The Invisibility of Women of Colour in STEM

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by Kassandra Burd, M.Sc. Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Kent

Nowadays we see a lot of talk concerning the lack of of women in STEM fields: it is an unfortunate reality that we must work towards dismantling if we want to see advanced progress made in the sciences, maths, and other STEM fields.

Women have been living in men’s shadows for far too long, as their work is often not recognized or rewarded due to society’s tendency on placing men’s work on a pedestal.

However, when we talk about women in STEM, often times we refer to women who have been pushed aside, most of whom are white. Why is there barely any reference to women of colour (WOC)?

When we do see women pushing boundaries and being rewarded for their contributions to STEM, why is there a severe lack of Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and other ethnic minorities? Surely WOC must be somewhere hidden in the shadows of men’s accomplishments alongside white women’s accomplishments. It is evident that there needs to be increased focus on this marginalized group in STEM.

According to the National Science Foundation, WOC at the bachelor’s level receive 13.3% of science and engineering degrees, while at the doctoral level, WOC receive 10% of science and engineering degrees (NSF/NCSES, 2015).

The question is why WOC pursuing STEM fields is such a rarity, and why we often don’t witness their accomplishments at the same rate as men in STEM.

There are multiple factors that influence women of colour’s involvement in STEM fields, and whether they decide to stay in their chosen fields.

First, WOC must be made to feel welcome in their environments (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997). If there is diminished rapport built between WOC and her male/white female colleagues, it is more likely that they might leave their field. It is imperative that WOC have aspirational figures to look up to, as well as build connections between other women working in that field.

Research has demonstrated that the main reason why WOC are invisible in STEM is due to social or interpersonal factors, meaning that sense of belonging is often rare, or completely non-existent (Ong, Smith, & Ko., 2017). Fostering an environment that makes WOC feel welcome and appreciated would likely make all the difference in their representation within STEM. Being pushed to the sidelines and getting ignored by colleagues is reason enough to step back and drop out of a chosen field, which may lead to lack of motivation as a result.

Second, WOC must have interactions within the sciences and technology that are positive and encouraging (Bennet et al., 1999).

When it comes to leaving their STEM fields, it is students who are more likely who are more likely to drop out due to pressures and/or discrimination that occurs at pivotal points throughout their education (Ong, Smith, & Ko., 2017). Because of these negative experiences, they may feel that leaving their STEM field is the more sensible decision because they lack that critical feeling of social belonging. A main reason for lack of belonging are the myriad of discrimination practices that are often carried out in academia. One example of a discrimination practice is what we call “microaggression,” which refers to verbal, behavioural, or environmental mistreatment that involves derogatory racial slights toward people of color (Ong, Smith, & Ko., 2017).

Those who carry out these aggressions are often not aware of the racial subtleties that they’re perpetuating. Of course, to WOC, these subtleties are relatively salient and can contribute to a prominent disconnect between them and their peers.

Alongside microaggressions are the obvious blatant aggressions that often occur in the workplace that are intentionally directed at WOC. These involve hostile aggressions that aim to discourage women by making them feel unwelcome and humiliated, such as racist or sexist insults.

WOC who do end up persisting in their fields seek out and participate in what are known as “counterspaces,” which is otherwise known as “‘safe spaces’ that, by definition, lie in the margins, outside of mainstream educational spaces, and are occupied by members of non‐traditional groups” (Ong, Smith, & Ko., 2017). These spaces are sought out in order to foster that sense of belonging with other students, colleagues, or mentors who share similarities with them; it is beneficial in the sense that it strengthens motivation and allows collaboration and the sharing of ideas when it comes to success.

Lastly, WOC persevere when they disregard the status quo, otherwise known as the pervasive culture that is overwhelmingly men working in these fields (Margolis & Fisher, 2002). The ones who persist are individuals who make their voices heard and demand what is owed to them. When women come together to reject the negative stereotype that women lack the intelligence and competency to work in STEM, substantial progress in an inequitable hierarchical structure can be accomplished. It is crucial that WOC do not relinquish their power in order to gratify a toxic system that seeks to sustain its prejudice culture.

So, what needs to be done in order to develop persistence and encourage WOC to pursue or continue on in STEM?

One solution is increased peer support that promotes positive academic experiences (Vhang et al., 2014). Efficient communication and collaboration is key to maintaining motivation of WOC in their STEM fields. Moreover, we need to see more WOC STEM individuals in the spotlight that can act as mentors for those who desire recognition and success within their disciplines.

Another solution is to cultivate a learning environment that is non-competitive, but instead, motivational, uplifting, and collaborative in order to promote a fair and safe environment where WOC feel connected and appreciated for their efforts (Ko et al., 2014; Palmer et al., 2011; Perna, Gasman, Gary, Lundy‐Wagner, & Drezner, 2010; Soldner, Rowan‐Kenyon, Inkelas, Garvey, & Robbins, 2012).

Lastly, a final solution involves the formation of academic groups that promote diversity and cultural differences for WOC; ultimately, these organizations can prevent the “us” vs. “them” narrative that prevails in academic environments, thereby creating a more healthy, heterogeneous framework for all WOC who seek to achieve status in STEM.

It is both necessary and crucial that we acknowledge the obstacles that prevent WOC from persisting in STEM fields. This is also a true for those who do persist, but are made invisible by colleagues who perpetuate a harmful environment that places limits on achievements made by women of colour.

Carrying out these solutions can create a significant shift in the unjust, distorted structure that is all too common in today’s society.

Let’s strive to not only lift up women in various STEM disciplines across the board, but also women of colour whose voices are kept silent by the dominant culture of men.

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