Black Women STEM Students: The Importance of Role Models

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Women are underrepresented in most science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. However, Black women are extremely underrepresented. According to data collected by the National Science Foundation, in 2014 Black women earned 4.3% of bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, 2.61% in computer sciences, 2.35 in mathematics and statistics, 2.83 in physical sciences, and 9.19 in psychology. In 2014, of all early career STEM doctorate holders, only 2.7% were Black women, whereas 39% were White women.

Terrell Morton, the co-author of a study on Black women in STEM published at the end of 2018, said: “Imagine walking into a lab or a classroom and seeing pictures of people on the walls that are nothing like you. People have a very narrow view of what science looks like, and right now, it’s older white men wearing goggles and holding beakers. When a young woman of color sees those images in a learning environment, it can make her feel unwelcome because there is nothing in that image that represents her.”

Photo by Levi Guzman on Unsplash

Black women also face social identity threat—they may expect to be undervalued or discriminated against because they identify with a stigmatized minority group. Stigma consciousness, or sensitivity to the possibility of experiencing discrimination because of race and/or gender, can increase vulnerability to social identity threat.

Now, results from a new study (Exploring Identity-Safety Cues and Allyship Among Black Women Students in STEM Environments) published March 21, 2019, in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, show that successful Black women scientist role models are vital to signaling a sense of belonging to Black women college students and signal them they are valued in STEM environments. Eva Pietri, one of the study co-authors, said: “Women who feel like they belong are more likely to enter and stay in STEM, so lack of belonging may be one reason for women of color’s lack of representation.”

For the study, researchers recruited U.S. Black female students, and introduced them to a fictional school of science and technology. Then, the students viewed the profile of a professor who was either a Black female or Black male scientist, or a White female or White male scientist. The study results show that students anticipated more belonging and trust in the fictional school environment if they saw the profile of a Black man or Black woman scientist, as compared to the profile of a White woman or White man scientist. However, the Black woman scientist was especially beneficial for Black female students who were high in stigma consciousness.

Next, the researchers surveyed Black women STEM majors from a predominately White four-year college and from a women-only historically Black college. The two colleges were chosen to ensure there was variability in access to role models of different identities. The researchers found that the students from the historically Black college had approximately two to three Black female role models, whereas the women enrolled at the primarily White institution had zero to one. Across both samples, the higher number of Black female and Black male role models the students had, the more belonging they felt at their institutions. The researchers found that having role models who the STEM majors believed were allies increased their perception of belonging in STEM, even when the role models were not Black women.

The researchers also found that stigma consciousness had important implications for belonging. Higher stigma consciousness related to less belonging in STEM for women at the primarily White institution. However, for women at the historically Black institution, higher stigma consciousness did not harm belonging in STEM—instead, it correlated with more belonging at their institution.

India Johnson, lead author of the study, said: “Under the right conditions, greater stigma consciousness might be beneficial. These results show that we don’t necessarily want to decrease it, but we want to create environments where it’s not detrimental. We find stigma consciousness can even be helpful when there are a lot of Black female role models and supportive allies available.”

Pietri added: “Allies can play a really big role in increasing belonging among women of color, but they have to really clearly signal their allyship through actions and behaviors.”

Copyright © 2016-2019 Forever Leaders.

