Black Women and the Necessity of Role Models in STEM

By Kassandra Burd

It is not enough to say that we aren’t seeing enough women in STEM. When we dig a little deeper, we’re not only witnessing gender-based discrimination, but also race-based discrimination in various STEM fields. Taking an intersectional approach to the way we perceive STEM fields is absolutely critical when thinking of how these disciplines can make progress, as well as how they can increase visibility for women belonging to minority groups.

Black women are a specific minority group that are seriously underrepresented. Exploring the differential aspects that play a role in this finding is exceptionally important. We must understand why we are not seeing enough Black women in STEM.

Lack of visible Black role models plays a significant role in the scarcity of Black women who are interested in pursuing a STEM degree or career. According to the National Center for Education Statistics in the United States, only 2.9% of STEM Bachelor degrees are awarded to Black women versus 3.6% of Latina women, and 4.8% Asian women – clearly another problem (Science Daily, 2019).

Those who enter STEM fields are more likely to believe that they belong, and so the limited number of Black women might very well imply that there is little to no sense of belonging (Science Daily, 2019). For Black women who are hyperaware of their racial identity and the potential discrimination they might face both within education and employment, there appears to be a lack of trust and harmony when they are unable to identify with their mentors. With more Black women as mentors and role models, Black girls and women will be more likely to feel empowered, which might increase motivation to pursue a career in STEM.

It is also helpful to have White women and men who are already in the field serve as allies and advocates for Black women, which is also shown to improve a sense of belonging (Science Daily, 2019). Dr. Eva Pietri, from Indiana-Purdue University, notes that “allies can play a really big role in increasing belonging among women of colour, but they have to really clearly signal their allyship through actions and behaviours” (Science Daily, 2019). This statement is powerful: it emphasizes action – it is not sufficient to merely preach about the necessity of women minorities in STEM, but rather to implement the necessary steps to produce change and promote Black women’s success.

Fewer than one in ten scientists and engineers are women of colour, according to the National Science Foundation (Eurekalert, 2018). Moreover, Black women express more interest in pursuing degrees in STEM fields than White women; however, they are less likely to earn those degrees (O’Brien et al., 2015). These discouraging statistics make it easy to comprehend why WOC, specifically Black women, feel uninspired to pursue a STEM career.

Stereotypical racial barriers are in place, which is why it is crucial to not only focus on mainstream gender issues within STEM, but also intersectional gender-racial issues. Terrell Morton, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Missouri, states: “People have a very narrow view of what science looks like, and right now, it’s older white men wearing goggles and holding beakers. When a young WOC sees those images in a learning environment, it can make her feel unwelcome because there is nothing in that image that represents her” (Eurekalert, 2018). We can support Black women in STEM by creating more inclusive classrooms, activities that positively highlight gender and racial identity, incorporating reading and assignments that amplify Black voices, and giving prominence to Black women role models. For instance, when Black women mathematicians were asked what they attributed to their success, they mentioned mentorship, supportive programs, and study groups (Borum & Walker, 2012). Ultimately, this highlights the importance of support networks to help build confidence and skill.

In order to further support Black women in STEM, we must understand the main factors that contribute to their experiences. Research studies (Ireland et al., 2018) show the central components that are conducive to Black women and girls’ experiences in the pursuit of STEM degrees include:

  1. Identity;
  2. Level of interest in STEM, persistence, and confidence;
  3. Perception of ability and achievement; and
  4. Support

If prominent and accomplished figures that resemble an individual are made more salient, the individual is more likely to feel inspired and encouraged to pursue their goals. Seeing yourself reflected in successful individuals in your chosen field helps you persevere and thrive. It yields to the mindset, “If she can do it, I can do it too.”

Systemic barriers Black women face in the pursuit of their degree or career are inequitable and unfair. Increasing visibility of Black women role models for Black girls and women would undoubtedly play a positive role in encouraging them to strive for White male-dominated STEM careers that are in dire need of alternative perspectives. Placing an emphasis on Black women mentors in STEM makes it clear that it is not only Black women who will benefit, but also the many STEM fields that would inevitably become more positively nuanced and multidimensional with the inclusion of women minorities.