Despite substantial investments in programs and initiatives to attract visible minorities to STEM, the numbers remain stark. New ideas and approaches are needed to help visible minorities overcome the challenges they face and grow their much needed participation in STEM disciplines and industries.
By Shaniqua Thomas
The challenges that visible minorities face in joining the STEM labor force are significant largely because of stubborn unconscious biases in education and businesses. Like all biases, they are not changed overnight. Despite large investments in education by government and businesses, the global workforce participation of visible minorities in STEM fields has shown little progress since 2001. This is frustrating for visible minorities who are missing out on higher paying jobs, and it hurts the ability of organizations to fill critical STEM positions while also depriving the world of innovative solutions for the serious problems it faces. Changing biases is difficult, and they influence visible minority students throughout their school and work careers. Those influences determine their education choices, ability to land jobs, and success once on the job. It is time for new approaches to overcome the stubborn barriers to inclusion of visible minorities in STEM.
Visible Minority Participation in STEM Remains Static
Research by the CEO-led STEM advocacy group, Change the Equation, showed the participation of visible minorities in the global workforce has improved across industries over the last 18 years. The caveat is that participation of visible minorities in STEM fields has remained static since 2001. This is true despite the many initiatives around the globe that are designed to encourage people from underrepresented groups to study STEM subjects, major in STEM disciplines in college, and start STEM careers. Canada and U.S. are included in the analysis, and the percentages of visible minority representation in the country's workforce remains shockingly low. For example, U.S. Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans, and Alaskan natives make up 31 percent of the population, but make up only 11 percent of engineering and science occupations.
Layers of Biases Create Barriers
The challenges that visible minorities face are not easy to overcome because they are embedded in the social fabric of Canada, the U.S. and many other countries. For children in grade and high schools around the world, access to STEM classes and the required technology is limited, or in some cases, non-existent. Canada is included in this statement which is difficult to understand in a rich country. The second major challenge for visible minorities, who do complete required training or degrees and are employed in STEM positions, is overcoming deeply ingrained employer biases and exclusive company cultures.
Conscious and unconscious biases against visible minorities in STEM are found in education and employment. The biases are stubbornly resistant to change. The biases are first experienced when grade and high schools are disproportionately funded in higher income/property tax areas, but states do not find ways to level the playing field to ensure all schools offer quality STEM programs. Bias continues to play a role in college. In the first of a series of articles developed by ACE and the National Center for Institutional Diversity, author Kimberly Griffin reports the National Center for Science and Engineering found that more than one-third of Black, Native American, and Latino students start college with an interest in STEM disciplines but only 16 percent actually earn a degree in a STEM field. The reasons are varied, but they include the exclusionary culture of many STEM disciplines and a hostile campus environment that includes academics who discriminate against women and visible minorities. Visible minority students are unable to develop a sense of belonging in the STEM culture.
STEM as a Means to a Social End
Griffin also offers an explanation that succinctly demonstrates the complexity of bias in STEM disciplines in any arena. Scientists have unconscious biases that determine what they believe scientists should look like and value, thus leading them to overlook visible minority talent. She also points out that science faculty feel discomfort in recognizing their perspectives are not right and so dig their heels in deeper in perpetuating stereotypes. However, one of the most interesting points made is that students from underrepresented groups are often interested in addressing social problems and improving communities, but the STEM disciplines are not promoted as a means to an end. Instead, science faculty emphasize activities like pure research rather than active involvement.
Could this be one of the "ah-ha" moments? Could visible minorities overcome the bias challenges at school and work by educating teachers, faculty, and employers on their deep biases and changing the STEM conversations to focus on how science, technology, engineering, and math can be integrated with social responsibility, enabling visible minorities to achieve dual goals? Changing the conversation can change the exclusive STEM culture. If socially conscious visible minority students realize that science is a path to improving the health of low-income communities or that engineering can lead to new designs for delivering water to drought stricken areas, they are more likely to study STEM subjects.
Today, there is frequent discussion about the need for innovation to solve some of the world's enormous problems. STEM disciplines offer the information needed for change, but consciously or unconsciously maintaining barriers in education facilities and in workplaces keeps out the people who can bring fresh and creative ideas. It reminds one of the old saying about doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. If only white males fully participate in STEM opportunities, there cannot be diversity of thought.
Inclusion is the Path to Solutions
Visible minorities can only overcome the barriers they face in STEM if the guardians of the barriers are willing to remove them. Building a strong STEM workforce requires including visible minorities in equitable learning opportunities as well as in the workforce. As the government report, "STEM 2026 – A Vision for Innovation in STEM Education" says, there are persistent inequities in "access, participation, and success in STEM subjects that exist along racial, socioeconomic, gender, and geographic lines, as well as among students with disabilities." This is true on a global basis, thus limiting the ability to reduce poverty, produce economic gains, and develop innovative technologies to address challenges like rising oceans and food deserts. Instead of excluding visible minorities, it is clear they should be proactively sought after because they offer new perspectives, ideas and approaches.