STEM women of color: What’s their story?

While much progress has been made toward reversing the underrepresentation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, women of color, especially African-American, Latina, Native American and Pacific Islander women, remain severely underrepresented, particularly in academia.
However, a number of organizations, conferences and reports are working to elucidate and increase awareness of the unique challenges for scientists at this intersection of race and gender and also to provide appropriate resources and solutions for those needs. This article does not intend to catalog exhaustively all of the recent progress in the community but rather to draw awareness to selected activities and resources occurring at a national scale.
In the National Science Foundation Survey of Doctorate Recipients, published in 2012, women of color made up 2.3 percent of tenure or tenure-track faculty, compared with 12.5 percent of the U.S. population. While the representation of Asian-American women is more proportional, these women of color do not tend to progress to leadership roles, such as chair or dean.
The findings regarding barriers and obstacles are fairly consistent. For example, the report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research meeting in May highlights the multifaceted challenges that limit progress, which can be broadly classified as the following: workplace climate issues; unique social challenges, health disparities and family responsibilities; high community service demands, insufficient social support and ongoing discrimination; and limited access to mentoring and social support networks.
The community has sought to address these issues using diverse approaches, including efforts that work toward mentoring, networking and building personal agency; leadership development; and sharing the personal narratives of women of color.

Mentoring, networking and building personal agency

One of the major issues is the chilly climate that women of color experience within academic STEM departments, which often results in systemic microinequities and marginalization that undermine their personal agency.
As one woman shared for this discussion, a mentor once rewrote an entire article that she had produced. None of the ideas was changed, but almost every sentence was reworded.
“If I had not had several other positive and glowing affirmations of my writing ability, this experience could have seriously undercut my confidence in my ability to communicate, which would have been truly detrimental to my career. This instance wasn’t novel or unique to me. I have heard many stories of women of color who have been told verbally, nonverbally, overtly, covertly and subliminally that they aren’t good enough. This blatant untruth is what undermines the progress of women of color. The need to help myself and other women to build personal agency in the face of daunting opposition is what drives me today.”
Another woman shared, “I have been the target of many diversity efforts and well-meaning folk. I’ve been called ‘a free black hire,’ ‘a trophy,’ and ‘the diversity representative’ (on a search committee). There’s a constant message that you’re not a competent scientist and you don’t belong here.”
A core component to minimizing the impact of a chilly climate and marginalization is the creation of support structures, such as the American Chemical Society’s Women Chemists of Color program and the newly founded nonprofit Society of STEM Women of Color.
The SSWOC emerged as an outgrowth of the annual STEM Women of Color Conclave, which now exists as a catalyst for fully integrating women of color in the STEM fields and helping them own their STEM career identities.
Professional networks like these work synergistically to increase self-efficacy and empower women of color while also serving as credible venues for the dissemination of relevant social-science research that focuses on intersectionality and its role in the advancement of women of color in the academic STEM disciplines. Creating community in this way is vital to increasing the success of women of color in the STEM workplace.

Leadership development

Other approaches focus on leadership development for women of color, who typically have less access to mentors and advocates who can serve as sponsors.
One such national effort is the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future program. Alma Clayton-Pedersen, AAC&U senior scholar, explains:
“Our experience in working with more than one-third of HBCUs confirms in real time that STEM women of color faculty have valuable contributions to make to the national effort to increase the number of STEM graduates across all sectors. However, they are often assumed to be the ones to forgo their academic careers to help achieve this goal. The Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future program has been working to address this issue by creating a space for them to network with each other and build on existing leadership and teaching abilities to help position them for leadership roles at all levels of the academy.”
Another is the Opportunities for Underrepresented Scholars fellowship at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, which offers fellowships for HBCU women faculty members to pursue a specially created postgraduate certificate in academic leadership and is the only program to offer such credentials. Both of these programs focus on STEM women of color at HBCUs, because HBCUs have a disproportionately large percentage of black female faculty members despite the overall low representation of black women in the academy.

Personal narratives

Other efforts focus on understanding the experiences and sharing the personal narratives of women of color in academia (see Harvard Educational Review, Brown and Gutiérrez y Muhs et al, eds.).
Each woman has her own story, and exchanging stories with other women of color can alleviate the isolation associated with being the only woman of color in a workplace. It’s powerful to hear that you’re not alone and that others understand and are supportive.
As a part of the NSF-supported ACS Women Chemists of Color project, 12 women of color were video interviewed. Sharon Haynie at Dupont Central Research, one of the featured women, says, “I firmly believe the stories are instructive.”
Another excellent collection was produced from the proceedings of the Summit for Women of Color Administrators and Faculty in Higher Education hosted by the American Council on Education. It presents narratives drawn from the experiences of women of color in leadership in higher education.

The future

While the work continues, other challenges remain, including making STEM accessible and attractive in K – 12 environments. Novella Bridges of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (on intergovernmental appointment from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) had this to say:
“We should demystify the fact that STEM fields are hard and only for boys. This needs to be taught often and repeatedly to young girls throughout elementary, middle and high school, so when women get to college they will be ready and excited about STEM and not afraid of it.”
Gloria ThomasZakiya WilsonLinette Watkins
Gloria Thomas ( is executive director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives at Louisiana State University. Zakiya Wilson ( is the associate dean for faculty and student success at North Carolina A&T State University. Linette Watkins ( is an associate professor at Texas State University.