By Advika Gudi, Science Staff Writer
The lack of diversity in STEM fields is a well known issue, but with this article I will delve deeper into why STEM lacks diversity, why it’s a problem and how equity is key to fixing these issues in education and in the workplace.
According to the National Science Board, the percentage of female engineers in 2015 was 15% of the workforce. Among engineering occupations with large numbers of workers, women accounted for only 9% of the workforce of mechanical engineers and about 10% to 13% of the workforce of electrical and computer hardware engineers and of aerospace, aeronautical, and astronautical engineers. This is not only because fewer women are getting higher degrees in engineering and computer sciences but also because they do not pursue careers in STEM later in life despite their degrees. One of the many reasons women drop out early in a career in STEM is due to the lack of role models and community for women within STEM. Even in terms of race, STEM lacks diversity. White people make up 65.6% of the US population but make up 66.6% of S&E fields; Black people make up 11.8% of the population and only 4.8% of S&E fields and Hispanic people make up 14.9% of the population but only 6% of S&E fields. Children from low income families do not have the resources to pursue a career in STEM since there is generally a higher level of educational attainment required for such positions.
Why is this a problem?
So we’ve established that women, people and colour and people from low income backgrounds are massively underrepresented in STEM education and careers. But why does this matter? Since when did science become more about race or gender than ability? Well, as Julie R Posselt in her book ‘Equity in Science: Representation, Culture, and the Dynamics of Change in Graduate Education’ puts it, “STEM disciplines are believed to be founded on the idea of meritocracy; recognition earned by the value of the data, which is objective. Such disciplinary cultures resist concerns about implicit or structural biases, and yet, year after year, scientists observe persistent gender and racial inequalities in their labs, departments, and programs”. The idea that one can only rise to the top through ability and talent has been twisted and warped by people who do not consider diversity important in STEM fields. They simply (and naively) assume that science and innovation are not dependent on the life experiences of those conducting research, and that efforts to increase diversity in STEM is a waste of time and resources.
However, the simple fact remains : Diversity is key to innovation and problem solving, more so than meritocracy or the ability of individuals, especially in large organisations. This is best proven by a study conducted by the PNAS (Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America) where through a series of computational experiments, they found that “ identity-diverse groups can outperform homogeneous group” ie; diverse groups have people with different life experiences, all of which contribute in their diverse approach to a problem. The more ways there are to approach an issue, the more innovation and solutions that come out of it. Even more interestingly, they also drew the conclusion that “a random collection of agents drawn from a large set of limited-ability agents typically outperforms a collection of the very best agents from that same set. This result is because, with a large population of agents, the first group, although its members have more ability, is less diverse”. In other words, a diverse group of problem solvers outperforms a group filled with the smartest and most talented problem solvers. Why? Because diversity outperforms ability when it comes to problem solving and communication.
How to fix this?
The three main ways of fixing the diversity problem in STEM can all be summed up in one, golden word: equity. Equity is recognising that each person has different talents, needs and circumstances and to be able to allocate resources to help each person accordingly, so everyone can reach an equal outcome. By creating equity in education and in the workplace people are more likely to learn and thrive in the STEM organisations, adding to their productivity and innovation.
Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, is the lead author on a study that found that “female and minority graduate students published the same number of papers as their white male peers when they felt accepted by their mentors and peers”. Hiring people with diverse races, income and gender to meet quotas is not enough. The further step to ensuring these people are supported and respected in the workforce is more important to foster the innovation and creativity required in problem solving and scientific breakthroughs. As Aaron puts it “being an outsider—being a minority—in an environment that was designed by and for the majority.”, can lead to exclusion and lack of motivation or productivity. By recognising that some people feel excluded in the STEM fields, and giving them the resources they need to succeed, not only are we making use of all the talent in the workforce, we are also using diversity to our strength.
In education, teachers and mentors need to promote diverse representation and invite speakers from all walks of life to inspire students and to create role models for each child. Schools can also create scholarships or subsidies to help children pursue an education and a career in STEM despite their economic background. One of the companies that recognises the lack of female role models in STEM is Women in STEM founded by Ananya Asthana. According to Asthana, “Girls often drop out of STEM, because they feel that they’re alone in their journey, given the lack of role models and representation”.
As a young freshman she began to recognise a gender disparity within her school and after reaching out “it quickly became apparent that there was a lack of a social network and support system for young women, particularly in high school” as Asthana says in an interview with STEMteen. Hence, she uses her three main initiatives “outreach, mentorship, and networking ; outreach to underserved communities and elementary schoolers, mentorship with universities, and networking events with successful female professors and professionals” to be a resource for over 500 girls across 25 schools.
Whether you are an organisation in STEM, a school or just a parent; the lack of diversity in STEM fields is prevalent to all and it’s important to pay attention since it affects the innovations in tech, science and even life in the future.