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Women of Color in STEM Fields

As a group, women are still the largest untapped talent pool for growing America’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, workforce. Women of color, in particular, remain greatly underrepresented in STEM disciplines despite a growing population of racial/ethnic minority groups and a growing number of women and minorities attending college.

In an effort to raise awareness of this issue, the Harvard Educational Review, or HER, highlights the plight of women of color in STEM in its summer symposium issue, Unraveling the Double Bind: Women of Color in STEM. The issue comprises a collection of papers (I also served as a contributor) ranging from the history of empirical work on women of color in undergraduate and graduate STEM programs to recent quantitative and qualitative evidence on the experience of women of color in STEM across institutional types.

According to one paper in the symposium issue, despite more than a 40-year research agenda, American scholars have produced only 116 empirical studies on women from racial/ethnic minority groups (including Asian American/Pacific Islanders) in STEM higher education and careers. Clearly, the field has under-examined this population, and it is only to our detriment as a nation.

The most recent U.S. Census data depict African-American, Hispanic and Native American women, when taken together, representing nearly 16 percent of the U.S. population ages 18- 44. However, they represent just 10 percent and 6 percent of the nation’s STEM bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, respectively. It is, therefore, right to recognize the untapped resource that women of color represent when it comes to increasing STEM degrees and, ultimately, innovation in STEM fields.

And yet, while many questions remain unanswered about just what works for women of color in STEM, contributors to the HER symposium issue echoed a number of cohesive, evidenced takeaways—all of which work to inform research, practice, and educational policy:

• First, environment absolutely matters. Researchers are wise to continue to examine sub-contexts such as campus and departmental climate at differing institution type (e.g., community colleges, HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions). So, too, the policy community cannot afford to under-invest or discount the role that these varied institutions play in conferring STEM degrees.

• Second, faculty support and involvement is not only desired by students, it is critical for their success. Faculty interaction at all levels (especially during graduate study) can be instrumental in keeping more women and women of color on a STEM career path. University leadership must put in place the supports that faculty need to make teaching and mentoring a priority and provide incentives to make the use of diverse pedagogies a lasting commitment within STEM departments.

• Third, given the great numbers of women of color who begin their education at community colleges, two- and four-year institutions must not only provide support structures for women who transfer from two-year colleges, but education policymakers also must act to make room for these women. Given deep budget cuts in many states, students who wish to transfer are being turned away from four-year institutions because of a lack of available courses as well as outright enrollment caps for transfers.

• Finally, if we are to rely on evidence, we must start with the right set of data. Higher education’s most widely used national data—the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS—fails to track women of color and underrepresented groups where they are. As many readers know, IPEDS does not capture part-time, transfer, or re-entry students; yet, it remains the most used set of data in informing the policy community.

Political leaders and policymakers can play a vital role in advancing inclusion in STEM, as well. National councils and influential individuals can do more with less in an economically strained environment by raising political will—a practice that can lead to financial investments by private philanthropies and corporate foundations. The White House Council on Women and Girls, for example, is an excellent platform for raising awareness on the need for more women and women of color in STEM fields.

There are indeed a number of outlets for meaningful change when it comes to advancing women of color in STEM, and it is important that successful efforts are elevated. It is indeed encouraging that such a high-profile, prestigious journal like HER has taken on this issue—a move that I hope will help influence research, practice, and policy moving forward. D

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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