By Angela Sheu
STEM fields are notoriously homogenous. Many minorities — such as women, Black and Hispanic people, and people from low-income backgrounds — are largely underrepresented. As STEM fields continue to expand and further advances shape our world, we should consider how to reduce, not further, these disparities.
STEM fields have felt largely accessible to me in my life; having lived in Silicon Valley with parents who both studied engineering, I have had constant exposure to role models and resources. This has enabled me to discover my interest at a younger age than others who only explore these fields in later education. Curricula or programs that introduce programming or engineering earlier can counteract current inaccessible or preexisting social biases. Programs should emphasize the wide range of industries and encourage participants’ intellectual curiosity.
For example, the Chicago non-profit Project Exploration connects Black and Latino secondary school students with scientists, with a recent review showing that 60 percent of its alumni who graduated from university received a STEM degree, versus the US average of 20 percent. The organization STEP UP — which encourages girls to pursue physics — emphasizes the importance of high school intervention, citing a high school physics teacher’s recognition of a young woman as being a “physics person” as a significant predictor for choosing a physics career.
Researchers consider this idea as a “STEM pipeline,” in which more people from underrepresented backgrounds entering programs results in more people graduating and more people joining the workforce. I agree with the importance of encouraging students to explore STEM as early as possible, but this concept also overlooks problems and biases within the “pipeline.” It implies that in order to get involved in STEM, one must be a part of the educational pathway from the beginning, alienating students who discover their interest later in life or those who leave the educational track for a career or other pursuits. The lack of diversity in STEM does not only depend on individual choices to enter and exit the field; its foundation lies in systemic barriers and biases.
We should reframe how we look at the technology field as a whole. The Stanford Social Innovation Review noted, “people perceive the face of technology as young, white, middle class and male.” Furthermore, we often see inherent ingenuity or brilliance as a requirement of a true scientist. As a result, stereotype fear — or fear of strengthening negative perception about a group one belongs to — prevents underrepresented groups from envisioning themselves and getting involved in STEM.
(Sources: Cambridge University Science, Slate, Stanford Social Innovation Review, STEP UP)