In the past years, the diversity issues across STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) have received heightened focus, with many scientists participating in #ShutDownSTEM to reflect on these issues in the summer of 2020. According to the NSF, 69.1% of STEM doctoral degree recipients were white, and 55.8% of the STEM workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher identified as male in 2019. According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, random and thus more diverse groups of intelligent problem-solvers outperform a group consisting of only the best problem-solvers due to the wide range of perspectives that they hold. Ensuring quality education and equal opportunities for participation in STEM for all students both supports social equality and helps to develop a diverse STEM workforce that will provide increased innovation, economic growth, and competitiveness. While the percentages of women and underrepresented minorities receiving STEM doctorate degrees has improved in the past decade, STEM still has a long way to go. For example, students earning STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2018 comprised only 7% Black students and 12% Hispanic students.
Furthermore, diversity in the STEM workforce can vary widely across fields and jobs. According to the NSF’s Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering 2021 report, women held the majority of STEM degrees in psychology, biological sciences, and agricultural sciences in 2018, while male dominated fields included computer sciences, engineering, economics, mathematics and statistics, earth and physical sciences, and physics (Table 1). Among these, physics had the lowest share of female degree recipients, with just 21.4% of doctorate degrees earned in 2018 awarded to women. On the other hand, women are overrepresented in healthcare jobs within the STEM workforce, accounting for 74% of healthcare practitioners and technicians in 2018. Moreover, Black and Hispanic adults also face the lowest representation in math, engineering, computer science, and physical sciences within STEM. Health-related occupations are the only area of the STEM workforce in which the representation of Black workers reflects that of the total workforce.
Table 1: Percentage of PhDs awarded to women in 2018 in STEM overall and in some of the more male-dominated STEM fields, ranked from best to worst representation
|Percentage of PhDs Awarded to Women in 2018|
|STEM Overall||41.2 %|
|Mathematics and Statistics||28.0 %|
|Computer Science||21.6 %|
So why are some STEM fields more diverse than others, and how should this affect how we approach diversifying participation in science? A 2017 study in Psychological Bulletin proposed three main factors contributing to larger gender gaps in computer science, engineering, and physics, including: 1) stronger masculine cultures in these areas of STEM, 2) insufficient early education in these fields, and 3) gender gaps in self-efficacy. The researchers cited creating a more inclusive culture, increasing visibility of relatable role models, and developing “subcultures” where female students can gain a sense of community and belonging as some strategies for increasing the number of women in these underrepresented STEM fields. Although most studies focused on evaluating and improving minority participation in STEM look upon STEM as a whole, the reasons for even further decreased participation of minority students in fields such as engineering, physical sciences, and computer science are likely similar to those referenced above; these students would thus likely also benefit from some of these proposed strategies. Similarly, a 2020 report in the International Journal of STEM Education emphasized the importance of relatable role models, as well as encouraging and inclusive environments, through results of surveying a group of adults pursuing STEM, 71% of which were female and 96% of which were ethnic minorities. Only 30% of participants believed that they were similar to their peers and a meager two-thirds felt that they belonged. Additionally, the majority believed that gender- and ethnicity-matched STEM mentors or media exposure would be effective encouragement to pursue their STEM careers. These mentorship models, proposed as effective strategies for increasing minority and female participation in STEM as a whole, are also viable strategies for efforts focused on underrepresented STEM fields, especially if implemented starting in early education.
Overall, there is still a lot of work to be done promoting women and underrepresented minorities in STEM, particularly in these even less diverse fields, but there’s no better place to start than in our local communities!
Interested in learning more? There is an abundance of literature focused on increasing diversity and retention in STEM.
Are you interested in providing underrepresented groups with early access to STEM education along with encouragement and mentoring in the field? WinSPIRE hosts summer research internships for woman-identifying and nonbinary high school students.
Are you interested in promoting an inclusive environment in order to recruit, support, and retain a diverse graduate student population? AM WISE is a physics and chemistry graduate student organization that does just that!
Peer Edited by: Nick Randolph and Brittany Shepherd