Women of Color in STEM: Progress, Challenges, and New Opportunities

By | November 17, 2017

Featured panelists listed left to right: Yolanda Moses, Shirley Malcom, Joan Reede, Mia Ong
Sarita Brown, and Valerie Taylor

On November 10, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine hosted a workshop that explored the current state of women of color working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The first panel examined progress to date and issues – new or previously identified – that still remain.  Sarita Brown, President of Excelencia in Education, a not-for-profit organization seeking to accelerate Latino success in higher education, noted that the most successful and enduring programs for enrolling, retaining, and graduating students from underrepresented backgrounds depend on an institutional culture in which diversity is supported at all levels – student body, faculty, and administration.

Several panelists, including Mia Ong, PhD, a Senior Research Scientist and Evaluator at the Technical Education Research Centers, lamented the continued use of the “pipeline” metaphor to describe the STEM workforce, as it assumes passivity. In fact, throughout the day, panelists noted that women of color are far from passive about their careers, and are persistent about establishing peer networks and seeking opportunities to foster their own learning as well as the development of their students and colleagues.

In addition to institutional support and networks, data collection – specifically disaggregated data – were identified as both a challenge and an opportunity for understanding representation of different races, ethnicities, and sexes in STEM disciplines. Yolanda Moses, PhD, Professor and Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Excellence and Diversity at the University of California, Riverside, noted that while more robust data collection has enhanced understanding of equality and equity in higher education, more work needs to be done.

This was highlighted in the presentation by Joan Reede, MD, MS, MPH, MDA, Dean for Diversity and Community Partnership at Harvard Medical School, in which she showed the top results for Google Image searches for terms such as “smart person,” “professor,” “CEO,” and “University President.” While the majority of images returned for these terms featured Caucasian men, a search for “Assistant Professor” returned images of predominantly Caucasian women, resulting in audible gasps from the audience.

The second panel highlighted successful initiatives and programs in fostering the educational progression and career development of women of color in STEM fields. Akua Asa-Awuku, PhD, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, highlighted the importance of utilizing leadership roles to foster the development of other women of color in the university environment. She noted that her laboratory has been successful at attracting students from underrepresented minorities, which has resulted in her being included in other recruitment processes at her university.

Gilda Barabino, PhD, FASEB Science Policy Committee member and Dean of Engineering at City College of New York, reinforced the importance of full engagement and support of senior leadership to ensure the success of programs to support students and faculty from underrepresented minorities, and a need to provide time and resources for these individuals to demonstrate research productivity – key currency in academia. Panelists noted that funding is critical – both for individual research programs and for sustaining efforts to enhance diversity.

While there have been notable success stories in the 40-plus years since the release of the landmark “Double Bind” report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, significant work still remains to achieve a STEM workforce that is representative of the broader U.S. population.