The systemic barriers preventing historically excluded individuals from thriving in STEM remain, according to a recent analysis of nearly 20 million people. The survey conducted by Pew Research finds that in 2019, Black people accounted for 9 per cent of the U.S. STEM workforce, a figure that hasn’t increased since 2016. In 2019, about 8 per cent of the STEM workforce was comprised of Hispanic workers, only slightly up from 7 per cent in 2016.
Native American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and people who identify with two or more racial groups accounted for 3 per cent of STEM workers, Pew says.
The findings highlight the continued lack of progress in recruiting and retaining Black and Hispanic STEM workers. That’s despite an uptick in enrollments of non-white students in post-secondary science programs, Marcus Lambert, a higher-education researcher at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, tells Nature.
“The STEM workforce is connected to the educational pathways,” Lambert said.
“If people are switching majors and dropping out of STEM programmes, we’re not doing our jobs.”
White and Asian workers are overrepresented, accounting for 67 per cent and 13 per cent of all STEM jobs. At first glance, the percentage of Asian STEM workers may not appear high but this demographic represents a 6 per cent share of the total U.S. workforce across all occupations.
The number of Hispanic (8 per cent) and Black (9 per cent) STEM workers is below their overall shares of the total workforce, at 17 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively.
QUICK NOTE ABOUT GENDER
The report finds women of all races are making grounds in STEM, earning 53 per cent of STEM college degrees in 2018, although that number is smaller than the 58 per cent of total college degrees earned by women that year. Racial disparities remain, especially among recipients of advanced degrees.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of all PhDs awarded to women in 2017/2018 across all disciplines in the U.S. nearly 59 per cent went to white women. Black women made up about 9 per cent of the recipients, Hispanics 8 per cent, and Indigenous women 0.4 per cent.
When we drill down to STEM PhDs the numbers get even smaller. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics from 2017 suggests that worldwide, only about a third of all doctoral degrees in science, engineering and/or health are held by women.
Pew makes other gender-based observations, but we’ll take this time to reiterate a point we’ve made many times before: While gender analysis can be insightful, especially when participants are accounted for based on their intersecting identities, an emphasis on male-female genders erases non-binary scientists. We need more research amplifying this group because it is currently so marginalized that it is often difficult to find relevant scientific literature documenting their experiences.
EXAMPLES OF INSTITUTIONAL BIAS
There are countless reasons why historically excluded people leave STEM. One of the big ones has to do with retention, which is mentioned in the Nature article. In 2020, Lambert tells the publication he co-authored a study that surveyed more than 1,200 biomedical postdoctoral researchers in the U.S. about future career plans. It found that 24 per cent of male, non-white postdocs intended to leave research or science, even if they were at advanced stages in their training. This was found to be true for only 14 per cent of white postdocs.
We’ve been covering this topic since We Rep STEM launched in 2019. Here are a few other examples of systemic discrimination at work:
- An April 2021 study from Princeton University found many Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs (DEI) are catering to white people and not the underrepresented groups they were supposedly created to support. The paper found that institutions that use this white-centred approach “corresponded with worse graduation rates for Black students, especially when universities’ use of moral rationales was low. A similar pattern was found among Hispanic students’ graduation rates, as well.”
- In March 2021, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins publicly apologized for systemic racism embedded in the NIH federal funding process for biomedical research. An analysis found white scientists are 1.7 times more likely to receive federal research grants than Black scientists, “even when controlling for a long list of potential mediating variables.”
- More than two-thirds of female orthopedic surgeons in the U.S. say they experienced sexual harassment during their residency training, according to a September 2020 survey in Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research. Researchers say the frequency of harassment has “hardly improved” in decades.
- A September 2019 analysis published in Cell Stem Cell focusing on the retention rates for women found many institutions haven’t put in place policies that support the development of women’s careers in STEM. While recruitment doesn’t appear to be an issue, the findings suggest institutions struggle to retain and promote women into senior STEM roles.
- An October paper appearing in JAMA Network Open found some of California’s Central Valley healthcare units have difficultly retaining workers who identify as female, non-white, and/or LGBTQ+. Study participants cited a range of workplace abuse, including negative comments, vandalism, and loss of professional privileges. The participants were speaking explicitly about their experiences with colleagues, staff, and administrators.
- Bullying and discrimination have been linked to several negative outcomes, including burnout and worsened performance. In some cases, toxic work environments can force individuals out and create retention and recruitment gaps, according to a November 2019 paper, which found that in the hours following an unfair confrontation, there is a distinct change in victim behaviour which can last up to 24 hours after the event.
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