communities face additional financial impediments in the form of housing expenses. A nationwide survey demonstrated that approximately 11% of LGBTQIA+ individuals reported that discrimination has led to higher housing costs (Akin). In tandem with this statistic, the high cost of living in many LGBTQIA+-friendly cities can prohibit many members of this community from being financially stable. All of the aforementioned economic burdens that LGBTQIA+ people face can ultimately prevent their successful STEM-related involvement.
The Importance of Addressing These Disparities
STEM occupations provide engineers, medical scientists, computer scientists, and others who are vital to advancing American innovation. Furthermore, STEM skills can profoundly influence “...the adoption of technologies like cloud computing, big data and e-commerce by companies [that] will transform tasks [and] jobs…by 2025” (Masterson). To successfully attain these benefits, it is essential to encourage inclusivity among female as well as URM and LGBTQIA+ community members in STEM-related fields. This is not merely critical for these marginalized populations. In fact, there are numerous widespread benefits that can result from a more inclusive posture in STEM workplaces and educational settings. “Evidence suggests that diverse teams encourage more innovation and creativity, and may lead to better science” (Moran). Although STEM students and professionals may strive to limit biases from their work, such prejudices may be inevitable. These individuals “...make observations, conceive experiments, and interpret data under the influence of their culture, experience, and worldview. Sometimes their biases are so ingrained that they go unrecognized or pass as truth, leading researchers to make seemingly obvious—but ultimately incorrect—conclusions” (Moran). The act of engaging with people from a variety of different backgrounds encourages STEM students and professionals to account for multiple viewpoints and enhances the thoroughness of their work. This variety of lenses in STEM fields can challenge the status quo and result in more positive outcomes.
The lack of equitable representation of females in STEM fields has perpetuated systemic misogyny. For example, physicians are more likely to treat the pain that women experience as a result of mental health disorders, as opposed to purely physical conditions (Samulowitz). This is because there is a widespread gender bias among healthcare professionals. This prejudice can taint the perspective of healthcare professionals to believe that women unnecessarily exaggerate their pain (Samulowitz). In addition to rampant misdiagnoses, anti-female sentiment in STEM fields fuels inequities in medical research. Prior to the 1990s, a significant amount of research was based on the assumption that males were ideal test subjects because they do not experience pregnancy, menstruation, or menopause (Hoff). Yet this is concerning as there are a significant number of biological disparities between sexes that can profoundly impact the development of novel medications, surgical procedures, and other medical tools. In turn, these disparities can negatively influence the advancement of science and medicine on behalf of females for years to come.
Insofar as STEM professionals refuse to embrace diversity, URMs can also continue to face negative repercussions. URMs tend to fare worse than the rest of the U.S. population for a number of health determinants, including overall life expectancy (Hill et al.). A specific example of such an adverse outcome with respect to race-related issues is evident in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that occurred from 1932 to 1972. It was facilitated by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Investigators of the study enrolled a total of 600 financially destitute African American sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. Of these individuals, 399 were diagnosed with syphilis, and a control group of 201 people did not have this disease (“The Tuskegee Timeline”). Although the study was intended to research the effects of syphilis when it was left untreated, the participants were not aware of the study’s true nature. Moreover, the individuals who participated in the study were not informed about their syphilis diagnoses and did not receive proper treatment for it (Reverby 30). Instead, participants were given placebos that were disguised as medicine (Gray 76). In fact, the participants who had syphilis were not treated with penicillin as part of the study – even though this antibiotic was available as a standard of care for this condition. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study continued until 1972 when the media discovered its unethical practices. At the conclusion of the study, 28 participants had died as a direct result of syphilis, 100 participants died from not receiving proper care for this condition, 40 of the participants’ wives contracted syphilis, and 19 of the participants’ children were born with congenital syphilis (Magner et al. 138).
Underrepresentation of LGBTQIA+ community members in STEM disciplines can also result in adverse consequences. “Discrimination against LGBT persons has been associated with high rates of psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and suicide” (HealthyPeople.gov Staff). These concerning issues relate to a number of additional problems for this vulnerable community. For instance, lesbians are less likely to receive preventive services for cancer (HealthyPeople.gov Staff). Unfortunately, this can result in increased mortality rates. Moreover, transgender individuals face an array of acute health-related problems. They have a “...high prevalence of HIV/STDs, victimization, mental health issues, and suicide and are less likely to have health insurance than heterosexual or LGB individuals” (HealthyPeople.gov Staff). Due to their marginalization in STEM fields, the health and wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ individuals is severely compromised.
Embracing diversity in STEM fields could have significantly mitigated the disturbing issues raised in this section that plagued numerous Americans for years. Such inclusivity can narrow knowledge gaps in medical research and promote healthcare advancements. Furthermore, it can prevent delayed diagnoses for female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ populations by encouraging them to proactively seek medical care. Ultimately, inclusivity can help decrease instances of abuse, neglect, and death among such marginalized people and incorporate their contributions to further STEM-based advancements that benefit all U.S. citizens.
Recommendations For Improvement
A multi-tiered approach to the aforementioned issues can address them holistically and result in positive changes. To this end, each of the key stages of the STEM pipeline should be considered. These stages include, but are not limited to, K-12 schooling and collegiate education, as well as academic and non-academic work environments. Underlying all of these stages, federal policies that support the progress of marginalized populations in STEM fields should be enacted. Policy recommendations entail the inclusion of racial, sexual orientation, and gender identity measures to federal STEM-census surveys. These recommendations also include broadening federal agencies’ definitions of underrepresented groups to include LGBTQIA+ people, and integrating female, racial, and LGBTQIA+ identity into diversity programs at STEM institutions (Freeman, “Measuring and Resolving LGBTQ Disparities in STEM”).
Encouragement in Schools
There seems to be a general lack of STEM-based interventions that have reached female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ individuals before high school. “Although little research has examined the career exploration and interest development of preadolescent children, the research that does exist suggests that children do use their interests to guide learning and formulation of career goals before reaching teen-age years” (Su and Rounds). Early interest cultivation in STEM subjects has been shown to galvanize students to engage in STEM research experiences as they grow. As a result, this can lead to the fostering of lifetime engagement in STEM fields, including bolstered research productivity. “Further, children’s perceptions of occupations including the traditional sex-type of occupations also start to form during grade school years, which contribute to the development of their differential career preferences” (Su and Rounds). In fact, children seem to demonstrate STEM occupational preferences from as young as four-years-old. “Given this research…interventions aiming at increasing individuals’ interests in STEM fields and reforming individuals’ perceptions of STEM careers need to occur at early ages” (Su and Rounds).
A science-technology-society (STS) approach to teaching STEM subjects in high school among marginalized populations has yielded a number of positive, noteworthy results. For example, it has been shown to lead to “...improved attitudes toward science, particularly for girls” (Su and Rounds). Interestingly, the distribution of pro-STEM brochures to parents about how to help their children thoroughly appreciate the relevance of STEM to their personal lives resulted in a significant outcome. Specifically, this STS technique boosted “...the adolescents’ mathematics and science course-taking by almost one semester. These interventions provide promising ways for educators and parents to increase students’ interests and engagement in STEM activities” (Su and Rounds). In addition, periodic assessments of students’ interests can offer valuable data to STS proponents. “Measuring interests at a regular basis would provide students, parents, and educators with information regarding students’ interest development that can be used to guide students’ involvement in curricular and non-curricular activities and to facilitate students’ career exploration” (Su and Rounds). Perhaps a nationwide measurement assessment of K-12 students’ reported interests can be created and disseminated on a periodic basis, particularly for underrepresented groups. This index would be particularly useful for monitoring the development of female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ interests in STEM fields. It can also help determine “...gender differences in interests and [guide] girls with STEM interests to engage in STEM activities and explore STEM careers” (Su and Rounds).
