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The Choice To Advocate

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education ‘Advice’ column featured an anonymous faculty member who is also a regular blogger under the moniker Female Science Professor. Her bio says that she is a physical scientist at a “large research university,” which is code for predominantly White university and of a certain institutional stature. Yet, even if the institution were minority-serving, small in size, or of average prestige, this professor would likely still be one of a handful, if not the only, woman in her department.

Despite attending college in numbers never seen before, women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds remain severely underrepresented in certain science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, including most engineering disciplines and the physical and computer sciences. Within STEM departments, the representation of women faculty, let alone those with tenure, can only be described as dismal. According to a series of surveys produced by Donna Nelson—a chemistry professor at one such large research university who has been leading an effort to collect data on the STEM professoriate—White males make up between 50 and 81 percent of faculty in the top 50 STEM departments.

As many readers can imagine, the number of underrepresented minority women professors with full tenure are single-digit or zero in the majority of STEM disciplines. Nelson’s data show that women of all backgrounds comprised just 6.6 percent of physics professors (of any rank) at the top 50 physics departments in 2003, and there were just six Black or Hispanic women and no Native American women.

The lack of women and women of color in the STEM professoriate is a long-standing and complex problem, not the least of which is a lack of academic, social, and financial support starting in the first year of graduate school. Research uncovered by the NSF-funded study, Inside the Double Bind: A Synthesis of Empirical Research on Women of Color in STEM, reveals an often subversive graduate school climate that discourages women from persisting to Ph.D. completion. Several scholars argue that the non-academic, informal elements of the STEM graduate school experience are more of a hindrance for women of color than is a lack of academic preparation or financial aid. 

According to the report, a “STEM graduate education is often fraught with challenges such as finding a supportive mentor, learning how to navigate departmental and laboratory cultures, building professional and social networks, finding funding … and gaining access to the professional circuit.” Many of these obstacles are felt by graduate students of all backgrounds and disciplines, yet women and women of color in STEM often face a departmental or campus climate that lacks the psychosocial and emotional support needed to overcome them.

Many women, particularly Black women, have found the support to pursue a STEM graduate education while enrolled at HBCUs. Although HBCUs have been instrumental in sending Black students to and through doctoral programs in STEM, majority-serving institutions are catching up and are, by some measures, exceeding HBCU production. The question then becomes, what practices are successful on these campuses and how can they be scaled up and more widely replicated?

Of course, understanding and subsequently strengthening the educational landscape is a long-term prospect. For those seeking to support STEM women of color today, you can be their advocate. Women and women of color do enough alone. What they need are champions; champions on graduate admissions committees, within STEM departments on the whole, and from upper-level administration. Departments also need champions in the form of professional staff persons who can do outreach and recruitment on behalf of STEM departments. Research I’ve conducted with colleagues at Stanford University and Pennsylvania State University shows how the advent of graduate diversity officer positions—often an extension of undergraduate diversity recruitment and retention and/or chief diversity officer positions—has aided many institutions who choose to make diversity a tangible priority.

Faculty, too, must be informed and persuaded to understand the value of diversity in their classrooms and laboratories. They need to be aware of the crisis before us as a nation losing serious ground in these fields and thus the great importance of bringing up the next generation of American-born scientists and engineers. Faculty must further understand that this next generation of students looks nothing like theirs. This is no easy feat, but, without unprecedented systemic change to the scientific enterprise, we must use what we have and choose to innovate to increase opportunities for women and women of color within STEM departments.

Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa is the director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based independent, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.



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