What’s Leaking? URMs, LGBTQ+ and People with Disabilities in STEM

Amanda Anqueira-González • 2021 Science Communication Series Cohort


The process of attending virtual doctoral program interviews is roughly the same for all institutions: 1. Enter the video call 2. See the student body and the interviewees, and get excited 3. See the faculty and get confused. The confusion arises from seeing diversity only in the student body, but not in the faculty or administration. How can it be possible that in 2021, the composition of Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) training has not translated to STEM employment, despite thousands of efforts across the country to do so? As a Latina in STEM, this poses a real concern to me: will I, and other talented marginalized students, leak through the pipeline as well?


A slight increase in the number of students from marginalized groups, including underrepresented minorities (i.e., African Americans/Black, Hispanics/Latinx, Native Americans), students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students in STEM fields has been observed over the past decades. Generally speaking, these historically disadvantaged groups encompass almost half of the STEM degrees awarded in the United States as of 2021. Nevertheless, the trend still holds true when looking at STEM employment and occupation. In the academic year 2017-18, underrepresented minority students accounted for 18% of awarded STEM degrees but only 13% of the STEM workforce [1, 2]. Students with disabilities are even more underrepresented, comprising 7% of the STEM workforce [3, 4]. Finally, limited data exists for LGBTQ+ students in STEM but recent studies suggest that members of the LGBTQ+ community are less likely to have STEM degrees and, consequently, STEM employment [5].


This is not new. The famous “STEM pipeline” began as a metaphor used to describe the gender gap in STEM fields seen in the past century, but now refers to retention problems of marginalized groups in the same field [6]. In attempts to identify these problems, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committees (DEICs) have been constituted within different departments, universities, and organizations throughout the scientific workforce. Nevertheless, no amount of effort from these DEICs or other organized task forces has completely sealed the “leaks” in the pipeline [7]. Many of these committees are maintained as a way of checking off a symbolic diversity box and claiming solutions to problems that have yet to be understood. As a result, the most pressing dilemma is not exactly one that DEICs can eliminate at once. The biggest problem is that what causes leakage, loss of retention and persistence of marginalized groups in STEM is systematic, institutionalized, and rooted in every person that functions within the fields. Additionally, a much-needed national commitment to execute and maintain the initiatives proposed by institutions has yet to be present [8].


Recognizing science as a human endeavor, it is no surprise that a person will most likely succeed where they feel supported and represented [9]. The process of STEM training relies on various factorsone of the most important being mentorship. Mentorship is not limited to faculty mentoring but peer mentoring, which plays a big role in the retention of these students. Upon finding themselves in an environment where role models of similar backgrounds exist, a sense of community is then built resulting in an improvement in interactions and persistence of a STEM student [10]. While this is understood, it is not the norm when progressing through the stages of undergraduate and graduate training as well as into early career. During these particular stages, representation of marginalized groups is low. The faculties that marginalized students encounter during the development of their scientific careers are predominantly United States’ white, cis-males, and this causes the students to have innumerable doubts on their success as STEM employees. In addition to this, research seminar invitees are within the same demographic described above which contributes to the lack of representation.


Another important issue relates to a narrative similar to the color-blind narrative used to mask the experiences of Black individuals [6]. The concept of “color-blindness” relies on not acknowledging the racial identity of a person and believing that this identity does not interfere with a person’s opportunities. After modification in the terminology, the concept can be applied to other marginalized groups under the pretext that science is fully meritocratic, thus eliminating any struggles pertaining to the particular experiences of these individuals in STEM. Many scientists take this stance and mentor students following this narrative. Consequently, inequities are hidden, students’ struggles are invalidated, and they are not able to engage in science in the same manner as their counterparts. The participation of marginalized STEM students is then immediately reduced.


Representation is not the only matter of importance when addressing the STEM pipeline leakage. Bias has been documented in different aspects of STEM careers, such as grant funding, citations, promotions, recommendation letters, hiring practices, and CV’s among others [11]. Rooted into society and making its way into the scientific community, implicit or unconscious biases hinder the development of many students from marginalized groups. The incidence of bias in STEM promotes the loss of their persistence in their respective fields from early on in their careers and harassment from their peers and mentors. Because it is part of the subconscious, many times, those who engage in harassment are very unaware of the effects that their actions and words can have on various groups of individuals. Nonetheless, there are those who are actively aware of the harassment they promote. In these cases, aggressors tend to be protected by their positions in higher education or their reputations in the workplace [12]. What we get is a nasty situation where the marginalized individual is further marginalized in the workplace, attacked, and penalized.


Diversity in STEM, whether referring to training or employment, is an essential piece of the puzzle that is science. It is required for a better, more rigorous, and complete science to not only consider the recruitment of marginalized students but the retention of these individuals in their fields. Currently, the demographic profile in STEM does not resemble the demographic profile of the United States, which means the pool from which future scientists are drawn is incredibly limited to a small subset of people, ideas, experiences [13,14]. Therefore, scientific development and progress are reduced as well as the range of talent that we are able to allocate. In order to “patch up” the leakage in the STEM pipeline, everyone at different levels of education must take part in societal change. Institutions, organizations, peers, mentors, committees, etc. must be held accountable for cases of harassment and discrimination, regardless of the severity of the situation [8].


To avoid further cases, education of bias must be pushed forth and the responsibility of educating should not fall exclusively on minorities, but the majority must also contribute without appropriating the experiences of marginalized individuals. Mentors and peers should analyze, interpret, and respond to the realities of marginalized individuals in STEM as to not partake in mentoring that ignores these realities and experiences [9]. Through science communication, networking, and outreach with the scientific and non-scientific public, scientists can increase the visibility of these marginalized individuals and their representation to various ages and backgrounds. Diverse faculty hiring should be promoted as a way of building a strong scientific workforce rather than a diversity box check. Marginalized scientists should also be considered for leadership positions, not limiting their participation to diversity affairs [13]. To encourage a change in culture, faculty should be required to complete a set of mentoring practices and anti-discriminatory training, and to have experience in diversity matters [12]. In the digital age, it is important and recommended to increase marginalized scientists' presence in media (including social media) as a way of cultural shift in representation as well as empowerment of marginalized groups in STEM [9]. It is urgent that this transformation is carried out in STEM or we could be seeing a drastic reduction in the quality of science in the near future. It is imperative that the inequities, systematic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and ableism in STEM are brought to an end.



References:

  1. Duffin, E. (2021, March 1). Number of STEM degrees and certificates awarded in the United States from 2008-09 to 2018-19, by race/ethnicity. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/828874/number-of-stem-degrees-awarded-in-the-us-by-race/#statisticContainer.

  2. Khan, B., Robbins, C., & Okrent, A. (2020, January 15). The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2020 (USA, National Science Foundation, Science & Engineering Indicators). Retrieved from https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20201/u-s-s-e-workforce

  3. Griffiths, A. J., Brady, J., Riley, N., Alsip, J., Trine, V., & Gomez, L. (2021). Stem for everyone: A mixed methods approach to the conception and implementation of an evaluation process for stem education programs for students with disabilities. Frontiers in Education, 5. doi:10.3389/feduc.2020.545701

  4. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. (2017) . Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Retrieved from www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/

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