Equipped with information from this index, K-12 STEM educators can then integrate best practices into their curricula that emphasize inclusion among underrepresented groups. To do so, school faculty and staff can invite diverse speakers to talk to students about STEM-related subjects, such as science and mathematics. This can promote a sense of belonging and inclusion in early education that may resonate with impressionable youth. When people, especially adolescents, are introduced to mentors similar in gender or ethnicity, they may start to see themselves reflected in the world around them. This, in turn, can establish a sense of familiarity and can encourage them to pursue various opportunities in STEM education and employment as they become older (Funk and Parker). For example, “Black women need to be invited into the classroom to speak to students so that the students know that there are others out there that are blazing the trails for them and that can encourage them in their academic and career pursuits” (Funk and Parker). This same principle can apply to other underrepresented professionals in STEM fields. Introducing female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ mentors can educate students about marginalized groups who created pathways in STEM disciplines and help establish a sense of belonging for otherwise excluded people.
Starting from early education, targeted encouragement of female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ population participation in STEM can help mitigate the reported lack of self-efficacy among these groups in subsequent years. To decrease prejudice against these communities, schools can offer all staff members professional development training that addresses many of the STEM disparities mentioned in this paper. School administrators and teachers can invoke their training and explicitly express to students the glaring need for underrepresented populations in STEM disciplines. To combat stereotype threat, faculty and staff can emphasize that these groups are equally as capable as white males to thrive in STEM professions. To these ends, schools can broaden their resources and offer after-school as well as summer STEM opportunities that specifically recruit students from underrepresented backgrounds.
In addition to early educational encouragement, it is essential that these tactics to decrease prejudice and foster self-efficacy continue into higher education. At the post-secondary level, female, URM, and LGBTQIA+-focused research opportunities in STEM designations can counteract self-doubt and increase confidence. In 2006, a year before starting at Harvey Mudd College (HMC) in Claremont, California, prospective women in STEM disciplines were given the opportunity to participate in computer science research. Prior to 2006, computer science research opportunities at HMC were mostly available to students who had already completed several computer science courses. Due to this new opportunity, results indicate that research experience had a significant effect in bolstering female self-confidence in STEM-related disciplines as undergraduate students. Data reports found that “...among the women who participated in computer science research between 2007 and 2011, 66 percent chose to major in computer science…” (Corbett et al.). Therefore, it is evident that research opportunities proved beneficial in supporting and encouraging females to pursue STEM careers. In light of this success, more opportunities at all colleges across the U.S. should offer similar enrichment experiences for URM and LGBTQIA+ communities in STEM.
Celebrating marginalized groups’ engagement in STEM has also proved beneficial in promoting STEM careers among this population. Every fall, Harvey Mudd College hosts the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC). This conference is intended to celebrate Rear Admiral Grace Hopper who was an early computing pioneer and created the first compiler in 1952. This conference helps “...students feel less isolated, more committed to computing, and more inspired after attending…In 2013, 85 percent of the students who responded to [a post-conference] survey agreed that attending GHC increased their commitment to a technology career” (Corbett et al.). Furthermore, 52% of respondents indicated that they were more likely to take another computer course and 37% were more likely to major in computer science than before the event (Corbett et al.). It seems that conferences and events like GHC are beneficial to increasing female representation in STEM education. To increase this engagement and improvement, it is essential that more events of this kind are implemented nationwide. These events should not be limited to female attendees but promoted to URM and LGBTQIA+ communities as well. This can raise awareness about the need for these communities in STEM and address prevalent male-centric stereotypes.
Economic interventions are also vital to the inclusion of greater numbers of underrepresented students within STEM fields. Institutions that can offer such students support in the form of generous financial aid packages can foster elevated levels of student performance in STEM classes. “This systemic element must not be overlooked in the universe of factors that impact the success of URM students in STEM” (Estrada et al.). Federal as well as private institutions can provide monetary resources to low-income underrepresented students who express an interest in STEM-based courses of study. “Regardless of the source of the economic disparity, it is clear that financial strains can deeply impact…STEM students’ career trajectories” (Estrada et al.).
Encouragement in the Workplace
Beyond STEM-based educational settings, systemic interventions for underrepresented groups can also occur within workplaces. “At the institutional level, work environments in STEM fields can be reconstructed to increase their people-orientation and to better fulfill…people interests” (Su and Rounds). This is especially true for female, URM, and LGBTQIA+ communities. Insofar as a workplace is able to integrate STEM-based programming that bolsters its people-orientation (including, but not limited to, relevant mentorship opportunities and team-building activities), underrepresented populations may be more likely to find that STEM-based work environments align with their interests. This realization, in turn, can empower such individuals to both select and remain within STEM-oriented careers for extended periods of time.