10 comments

  1. As a black woman in STEM, I notice the lack of representation for people like me. We discuss women in STEM often, but I sometimes feel as though the increased challenges faced by black women are ignored. In order to advocate for women, we must acknowledge the intersection of belonging to more than one marginalized group. Not only do I risk being undervalued as a woman, but also as a black person. Amidst the lack of advocacy and representation of black women, I am thankful to have a role model, my older sister, to look up to and show me that I can be successful in science. However, black women without role models who look like them may feel like they do not belong, as the article states. Stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which an individual feels that they are in danger of conforming to stereotypes about a marginalized group they belong to, can be prevalent in those cases. In order to prevent this from happening, we must start from the bottom with the help of those at the top. We must show young girls even before reaching the college level that there are successful black women in STEM and that they can be just like them. This may increase stigma conscience as described in the article, but it would be beneficial. Young girls and women would aware of their identity but also proud, as I feel when I hear of the success of people who look like me and were once in my shoes.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly to your response statement. I feel as though women already have a disadvantage but when it comes to women of color they have to work ten times harder in order to prove that they’re just as qualified as their white counterparts. I believe that lack of representation does make young black women feel as though they’re devalued not only in STEM fields but in society as well. Being a black woman in STEM I see the lack of representation, regularly because there are not many women that look like me. In several different settings I seek for women that look like me because their message or advice would be more effective. I am also proud to say that I have a role model that I look up to who is also in a STEM field. If it wasn’t for that woman I probably would not be in college right now. Young black girls like myself, need more representation in STEM fields because it would make a huge difference in their confidence and would help them be more successful. I honestly believe the future is female and we all have to fight for representation for all of us. Lastly, one opinion I do have is, It is hard for a non-black woman in STEM to speak on the disadvantages that black women face in STEM because of lack of understanding.

  3. Representation plays a crucial role in addressing the underrepresentation of Black women in STEM. Women of color have the challenging of facing two stigmas based on race and gender. The representation of black men and women motivate me to persevere through the barriers of being a Black woman in STEM. Unfortunately, Black scientists are rarely discussed in the education system unless it is “Black History” month. Thankfully, I had the pleasure of having multiple Black mentors in STEM and Medicine. They have an essential role in helping me overcome imposter syndrome and making me own my success. As a Black woman in STEM, I must serve as mentor up-and-coming scientists. Whenever I attend conferences, I make it a mission to network and support my fellow black colleagues. Although Black mentors are imperative, it is vital to have a support system of young professionals in the STEM field as well because they can help with overcoming the daily challenges of feeling unwelcome or overwhelmed. Now is a time of change and progression, there is currently a rise in the number of minority students pursuing STEM professions. It is our responsibility to make science look attractive and appealing to young children by demonstrating a passion for science. The media also has a role in shaping the perceptions of children. Most television shows portray black people in a stereotypical light, so shows like Doc McStuffins do a great job at changing this narrative. The political, business, law, and healthcare are sectors with more excellent representation than research scientists. Hopefully, I can join a group of Black research scientists that pioneer this movement.

  4. As an Afro-Caribbean black woman, who grew up in the suburbs of Northport, Florida, I did not have the privilege of receiving the guidance of black teachers, to say the less black female teachers. From kindergarten to middle school, I have only ever had predominantly white teachers. In hindsight, I realized that it has negatively impacted my image of what people in STEM should look like. However, that all changed my Junior year of high school. During that year, we had a African-American physicist, who obtained her degree from Harvard. She had accomplished many things in her career, yet chose to return to her humble beginnings to inspire students like myself, so that we could become the new image of a scientist. With that being said, representation is critical in minority populations. Without representation, we will continue to be devalued, underappreciated, and unseen. The systemic conditioning that individuals in STEM can only be old white males, with broken glasses and a beaker will continue to prevail unless otherwise derailed. There was a point raised in the article that resonated with me and my current situation. It was mentioned that in primarily white institutions, black women STEM majors had one or zero black female roles models, and I agree. Although I have had the honor of having a black male mentor and quite a few white male mentors, none of them had been female, and that speaks volumes. Even at an institution that advocates diversity and inclusion, we lack black women in STEM. I believe that with mentoring, encouragement, and active engagement of women in science, we can change the system for the better.

