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Study: Blacks Less Influenced by STEM Gender Stereotypes Than Whites

Researchers and others examining the challenges African-American women confront in earning college degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields may want to consider new research showing that, while Black women are more likely than White women to express interest in STEM majors at the start of their college careers, Black women are less likely to actually complete STEM degrees.

In addition, Black women and men are less likely than Whites to subconsciously consider STEM fields as more masculine, according to the research, published online this week in the American Psychological Association journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology.

“One of the key things that we found was that African-American women were less likely to hold these subconscious stereotypes associating STEM fields with masculinity as compared to Whites,” said Tulane University psychology professor Laurie O’Brien, the study’s lead author.

“And I think those findings are really interesting because there’s a lot of other research, including our own, that shows stereotypes have a really big impact on people’s outcomes in different fields,” she noted.

In the article titled “Ethnic Variation in Gender-STEM Stereotypes and STEM Participation: An Intersectional Approach,” O’Brien and her co-authors present analysis of data from more than 1.7 million college freshmen surveyed in the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) Freshman Survey between 1990 and 1999. Twenty-three percent of Black women respondents indicated that they had planned to major in STEM fields in comparison to 16 percent of White women. In contrast, 37 percent of Black men said they intended to major in STEM, compared to 34 percent of White men.

The research team paired the CIRP survey data analysis with data it collected from three recent survey studies including 1,108 students at several universities across the U.S. In one of the three studies, the research team surveyed 838 college students, including 212 Blacks at four universities—one private, predominantly White university in the South; one public, predominantly White university in the Midwest; one private, historically Black university in the South; and an ethnically diverse public university in the West.

In the team-conducted study, 38 percent of Black women had declared a major in a STEM field, compared to just 19 percent of the White women. Black women at the historically Black university were more likely to participate in STEM majors than those at the other institutions, according to the article.

In all three team-conducted studies, the researchers tested for the subconscious beliefs survey participants held about STEM fields being associated largely with men.

Results showed that, regardless of their major or the type of institution surveyed students attended, Black women and men were less likely than White women and men to associate STEM fields with masculinity.

“We were particularly interested in taking a more nuanced approach to understanding the role of [gender] stereotypes by considering how there might be ethnic or racial variation in these stereotypes. So unlike past research, we wanted to explore how gender stereotypes might be different across women of different ethnic backgrounds and how this can inform our understanding of women’s participation in STEM,” said study co-author Dr. Alison Blodorn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Nationally, the National Science Foundation reports that, among women who earned undergraduate degrees in 2010, only 8 percent of Black women earned degrees in a STEM field, compared to 10 percent of White women.

O’Brien said that, if Black women are starting out in college more interested in STEM than White women but are less likely to earn a STEM degree, it suggests that Black women may face unique barriers, such as race-based stereotypes. “These stereotypes may have more of a negative effect on Black women than gender-based stereotypes and should be studied further,” she said.

Other co-authors in the new study are Dr. Glenn Adams of the University of Kansas, Dr. Donna M. Garcia of California State University San Bernardino, and Dr. Elliott Hammer of Xavier University of Louisiana.

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