Women of color—particularly Black women—are being left behind in the increasingly important fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, according a new study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

President Obama in 2008 announced his administration’s goal of making the United States a world leader in STEM fields.

“Reaffirming and strengthening America’s role as the world’s engine of scientific discovery and technological innovation is essential to meeting the challenges of this century,” Obama said at the time. “That’s why I am committed to making the improvement of STEM education over the next decade a national priority.”

But according to the institute’s report, “Accelerating Change for Women Faculty of Color in STEM: Policy, Action, and Collaboration,” women faculty of color including Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and those who identify with more than one race, are playing a minimal role in advancing this agenda and are significantly underrepresented in academic STEM-related jobs.

In 2010, minority women professors constituted 2.1 percent of STEM faculty at four-year colleges and universities in the United States, though they constituted 13 percent of the U.S. working-age population.

Conversely, White men held 58 percent of these positions, while making up 35 percent of the working age population. White women held 18 percent of STEM positions, though constituting 36 percent of the working age population; men of color held 18 percent of positions in the disciplines while making up 14 percent of the working age population.

In raw numbers, only 6,400 women of color with STEM doctorates hold assistant, associate, or full professorships, compared with 19,800 White women, 20,500 men of color, and 65,100 White men.

Representation also differed across disciplines. Underrepresented minority women faculty were most highly employed in life sciences positions and had the least representation in computer science and mathematics.

The report was the result of a meeting in May of 50 experts who sought to understand and find ways to reverse the trend.

Among the many factors that have hindered the progress of women of color in academic STEM careers are hostile work environments, lack of mentorship, challenges to maintaining a proper work-life balance and the failure of many academic departments to adopt a more multicultural perspective, the report concluded.

The conclave of professors, academic administrators, and representatives of government, professional societies, the corporate sector, and women’s organizations offered recommendations to speed the progress of women of color in STEM. Those recommendations included providing targeted funding to women of color; revising hiring and promotion policies, such as requiring diverse search committees for new faculty hires; providing culturally sensitive mentors and developing a score card system to measure institutions’ individual progress on diversity.

“Ensuring that women faculty of color have the supports to pursue and advance in STEM academic careers is increasingly important, especially given the projected growth of these fields in the coming years,” Cynthia Hess, director of the study and the report’s co-author, said in a statement. “To increase the number of highly-skilled STEM workers and strengthen the economic security of U.S. families, we must engage the entire STEM talent pool.”

The full report is available at: “Accelerating Change for Women Faculty of Color in STEM: Policy, Action, and Collaboration.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO