Positive Representation in STEM Can Help Narrow the Gap for Black Girls

Only 1.8% of Black women are employed in STEM. Positive representation and culturally responsive teaching can help change that.

Two Black girls build a robot in a stem class
Photo: Getty Images

Gender stereotypes around professions in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have contributed to a large gap between the number of women and men occupying positions within these fields. The idea that men are more suited for professions centered around science and mathematics can be engrained starting as early as elementary school. Research has shown that stereotype threat, a theory that the danger of confirming or validating a stereotype interferes with performance, has had negative effects on girls' and women's aspirations in math and science. Although currently rising, women represent around 28% of the STEM workforce, with a larger gap in higher-paying and fast-growing jobs.

This gap widens when it comes to Black women. In science and engineering jobs, only 1.8% of those employed are Black women, and between 2019 and 2020, Black women earned approximately 3% of all STEM degrees.

Dr. Devin Swiner, Ph.D., a senior scientist in small molecule analytical research and development (SMARD) at Merck & Co, acknowledges her parents' role in her journey to becoming a scientist. "My parents did a really good job with letting me explore my interests, which I think was really helpful. That's likely why I stuck with it because I had to option to actually explore it," Dr. Swiner states.

She felt supported in both competing in science fairs and working on science kits at home. "I think with STEM in general, it is so broad, and I think people don't realize that you can do whatever you want in STEM. It might start off really general, but once you grow into it, the things that you learn to study or the new people that you meet are doing stuff that is very specific."

Research conducted by Microsoft found in a study that the number of girls who expressed interest in STEM doubled when they had a role model for inspiration, resulting in a stronger passion for all STEM subjects and a more positive outlook on potential careers within these fields. For Black girls, this can pose an issue, as the number of prominent Black women in STEM is severely lacking. However, with a push for support, more accessible resources, and interactive programs, we can change the way Black women and girls view STEM-related roles and professions.

Creating a welcoming and inviting learning environment can encourage Black girls to feel more comfortable within STEM settings. Including pictures of prominent Black women in STEM in classrooms can help to remove gender and racial bias around the images many young children see in relation to science and math. It may prove beneficial to insert these images into worksheets and assignments as well, as a study has indicated positive results of higher comprehension in female students when shown counter-stereotypic images of female scientists.

Additionally, increasing the number of Black teachers would significantly improve academic results. A study by Johns Hopkins University showed that Black students who had one Black teacher by third grade were 13% more likely to enroll in college; this increased to 32% if the student had two Black teachers by that time. A study in Florida also found the test scores of students who were matched with teachers of the same race increased slightly.

Currently, around 72.3% of teachers are white; for these teachers, implementing culturally responsive teaching strategies may yield positive results inside the classroom. Studies have found that teachers show racial bias just as much as any other person. These biases can have detrimental effects on the learning experience and overall academic performance of those directly affected by them, like a poor outlook on school and education in general.

Culturally responsive teaching takes into account elements such as a student's background and perspectives, experiences, and culture in an attempt to strengthen the bond and understanding between teacher and student. Creating a culturally inclusive classroom environment can start with addressing any personal biases and working to reduce them. This can be done through research on diverse perspectives, cultural values, and contributions while remaining open-minded about preconceived notions. It is also important for teachers to be aware of the differences in the communication styles of students.

For example, many Black students naturally speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English) at home and within the classroom setting. However, main/general American English is mostly used within the school system, creating a linguistic barrier between teachers and Black students. Creating a space where students feel they are not being judged or "corrected" for using a language they are most familiar with can promote feelings of acceptance.

Developing and promoting STEM programs that are led by Black women can also have a significant effect on how young Black girls view STEM. Along with others, Dr. Swiner co-founded Black in Chem, a nonprofit organization focused on amplifying Black voices and excellence in chemistry while acknowledging a need for greater representation of Black chemists. In being an active participant in the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), an organization that she credits as the reason she went to grad school and found community in undergrad, Dr. Swiner wanted to further bring the Black chemistry community together. After seeing other "Black in" movements, such as Black in Neuro and Black in Astro, a tweet sparked what would eventually become Black in Chem. "I wanted to give people a sense of belonging, a sense of community and joy."

She also places importance on having a positive Black female figure as representation. Dr. Swiner stated, "My academic advisor was a Black woman that was an analytical chemist, that went to grad school, that did all these things, and those are the things that I ended up becoming partially because she was a living breathing example that I could."

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