August 2012

Advancing women of color in academia

Efforts are needed across the board to instill confidence and commitment to careers in STEM fields

Although all women in academia are challenged with maintaining a balance between career and family, women of color (that is, black, Hispanic and Native American women) face additional demands that make advancement up the academic ladder even more arduous. These challenges stem from a diverse array of factors, including inherent bias, cultural differences related to the role of women as primary caretakers and excessive institutional responsibilities. Minority females not only are expected to serve on institutional committees but also to champion diversity initiatives actively. Collectively, these challenges can impair advancement.

Several studies over the past decades have demonstrated significant losses in the numbers of women of color with increased rank. These losses are particularly evident at transition points (for example, the transition from postdoctoral scientist to assistant professor, assistant professor to associate professor, and associate professor to full professor). This reduction is exacerbated by the already low percentage of women of color in science, technology, engineering and math fields and by the high percentage of women of color who hold nontenure-track positions. For example, in 2008 women of color held only 1 percent of tenured positions at non-underrepresented minority universities (1). Meanwhile, women of color represent 7.5 percent of tenured faculty at URM institutions. Although the number of women who obtain STEM doctoral degrees continues to increase, the number of women of color who obtain STEM doctoral degrees is disproportionately low compared to the percentage of women of color in the U.S. population.

While these data can seem discouraging, they do point to specific targets for policy intervention. For example, mentoring programs can have positive effects and stem the losses of women of color at critical transition points. To that end, several professional societies, universities and funding agencies have implemented mentoring programs to facilitate the ascension of women of color. For example, the National Science Foundation’s Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers program, known as ADVANCE, is charged with implementing strategies at universities that increase the number of women who consider academic careers in the STEM disciplines. Programs supported by ADVANCE include ones aimed at developing a national networking forum for women of color at colleges and universities and providing leadership-development training for female faculty members at URM institutions.

Establishing programs to foster the advancement of women of color in academia also positively affects female students from populations underrepresented in the sciences. A 2010 study revealed that exposure to same-sex experts in academic environments engendered in female students both confidence and a commitment to pursue STEM careers (2). This exposure to female role models is particularly important given that the greatest losses in underrepresented minorities from the biomedical pipeline occur during the transitions between high school and college and between undergraduate and graduate school.

More recently, the National Academy of Sciences held a conference in June called “Seeking Solutions: Maximizing American Talent by Advancing Women of Color in Academia” to define further the problems women of color face in academia and to formulate strategies to increase their numbers. In addition to presenting data on career paths taken by minority women in academia, the speakers addressed differences in gender biases across races and ethnicities, the role of federal funding agencies in effecting change, initiatives developed by professional societies and new strategies for implementation.

While it is clear that large-scale, global initiatives are warranted to increase the number of minority women in academia, individual minority and nonminority faculty members nationwide also can take steps to foster the development of minority female trainees at all levels.

1 URM institutions are historically black colleges and universities, tribal universities and universities that are more than 50 percent minority serving.

  1. 1. National Science Foundation Survey of Doctoral Recipients (2008).
  2. 2. Stout, J. et al., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100, 255 – 270 (2010).


Marion B. SewerMarion B. Sewer ( is an associate professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, and a member of the ASBMB Minority Affairs Committee.


found= true1916