Research by The Biochemist black students and researchers in higher education (HE) face scarcity of relatable role models in STEM subjects. Black women are under-represented in STEM and their outlook is under-researched. Black women face challenges due to both sexism and racism in academia, and under-representation in STEM subjects leads to isolation. Role models, mentors and academic support networks can be a source of inspiration and facilitate career progression.
New research has found black women are more likely to feel like they belong in STEM if they have access to black female role models.
According to Higher Education Statistics Agency 2020/2021, there were about 18,710 white professors compared to 160 black professors in UK HE; 6.06% of UK-domiciled students and 2.3% of academics were black. Increased workforce diversity in UK HE could boost black academic representation and increase student accessibility to positive and relatable role models.
Black women are under-represented in STEM and their perspective is under-researched. Lived experience research illuminates personal stories, enhancing research quality and overall cultural relevance.
In the US, women of colour report interest in STEM majors at about the same rate as white women students. However, just 2.9% of bachelor’s degrees across STEM fields were awarded to black women in 2014-15, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Latinas achieved 3.6% of STEM degrees in the same time period, while 4.8% went to Asian women. (In the UK, black, Asian and minority ethnic [BAME] women obtain undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in STEM at about the same rate as white women – and are actually more likely to then go on to work in STEM occupations.)
Deborah Inyang is a final year medical student, with an MSc (Distinction) in Clinical Neuroscience from King’sCollege London and talks about lived experiences of black women pursuing STEM in UK higher education, she conducted research into the journeys and motivations and challenges of black women in STEM.
Black women feel ignored and alienated in STEM spaces, where they also confront negative stereotypes and unfair expectations.
“Sometimes, I feel like you must be a certain type of black women to get far in STEM… the way you speak, the way you present yourself, your demeanour… If this is not seen as acceptable… you won’t get the help you need. You will not get put in certain positions. There are some moments where you feel like you cannot be yourself to get up, and it’s not easy to do that all the time.”
Feeling ignored by institutions/supervisors can contribute to attainment disparity across ethnic groups. In 2018/2019, white students were twice as likely as black students to graduate with first class honours (35.7% vs 17.9%). Black students were three times more likely than white students to leave their first degree with a third (9.5% vs 3.2%).
Few felt comfortable reaching out to their institutions/supervisors. Reasons included feeling like the topic was taboo, not wanting to be a burden, loss of faith in institutional reporting systems or fearing repercussions from institutions/supervisors who contributed to the problem.
“…I feel like I must work 10 times harder to prove that I can use [this opportunity] and do something… We can’t be vulnerable or express discomfort, even though we should be able
to have these conversations to make work and education better.”
Many black women cannot discuss these issues freely with colleagues either, causing isolation:
“You can’t talk to everybody about it because they don’t understand or they don’t get it, or they don’t want to get it, or they’re quite fearful of the topic. As soon as you start to talk about colour or race… people get a little bit uncomfortable”
Most women had considered leaving STEM and/or academia – many due to specific challenges mentioned above:
“If it’s a personal thing, I can conquer this, I can come in the next day and be different… but when you realize its affecting people like you, then you realise it’s not gonna stop there, that can always negatively affect your whole view of that opportunity, career, degree because you think, how can you move forward?”
Despite this, all participants continued their STEM journey, motivated by their achievements, family support, and sheer tenacity:
“I worked a lot to get to where I am today. I will have that PhD because I decided I will. Then I can see how proud my family is when they speak about me, and what I’ve achieved so far…”
However, this sample is biased – not all black women in STEM can find reason to stay considering those challenges. How can the STEM community better support those who stay, and future aspirants? Possible solutions include fostering a sense of belonging and increasing representation of black women in STEM, to increase access to relatable role models.
Here at Hire STEM Women bridging the gender & diversity gap is at the top of our agenda and we are running various initiatives to support women of colour in STEM, get in touch with us now to find out more.
See what some of our partners are doing in this space: (insert video)