Pushed Out: New Study Shows Black Women are Steered Away from STEM Fields

by Kesiena Boom 

A new cross-university paper entitled “Ethnic Variation in Gender-STEM Stereotypes and STEM Participation: An Intersectional Approach”  in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association has uncovered some uncomfortable trends related to the participation of Black women in degrees in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Upon entering college, Black women are more likely than white women to express an interest in declaring a STEM major, by the considerable gap of twenty three to sixteen percent. Perhaps Black women, aware of their more precarious position in society than white women are instinctively drawn towards STEM subjects due to their respectability compared to what are seen as more ‘soft’ subjects such as Media Studies. However by the time graduation rolls around, only eight percent of STEM graduates are Black women and ten percent are white women according to the National Science Foundation. It is highly possible that the combined forces of racism and sexism are acting as a significant barrier to Black women in STEM, though the authors of the study concluded that more research is needed in order to confirm or deny this speculation. In the words of Laurie O’ Brien, the paper’s lead author “If black women start out in college more interested in STEM than white women, but are less likely to complete college with a STEM degree, this suggests that black women may face unique barriers, such as race-based stereotypes.”

The STEM fields are heavily dominated by white men, and the ‘boys club’ culture which rewards those who are similar to those already occupying positions of power may be affecting Black women's ability to feel comfortable pursuing their goals, in that it may feel an insurmountable challenge to break into what is overwhelmingly still the domain of white men whilst facing hostility due to race and gender. Not only this but representation is  important and when do we ever get to learn of the achievements of Black women scientists? Could you even name one? The popular imagination surrounding STEM is filled with the images of the Einsteins, Listers and Newtons of the world. It’s difficult to actualise that which doesn’t seem to exist. On the bright side however, it seems that Black women are a little more impervious to the overarching cultural messages that suggest that STEM is automatically the domain of men and masculinity. As well as tracing the declaration of majors, the researchers of the study carried out tests to look into students' subconscious beliefs about STEM fields and gender. Regardless of their major or the university they attended, Black women were less likely than white women to associate STEM fields with masculine words like boy, father, or man. 

It’s common knowledge that Black women earn less than white men. On average for every dollar a white man in America is paid, an African-American woman nets just sixty four cents. In comparison, white women earn seventy seven cents per each dollar paid to a white man. This financial disparity  is of relevance to STEM degrees because typically a person graduating with one will find themselves with not only increased chances of being employed than a non-STEM graduate, but will also have a higher starting salary. The fact that Black women are facing obstacles to their aspirations is detrimental to Black families as a whole by limiting their potential access to wealth. STEM can only benefit from the admittance of more Black women into the field, different perspectives are just as important in the empirical sciences as the humanities. 

Photo Credit: Michael Jung for Deposit Photos

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