Imagine that you’re an African American female student told by her teacher “Women don’t typically do well in math or science so you shouldn’t get upset if you do poorly.” Well, that student was me! I vividly recall these words like it was yesterday and I remember feeling numb and somewhat less confident in my decision to pursue a career in a scientific discipline. I said to myself, “Maybe I’m not good enough or smart enough. Maybe I should change my major. ”
According to the US Census Bureau, by 2050 the US population will be mostly comprised of racial and ethnic minorities – most of whom will make-up the US workforce. In particular, one of the fastest growing segments of the workforce is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)1. Recent data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics show that STEM occupations have the highest projected increase in employment and higher median salaries compared to other occupations2. In 2010, STEM workers earned an average of 26 percent more than non-STEM professionals 3.
Despite these projections, racial and ethnic minorities comprise only a small percentage of those pursuing STEM degrees and entering the STEM workforce. African Americans comprise about 12% of the US population yet only about 6% of STEM fields. Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic population, comprise only about 7% of STEM fields. Exacerbating this, ethnic minorities also experience greater income disparity and lower socioeconomic status.4
Factors Influencing Decisions to Pursue STEM Disciplines
Given the shifting demographics of the US and the need for a highly trained STEM workforce to sustain economic growth and global competitiveness, there is a need to increase the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in STEM. It therefore becomes increasingly important to understand factors such as stigma associated with STEM that may impact decisions to pursue STEM careers and possibly bridge the income gap. Among factors that influence decisions by racial and ethnic minorities to pursue STEM disciplines and careers are structural barriers within the public education system such as limited access to and preparedness for advanced science and math coursework. This invariably leads to lower levels of college readiness for STEM disciplines.
These barriers in STEM education may be exacerbated by the lack of support lower socioeconomic and ethnic minority students receive in the classroom. For instance, compared to students from higher SES populations, children of lower SES populations may experience more bias from teachers, be stigmatized and perceived to have less ambition, and as less intelligent.5 This negative treatment and stigmatized perception may lead to a lack of enthusiasm to pursue STEM careers or a belief that they are not capable of succeeding in STEM. “Maybe I’m not good enough or smart enough.” Poor minority students may therefore find themselves at a disadvantage prior to even considering STEM as a viable career path.
Diversifying the STEM Workforce
With current trends in the growth of STEM professions and predicted increase in racial and ethnic minorities, it is clear that educating a qualified, diverse workforce is necessary if the US is to remain competitive. Education in STEM is not reserved for the wealthy but should be available to everyone. A stigma free education that encourages all students to pursue education and training in one of the fastest growing careers is not only a necessity, it’s also the right thing to do.
“The future was uncertain, absolutely, and there were many hurdles, twists, and turns to come, but as long as I kept moving forward, one foot in front of the other, the voices of fear and shame, the messages from those who wanted me to believe that I wasn’t good enough, would be stilled.”
― Chris Gardner, The Pursuit of Happyness
1U.S. Census Bureau (2015). Retrieved from: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/11000.html.
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014). U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Occupational employment and wages in 2014. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2015/occupational-employment-wages-2014.htm.
3Langdon,D., McKittrick, G., Beede, D., Khan, B., and Doms, M. (2011). STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future, U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration. Retrieved from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/stemfinalyjuly14_1.pdf
4 Kochar, R. and Fry, R. (2014). Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of Great Recession. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/
5 William, W.R. (2009). Struggling with Poverty: Implications for theory and policy of increasing research on social class based stigma. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 9(1). 37-56.
Jocelyn Turner-Musa is an Associate Professor and Interim Chairperson in the Department of Psychology at Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland. Jocelyn earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of North Florida, a master’s and doctorate degree in Social Psychology from Howard University, and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Mental Health Services from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Jocelyn is also the Director of the Student Training Core in the Morgan State University ASCEND Biomedical Center for Research. The ASCEND program is designed to aid in diversifying the biomedical, behavioral, and social science research workforce.
Jocelyn is a member of several professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Council on Undergraduate Research. She has received numerous awards including an American Fellows Award from the American Association of University Women, a Minority Fellowship Program award from the APA Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs, and the Morgan State University School of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences Deans Award for Outstanding Research. Jocelyn is the first in her family to receive a doctorate degree. She is married with a daughter who is pursuing a degree in Math with a minor in Physics.