To Be an Other In STEM

Recently scrolling through my social media, I have begun to notice some distressing messages from classmates in the STEM majors. At first, I thought the distress was because the field of study is not for the faint of heart. There is a ton of work that goes into being successful in STEM, however, as I looked deeper into the messages and who they were coming from I started noticing what seemed to be a pattern. Lots of women and people of color were expressing their dissatisfaction with the current state of STEM programs and not just the programs here at Cal. Overall, these students are sharing experiences of not being supported in their programs by faculty or advisors, bullying, hostile learning environments, and feeling unwelcome in their majors. I wanted to look deeper into what might be the cause for some of the issues being talked about.


I grabbed some statistics from 2019 that right off the bat show possible sources of contention: under-representation both in gender and race, gender bias, lack of understanding of intersectionality, and how to support individual students holistically. In 2019 a total of 756,825 STEM-focused degrees and certificates were awarded in the U.S. From that number 67% of awardees were male and 51% were white Americans.[1] [2] It is within reason to say that STEM programs are white male-dominated spaces. So, what does representation in STEM look like from the classroom to the boardroom? Are issues of discrimination, sexism, and bias leading to the frustrations felt by some of these students? In my Social Psychology class, we recently watched a piece on Ellen Pao and her fight against gender-based discrimination in Silicon Valley. A classmate who was a Computer Science major was compelled to share an experience where her physical appearance, mainly the length of her nails, was the subject of conversation and laughter between her male counterparts. She addressed a few more instances that had made her uncomfortable with continuing in the major. Ultimately, she decided to switch majors to a more welcoming and inclusive department. While this student was sharing her experience, other female students were corroborating her experience with their own stories of being a woman, or woman of color in STEM.


I found it disheartening that ultimately, she felt she needed to switch majors to feel welcomed and valued. I do wonder where better support for her in the situation could have come from, and accountability for the male students who thought it was ok to base their opinion of someone’s performance solely on appearance. One point this student made sure to stress, was the fact that even though her journey was rough the fact that Black women in her classes were faring worse was an even bigger issue. She spoke of the microaggressions, blatant racism, and lack of support that these women are dealing with. After listening to those stories in class and reading the posts on social media where students shared that they had been crying all day because of how they were treated and or made to feel during class or projects, some even sharing stories of harassment and bullying. One account gave great detail of how she was bullied by classmates who used disparaging remarks that implied that due to her race and gender the courses may have just been too hard for her to understand. She recalls reaching out to several sources for help and support to address the issues and was met with silence, no support, and backed into a corner.


When I think back on the Ellen Pao interview, she spoke extensively about the importance of understanding intersectionality and how discrimination shows up differently for different groups in different situations. She spoke of how she felt that it was expected of her to be docile and accept less because she was an Asian woman working in Tech.[3] Looking through the statistical data and seeing the lack of representation within the student bodies in STEM programs, it would be easy to assume that some of these issues seem to be systemic in nature. Are we pushing women and people of color into a field that is ill-equipped to handle DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)? I know there was a huge recruitment effort to push more students of color and especially women and girls of color towards the field. Currently, Black people comprise 7% of STEM degree holders in the U.S., with black women representing roughly 2.9%.[4] With programs like Black Girls Code, Girlstart, and the Hidden Genius Project how and why are the numbers of people of color and women continuing to decline in STEM programs and professions? What support is being offered to students who are feeling “othered” in STEM? Are the issues we are seeing in academia mirroring bad behaviors of workplace discrimination or are the behaviors being bred on university campuses and overflowing into the workplace because they were not addressed earlier? Either way, a best practice may be to check in on your friends of color or women in STEM to make sure they are ok. Let them know they are not alone and offer what you can in support when and if needed.

[1] NCES. "Number of STEM degrees and certificates awarded in the United States from 2008-09 to 2018-19, by race/ethnicity." Chart. July 31, 2020. Statista. Accessed March 26, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/828874/number-of-stem-degrees-awarded-in-the-us-by-race/

[2] NCES. (July 31, 2020). Number of STEM degrees and certificates awarded in the United States from 2008-09 to 2018-19, by gender [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/828906/number-of-stem-degrees-awarded-in-the-us-by-gender/.

[3] CBS News, “Ellen Pao Addresses Sexism and Discrimination in Silicon Valley,” CBS News (CBS Interactive, September 23, 2017), https://www.cbsnews.com/video/ellen-pao-addresses-sexism-and-discrimination-in-silicon-valley/.

[4] “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM): Quick Take,” Catalyst, accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem/.

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