  5. Representation is crucial for inspiration. Luckily for me, I grew up in an area where I was taught by many black female teachers, and they influenced me to consider careers in STEM. Honestly, I thought that it was a pretty standard thing for black women to get involved in STEM majors because those were the kind of women that surrounded me. In elementary and middle school, my math and science teachers were female, and they had a real passion for the material that they taught. With these surroundings, I dreamed of nothing more but to follow in their footsteps and find my scientific passion. Like the students around me, I wanted to conduct research, be in laboratories, and study some of the concepts we learned in depth. We all dreamed of being doctors, dentists, physicists, and scientists. However, once I got into high school things changed. Coming into a much more diverse grouping of students, I found that many of my female peers of color aspired to be businesswomen, history teachers, and authors. These are great aspirations, but their disinterest in STEM was apparent. I discovered that many of my peers of color were taught and surrounded by people who didn’t look like them. They often didn’t see black women in the STEM field, and without that representation, there wasn’t much inspiration for roles like this. Without having those teachers or representatives showing them what they could be, they didn’t have the aspiration to pursue these kinds of careers. Therefore, I agree with the article. Always seeing others, who look nothing like me, receive acknowledgment does not exactly motivate me. Sure, I feel happy for them, and I think they’re incredible, but it doesn’t make me feel inspired. I usually don’t get the feeling that I could do what they are doing. However, when I see a black woman or someone who looks like me achieve something great, I find myself saying, “well if she can do it, then I can do it too!”

  6. I agree with this article, but one thing that struck me is from the second paragraph. When a young lady walks into the lab and sees images of white men with googles, she feels unwelcomed. I had never thought about that, which is true. It happens to almost every one of us when we do not see people that we look like in a particular gathering we tend to feel like that is not the place for us, Which explains why we have fewer women in STEM because most of them do not feel welcome. As women, I think it is high time that we changed that. I think women need to start creating awareness, and taking pictures of women in the labs and putting those pictures up on our social media pages, so that young women can see them and feel motivated join the STEM.

    • This is great idea, that Susan pointed out from the article. I agree with creating more women awareness. Having more pictures of women with different races working in labs, or in higher power jobs displayed everywhere. By having social media display men and women of different races will allow them to show equality in the workforce and will allow women to be more confident. Young students will see different types of people working in the STEM environment and will make the decision that they too can also be involved in STEM. Therefore, young children will be able to relate to someone similar to them and believe more in themselves that they are also capable of achieving the same power position. Its very important to have diversity and inclusion in any workplace or in any environment like in a lab or in school. We all can learn from each independent individual, they each have a different way in learning and understanding things!

  7. As acknowledged in the article and many previous responses, it does not surprise me that many black female students do not feel as if they belong in STEM when they are unable to see themselves in the media or meet other black females in person who are working in the field. Essentially, what I believe is the central message of this post is: how can there be inspiration, when one does not have an avenue to become inspired. Although the study is interested in the lack of black female role models in STEM, there is also another disconnect in the lower amounts of black males in medical professions. For example, although there has been an increase in the amount of females, regardless of race, entering medical school, the amount of black males entering medical school has been stagnant. I think the overall important theme to consider is that in order for the future to have more black females in STEM fields, we need to address how we are going to increase the amount of black females entering STEM. Students can become intrigued in these fields through school activities by increasing funding for STEM programs in regions where the minority population consists of the majority of the population.

  8. I knew that black women were underrepresented but seeing the statistics made it a lot more real. It goes to the fact that until you see it, you don’t believe it. Not having role models to look up to is hard and can be very discouraging. It makes students think “If they couldn’t do it, how can I?” and that is something no one should have to feel. I agree with Susan’s comment that we should make females more aware by taking pictures of black females working in the lab and adding it to social media pages. Students can see it and feel welcome instead of feeling like they don’t belong. Also, role models are essential because they help influence our action and motivate us to do better. STEM is an amazing field to be part of and more women need to be aware and feel welcomed. They should feel part of the community instead of an outsider looking in.

  9. It is definitely important to have representation to have inspiration. As a person of color, personally I get more motivated when I see people of color teach or as mentioned in the article “seeing pictures on walls”. Moreover, it makes me more motivated to see women of color in STEM fields and makes me think that I can do it too and not have self doubts. So, I understand how seeing women of color would inspire African American’s to pursue a STEM career. It creates a sense of belonging. With my personal opinions, I think that having more African American women in STEM program could influence and help out young kids and can be really motivational. But not only African Americans, all female colored, minorities should be more into the STEM field, in this way it would help everyone, even males feel like they can do it considering a minority can do it. I believe that if A WOMEN CAN DO IT, then I should be able to too. As a true feminist, I would love to see a growing population of women getting careers in STEM.

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