STEM-based workplace managerial staff that want to onboard and retain underrepresented people can enact a number of beneficial initiatives. For example, managerial staff can offer employees benefits and other incentive packages that embrace same-sex partnerships and trans-inclusive healthcare coverage. “They can also require gender and sexual diversity training for all members of the…community and provide support groups for [underrepresented]…staff” (Moran). Other related recommendations include posting signs on doors throughout workplaces to indicate designated “safe spaces” that welcome individuals of all races and gender identities. It is also crucial to form employer-sponsored worker groups for such underrepresented people.
Furthermore, employers who proactively ask employees “...for their preferred gender pronouns, and offer their own, demonstrate an openness to various identities” (Moran). To this end, all employees and management staff across STEM workplaces should be encouraged to place their preferred pronouns in their email signatures and on their professional voicemail messages. “This can help to stop trans and non-binary individuals from being misgendered and normalizes the checking of pronouns of others before gendering them. Overall, this will help with dismantling heteronormative attitudes in many workplaces” (Boustani and Taylor). In addition, workplace-wide mentorship programs could be established that pair newer employees with more senior workers who can act as caring, nurturing guides. These types of support programs can prove beneficial for employees who may not wish to overtly discuss in a more public setting their sexual identity and related STEM-based difficulties that arise. Lastly, awareness training that emphasizes respect for and among underrepresented populations in STEM “...should be encouraged, particularly for staff in management positions, to better equip staff to speak out against homophobia and transphobia” (Boustani and Taylor).
It is also important to note that trans-identifying individuals face significant challenges that can be remedied with respect to STEM-based academic publication processes. For instance, there is typically a lack of an option to log name changes in such public work. This often results in the use of trans deadnames and inaccurate attribution. “If the wrong name is used to refer to a trans person, this can have the consequences of advertently or inadvertently outing them as a trans person and misgendering them. For example, if a scientist has published papers before they transitioned, the scientist may find it difficult to refer to these publications (which use their deadname), and therefore means that the person will have to come out when referring to these papers or abandon them” (Boustani and Taylor). This widespread issue in STEM-based academic publishing protocol may be addressed by permitting authors to submit blind applications. Another method through which this issue can be remedied is by equipping researchers with administrative privileges that allow them to easily update their names on their manuscripts.
Specific Organizations That Can Help
There has been a growing number of programs and organizations that have fostered inclusion among underrepresented people in STEM fields. These programs and organizations tend to offer two approaches: institutional and individual. On an institutional level, these programs and organizations “...have reported consistent above-average retention and/or persistence rates across many years…” and “...were chosen because of their national reputations for increasing retention and/or persistence of URM STEM students across several years” (Estrada et al). Some examples of these institutional initiatives include, but are not limited to, Meyerhoff Scholars, DNIMAS Scholars (Norfolk State University Dozoretz National Institute for Mathematics and Applied Sciences), and SACNAS/Synapse (Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science/Supporting Young Native Americans to Pursue Science Education). For institutions, strategic partnerships with these programs are essential to improving URM representation in STEM. The benefits of such relationships can be seen at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 2008, Spelman College has been ranked first in terms of empowering African American undergraduates to receive science doctorates (Estrada et al). To do so, Spelman College provides a significant number of “...pre–freshman summer science programs, on- and off-campus research experiences…and strong faculty mentoring” (Estrada et al.) to help students realize their academic potential. By embracing all ethnic and gender identities, Spelman College has empowered “...more than 22% of graduates [to obtain] advanced STEM, medical, and allied health degrees” (Estrada et al.). Similarly, at the University of Maryland, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program was created to limit feelings of isolation and increase motivation among underrepresented individuals in STEM disciplines. The program includes “...participation in a summer bridge program, building networks of peer support, tutoring, and personal advising” (Estrada et al.). The program has had astounding results, producing more than 700 STEM undergraduates from URM groups since 1989 (Estrada et al).
