Black women are overcoming barriers to STEM careers

Kyra D
Kyra Freeman working on samples in the biology lab at FAMU.

By Ezekiel Hobbs

In an era where women are increasingly rising in the fields of medicine, law and business, why are there so few Black females in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)?

It’s not because they’re not interested in STEM.  In fact, Black women are interested in STEM, but like all things there are politics at play.

There are a host of reasons why African American women are so underrepresented in STEM, but it appears that discrimination, access, equity and inclusion remain issues that hinder progress. Some girls also may be impacted by peer pressure at young ages.

Kyra Freeman, who studies biology pre-med at Florida A&M University (FAMU), recalls, “growing up before coming to college I was always afraid to sound too smart in my math and science classes. That can often discourage women from pursuing these careers in STEM.”

The lack of role models for Black women in STEM leads to isolation because some Black women may never encounter someone who looks like them, whether it’s in the classroom or the workforce.

“I’ve been here for 15 years and it struck me every time I was teaching students at a HBCU who have never had a black woman teach them science,” said FAMU Professor of Environmental Science & Policy Dr. Marcia Allen Owens.

“Kindergarten through 12th grade they have only been taught by white women, and they didn’t know what to do with me.”

Black women in STEM fields represent less than a quarter of 1 percent of the entire Black population in the United States, according to U.S Census data from 2010. That’s relatively low compared to other races and the opposite gender put together.

Black women — frankly, all women — encounter bias in pursuing interests in STEM fields. Society often refers young girls to “pink collar” careers such as secretaries and teachers. Even when they go into STEM fields such as health care, Black women are often steered toward nursing careers, rather than toward the doctor or surgeon track.

“You don’t look like a scientist, you don’t dress like a scientist, scientist don’t wear makeup, you should [be]  something more feminine,” said FAMU graduate Dr. Zakiya Hoyette, recalling some of the discouraging messages women sometimes hear. Hoyette has Ph.D. in environmental science.

“People presume a familiarity area with us that ends up being a lack of respect. We [are] supposed to be down, or we [are] supposed to be mama or auntie — everything but Dr. Owens or Dr. Hoyette,” said Owens.

When they do make it into STEM jobs, Black women are less likely to negotiate compensation when hired.  According to a study by the National Society of Black Engineers, only 35% of women negotiate their salaries when they are first hired, and only 26% negotiate their benefits package. Almost half of those interviewed for the study indicated that they wished they had negotiated for more when they first got hired.

It’s even harder for a Black woman trying to negotiate her salary without being depicted as the “the angry, Black woman” in her workplace.

“That’s the persona [you] are giving even if you’re not,” said Hoyette. “It’s that [I’m an] angry black woman merely because I’m negotiating,”

Owens said it’s important for Black women to speak up to be fairly compensated. “We need to teach our young Black woman how to negotiate,” she said.  “We always accept what’s offered rather than making a counter offer.”

Ultimately, getting more Black women involved in STEM careers may be a challenge, but barriers are gradually being broken.


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