Closing the gap for women and minorities in STEM

Statistics show that women and minorities are underrepresented in STEM careers, and have been for a while. Though this is unfortunate, it is not an irreparable trend. Some educators have been trying to reverse it in a variety of ways. One of these has been to retrain educators in the best methods to reach these groups. Professor Kevin Finson of Bradley University describes how some educators received this training, but later returned to their old habits without realizing it. Despite good intentions, their learned behavior may dictate their teaching style. Learned behavior may also be at the center of why women and certain minority groups do not pursue STEM degrees and careers.

CityTownInfo discussed STEM fields with Professor Finson, and he provided some insight as to why women and minorities are underrepresented, and some of the possible solutions to the problem. What he said mirrored data that the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration released in 2011: considering the number of women and minorities in the total workforce of the country, they are disproportionately employed in STEM careers.

"Let's just take the aspect of women in science. Compared to the number of women in our schools there is a dearth of women in engineering, science, and math fields."

An August 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration showed that women account for about 48 percent of the country's total workforce. When it comes to careers in STEM fields, that number is only 24 percent. When looking at the particular fields that make up the majority of STEM workers, the numbers are even more drastic. In computer science and math, women constitute 27 percent of the workforce; for engineering, they are 14 percent; and when it comes to being managers in STEM fields, women only hold 25 percent of those positions. The one field where the rate of women is high is in physical and life sciences, where women account for 40 percent of the workforce.

One of the objectives of Bradley University's Center for STEM Education is to "increase recruitment and participation of groups historically underrepresented in STEM areas, including women and minorities." Why are these two communities inadequately represented in STEM fields?

"The reasons why they don't go into the STEM areas are puzzling to us. Maybe it's because science is viewed as being too hard, or science as being more masculine, although we've tried for decades to break that mindset. It could be that the reward structure they see in it is not the same for whatever reasons."

The reward structure is more optimistic for women who work in STEM fields. While pay disparity does find its way into STEM fields, it is not as bad as in the overall workforce. Women in STEM careers make an average of $31.11 per hour, while they make $19.26 in all other jobs. Men in STEM fields make an average of $36.34 per hour, while making $24.47 per hour in all other careers. To provide even more raw perspective, women make 14 percent less than men in STEM fields, and 21 percent less in all other fields. By not going into STEM careers, women lose out on the chance to make 33 percent more in pay than women in all other jobs.

"I've also done some research on perceptions of scientists and we've noticed that there are gender differences in the way that males and females view who scientists are and what they do. Exactly where those mindsets come from is interesting."

"There is something called "Science Identity," and I think it may be a social thing more than a lot of things. Like in a classroom, you have this science identity that evolves, and it's your expectations of your understanding and ability to do science in tandem with what other people's perceptions are of your ability to do science effectively. It establishes the science identity we talked about."

"Culturally teachers have tended to give boys preferential treatment in terms of giving them the first opportunities with hands-on things, or answering their questions or responding to boys first. Even if we take the teachers and put them through training that shows that these are things that they tend to do, and show them strategies to avoid it, then when we put them back in the classroom, we see those same kind of social/contextual things happening again. So I think it's a deeply rooted societal thing that we are struggling against."

"As far as the minority aspect I think we kind of see some of the same types of things."

A September 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration explored how education could support racial and ethnic equality in STEM fields. The study revealed that 72 percent of STEM positions are held by "non-Hispanic Whites," which is even higher than their share of all U.S. jobs (68 percent). Non-Hispanic Asians comprise 14 percent of STEM workers, while holding 5 percent of all U.S. positions. The rates are drastically different for non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics -- each of these groups makes up 6 percent of STEM workers. Non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics have a bigger representation in the overall workforce, though, holding 11 and 14 percent of all U.S. occupations, respectively.

"We have a historically Eurocentric model of education that social-cognitive scientists have been trying to help us change for quite some time, but there are still vestiges of that that still persist. I think as a result of that a lot of minorities don't always readily see themselves in the role of entering a STEM career. We've tried a number of different things to address that over the years nationwide. It's been a tough go trying to break through all that. I don't have a clean answer for you, but it is a recognizable thing and we have had our frustrations with it, as well as some successes."

"We're not seeing as huge an impact as we would have hoped to with all the things we've tried to do."

Some of the disparities in minority representation in STEM fields have to do with the low rates of degree attainment among non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics, according to the 2011 report. These two ethnicities earn bachelor's degrees at rates of 22 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Compare this to 54 percent of non-Hispanic Asians who earn a bachelor's degree, and 35 percent of non-Hispanic Whites.

There is a lot of room for improvement in spurring the involvement of women and particular minority groups in STEM careers. No panacea exists to fix the problems inherent in the educational system that may push these groups away from STEM majors. However, some ideas are circulating that may help, for example, reaching students early to promote an interest in STEM, as well as using interdisciplinary studies to enhance STEM education.

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