For decades, our country has invested in creating a more diverse STEM workforce by launching efforts that increase the representation of women and people of color in the field. Out-of-school time programs have played a large role, funneling more girls and youth of color into K-12 STEM education programs that introduce them to the field.
On the surface, this strategy makes sense — if we get more girls and young people of color interested in STEM early, we’re bound to make strides toward a STEM workforce that mirrors the diversity of our country.
Yet, after decades of work to improve representation in STEM careers, we’re still left with dismal results.
According to 2019 data from the National Science Foundation, women held one-third of STEM occupations in the United States. That percentage is significantly lower when we look at women of color. Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on building workplaces that work for women, calculated that 2.4 percent of Latina women, 1.8 percent of Black women and 0.1 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women held U.S. jobs in science and engineering in 2019.
We have to stop and ask ourselves — why aren’t these efforts working?
It’s clear that increasing representation alone won’t fix the problem — in fact, it barely scratches the surface. For too long, the focus has been on pushing girls — specifically girls of color — into the STEM pipeline without stopping to deeply assess the leaks in the pipeline that create a path in which women tend not to remain in the field, despite interest and talent.
I’ve seen this problem up close. As a Black woman who started my career working closely with engineers and then moved on to lead diversity and inclusion efforts at a major telecommunications corporation, I’ve personally experienced feeling out of place because my background differed from that of my colleagues and didn’t fit into a traditional box. And now, as the leader of a nonprofit focused on STEM education for girls of color and gender-expansive youth, I’ve heard directly from young people about these challenges.
We need solutions that focus on retention and belonging, not representation. We need solutions that address the unique, intersectional barriers that prevent those most marginalized in the field from persisting and succeeding in STEM education spaces.
Change Requires Questioning Existing Systems
We cannot expect to see change without asking complex questions about existing systems; honing in on the experiences that students are living through today; and listening for authentic answers from those most impacted. That’s the only way to expose the barriers we must overcome if we want to see more talented Black, Indigenous and Latina women in the field.
Instead of just aiming to increase the quantity of STEM programs, the field must question how we evaluate the success of a program and redefine what quality STEM education looks like. One important step is to acknowledge how the pedagogy of STEM education is grounded in a masculine culture that young girls of color will never fit into — one where white men hold privilege. Another is for STEM executives and corporate boards to be held accountable for creating a culture of diversity and inclusion in their workspaces, where students may find themselves after they finish.
The bottom line is that it doesn’t work to expect Black, Indigenous and Latina girls to “fit in” and mold to existing environments that weren’t designed for them. We must create STEM education spaces that give girls of color a sense of belonging.
The concept of belonging refers to the feeling of support, which typically occurs when there is a sense of acceptance, importance, value and comfort in being oneself — and there’s evidence that developing a sense of belonging improves student academic achievements. Research also shows that women of color in STEM report feeling a sense of belonging less frequently than any other demographic group — less than white men, white women and men of color — and that the extent to which this group struggles with belonging can be overlooked when race, gender and economic status are not considered together.
This is a key reason why it’s critical for educators and school administrators to create inclusive communities that allow and encourage young girls of color to feel comfortable, welcomed and supported in STEM classrooms. Classroom environments that foster a sense of belonging are affirmative, adaptive and supportive of all girls and the educators who build them are often strong listeners who support students through the ups and downs of their STEM education journey. Young girls need culturally-relevant curricula and programs in their schools and communities that are accessible and affordable.
The STEM workforce develops solutions that impact us all from the technology we use to the healthcare we receive to the infrastructure we depend on. To make these solutions stronger and more equitable, the field desperately needs the creativity, innovation and diverse perspectives that Black, Indigenous and Latina women bring. Women of color made up 20 percent of the U.S. population as of 2021. Without finding a way to bring them — and keep them — in the STEM workforce, we miss out on endless possibilities for what the field can do for our country and for others across the globe.
Black, Indigenous and Latina girls deserve to succeed in STEM spaces. This starts with creating learning environments that nurture identity development, build a sense of belonging and support our girls throughout every step of their STEM journey.