Equity in STEM Education

Equity in STEM Education

The last few weeks have been packed full of meetings, conferences, and other events, so I haven’t had a lot of time to collect my thoughts and write about any of them. Upon reflection, I realize that there are threads that run through many of the events I’ve attended: equity, underrepresentation, and how we can ensure that all students feel included in STEM education. Specifically, how can we ensure that underrepresented groups are not just participating in STEM, but are being reflected in the curriculum and STEM workforce, and that their unique perspectives are being valued and heard.

To that end, I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts focusing on these issues and sharing some of research, resources, and other tools that I’ve come across. I hope that people will find these posts helpful—or at least thought-provoking—and that the resources will be useful.

Part 1: Women’s Work - Why are Women Underrepresented in STEM?

The STEM Pipeline Problem

The issue of underrepresentation in STEM has consequences/implications for K-12 education, universities, industry, and governmental agencies. Many agencies, STEM-focused non-profits, schools, and policy-makers are all starting to sound the alarm—that there aren’t enough STEM workers to fill current open STEM positions, the number of STEM jobs is growing quickly, and that some portions of the STEM workforce are aging and on the verge of retirement.

Many of us have heard about the “leaky pipeline” analogy as a metaphor for the problem. In a nutshell, the idea is that along the path from pre-K to career, many potential STEM professionals are being lost. The analogy is somewhat flawed, but the idea is that a series of “leaks,” or issues, are causing students to leave before they enter the workforce. Many of the fingers are pointed at the K-12 system as the source of these problems, and I believe that that is partially true. Consider this—If we stick to the idea of the pipeline, and the fact that there will be some inevitable and uncontrollable leaks along the way—then if we don’t start off with enough “flow” at the beginning, then we are limiting the number of STEM professionals coming out at the other end. Indeed, there is plenty of research that suggests that equity issues begin in K-12 and I’ll talk about those in a later post.

The idea of the leaky STEM pipeline has been around for many years.

Women in the Pipeline

The K-12 system, however, cannot be the only source of “leaks.” Let’s look at one subgroup of underrepresented folk, women, as an example. The myths persist: that women are not as interested or not as strong as their male counterparts in STEM, that they aren’t going into STEM majors or STEM careers—and if they do, they are primarily dropping out to have families. If you’re reading that and thinking that the prevalence of those opinions are exaggerated, consider the findings of a recent comprehensive study from the Pew Research Center, “Women and Men in STEM Often at Odds Over Workplace Equity.” In the study, when people were asked to weigh in on why there aren’t as many women in STEM careers, 33% of respondents said that it’s “more difficult to balance work/family in STEM jobs,” and 18% said that women “were just less interested in STEM than men” (that number jumps to 22% when respondents were asked the same question about Hispanics/blacks in STEM).

The myths persist: that women are not as interested or not as strong as their male counterparts in STEM, that they aren’t going into STEM majors or STEM careers—and if they do, they are primarily dropping out to have families.

I recently attended an event focused on women in STEM at Sweden House in Georgetown. The event highlighted Sweden’s initiatives around increasing the number of women STEM professionals and featured individuals/groups from the United States as well. One of the panelists was Leslie Cruz, who is the CEO of STEM Connector, an organization based in DC that focuses on helping industry achieve a sustainable STEM workforce. Leslie roundly debunked the myths about women in STEM. Indeed, she stated that data suggests that there is no difference between high school boys/girls in STEM achievement (as measured by math test scores). On top of that, many incoming freshmen STEM majors are split equally between males/females, (especially in biology-related fields). So, here is where additional “leaks” beyond K-12 education become apparent. Cruz said that while in college, many women who start in STEM majors switch and eventually graduate with non-STEM majors. And, of the women who do go start STEM careers, many are leaving within 5 years—not to have families, but to take jobs outside of STEM.

So what gives? What is causing women to drop out of STEM once they get to college and beyond? The recent uptick in proposed legislation, organizational guidelines, and the release of a comprehensive report focused on sexual and other forms of harassment in STEM is telling. In fact, the science twitter community is filled with the stories of women who have faced these barriers at some point in their career. Search Twitter for the hashtag #MeTooSTEM and you will find a host of personal accounts. The stories range from outright sexual harassment, to unequal treatment, to subtle microagressions such as assuming that a female researcher is an underling instead of the lab director. Women of color report a double level of harassment—sexist and racist comments that undermine their worth as a STEM professional.

Personally, I’ve heard several stories from my female friends about male professors, advisers, or colleagues who have treated them as not as smart, not as capable, or made other assumptions about their motivations. I’m definitely not implying that all men are harassers, or that some of the perceived slights are intentional, but the point is that enough of it is happening to inevitably have an impact, and, clearly, there is still work to be done.

The recent uptick in legislation, guidelines, and a the release of a comprehensive report focused on sexual and other forms of harassment in STEM is telling.

To be Continued…

As I’m trying to keep these posts shorter and more frequent, I’ll stop here. Look for more posts soon that will focus on other underrepresented groups in the STEM pipeline, and at least one post featuring tools and resources that start to address these issues. Stay tuned.


Additional Resources

Click on links in the post above for articles, websites, and reports. Here are a few more:

Getting Started with Story Mapping

Getting Started with Story Mapping