In addition to institutional approaches, individualized approaches at universities have proven effective at undermining low academic self-efficacy reports and supporting underrepresented individuals in STEM areas. An individualized approach “…combines emphasis on reinforcing students’ identity as scientists with a supportive and challenging environment of faculty and other mentors committed to student success” (Estrada et al.). One example of such a positive environment occurs through The Biology Scholars Program (BSP) at the University of California Berkeley. BSP reports that, over a 20-year period, its 2,080 graduates “...included 60% URMS, 70% women, and 80% from low-income backgrounds” (Estrada et al.).
Effective individualized programs like BSP have been instituted through the Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) at California State University, Los Angeles, and the Student Research Opportunities Programs (SROP) at San Francisco State University. These programs effectively focus on underrepresented student skill development in STEM through “...strong opportunities for research participation; participation in special workshops, seminars, and courses; careful academic and career advisement; and incorporation into the campus scientific community through the interaction with science faculty, academic and industrial scientists, and other successful science students” (Estrada et al.). Upon closer examination of both of these programs’ graduates, it was found that they have earned STEM-based doctoral degrees at higher rates than national averages for all students (Estrada et al.).
Furthermore, Out in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (oSTEM) has been an effective program in promoting inclusivity and creating a safe community for LGBTQIA+ students in STEM. Founded in October of 2005, oSTEM was based on an envisioned “...world where LGBTQ+ people in the STEM community are empowered to achieve success in a safe and supportive environment that celebrates their diversity and unique contributions” (“About oSTEM”). oSTEM works to “...prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, color, ethnicity, citizenship, cultural background, socioeconomic status, age, disability, religion, or veteran status” (“About oSTEM”). Another effective organization in this regard is The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). It has worked to connect LGBTQIA+ mentors and mentees in the STEM field. Each year, NOGLSTP hosts a biennial career development summit called “Out to Innovate” that facilitates collaboration between LGBTQIA+ students, professors, and a variety of other STEM professionals (Moran). In so doing, NOGLSTP has a history of effectively addressing stereotypes, belonging, and academic self-efficacy issues that might otherwise prevent underrepresented students from pursuing STEM careers.
Over the past 50 years, there has been slight progress with regards to promoting the participation of female and URM populations in STEM fields. Since the 1970s, “...the number of women holding STEM doctorates in academia rose from 9 to 34 percent, while the number of underrepresented ethnic minorities rose only from 2 to 9 percent” (Moran). Although these attempts to increase STEM diversity continue, very few studies until recently have examined the progress of LGBTQIA+ communities in this area. The scant studies that are available have revealed that over one third of LGBTQIA+ respondents “...considered leaving their workplace or school in the past year after experiencing or observing harassment or discrimination” (Moran) in STEM domains.
Nevertheless, the future of inclusion among underrepresented individuals in STEM fields across the U.S. may be promising. This is because of an apparent shifting vantage point among the American public toward greater equality in employment settings. “The American public not only places some level of importance on gender diversity in the workplace, but these views extend to racial and ethnic diversity, as well. Eight-in-ten Americans say it is at least somewhat important to have racial and ethnic diversity in today’s workplaces, including around half who categorize this as ‘extremely’ (26%) or ‘very’ important (27%)” (Funk and Parker). Fortunately, the number of Americans who downplay such inclusivity seems to be decreasing. “Relatively few Americans view racial and ethnic diversity in today’s workplaces as ‘not too’ (9%) or ‘not at all’ (9%) important” (Funk and Parker).
To attain greater inclusivity in STEM education and workplaces, it is critical to identify and address underlying processes that might impact the experiences of underrepresented individuals. “Interventions will be most effective if they address the root causes of…inequalities rather than the superficial issues. By targeting interventions at these underlying mechanisms, we have the potential to impact all the downstream factors such as self-efficacy, belonging, identity, performance, engagement, and ultimately persistence” (Eddy et al.). To this end, it is important to leverage research-based improvements in the domains of education, workplaces, and specific organizations with histories of success. In so doing, STEM-based fields will be enriched by the multiple perspectives and contributions that spring from talented, diverse individuals for years to come.
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