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Where are STEM’s Black Women?


Black women have long been underrepresented in science and engineering graduate programs. Can universities change that?


By Meredith Lawrence


After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Elizabethtown College in 2001, Monique Ross did exactly what she had expected to do: she got a job in software engineering. She never considered that a PhD program might be for her.


Over the course of eleven years, she built a successful career as a software engineer. Often, she was one of few black women in her office, and she became interested in exploring why. Then, she heard about the Engineering Education PhD program at Purdue University, which would allow her to conduct research on race and gender within engineering. Feeling that the program fit perfectly with her interests, she applied and got in.


At Purdue, Ross found herself part of a cohort of black women in her program that became each other’s support systems. Now a computer science professor at Florida International University, she is continuing to research race, gender, and identity in the engineering workplace. The members of her cohort have similar faculty positions across the country. Yet she is the only black woman teaching in her department, a situation true of most of her former classmates.


Each year, hundreds of black women entering graduate school in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields find themselves one of few—if not the only—women of color in their departments. While universities are slowly trying to change this, black women are still underrepresented in all fields of STEM graduate education.


Facing Dual Barriers


Over the past four decades, the number of students in masters and PhD programs in STEM fields has more than doubled. And, while the percentage of women pursuing graduate degrees in STEM fields has increased, still only 39% percent of people pursuing STEM graduate degrees in the United States in 2016 were women.


Data source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, 1999-2016


Here, STEM graduate programs are defined as full and part-time Masters Programs and PhD Programs in all engineering fields; physical sciences; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; biological sciences; computer sciences; mathematics; neuroscience; and agricultural sciences.


An analysis of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering indicates that while all women are underrepresented in STEM graduate programs compared to in the United States population, people of color are even more underrepresented than white women.


Data source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, 1999-2016

For the past three decades, STEM graduate programs in the United States have been predominantly white. Yet the number of international students in STEM graduate programs has been continuously rising. Since 2013, there have been more international graduate students in STEM programs in the United States than white students. In many ways, this has led to increased diversity in those programs; there are more perspectives from students around the world. However, diversity among students who are U.S. Citizens and Permanent Residents has hardly changed over the years.


Data source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, 1999-2016


In all STEM fields, white men and women outnumber all students of color. In fields like computer science and electrical engineering, men outnumber women, while the gender gap is smaller in fields like biology in chemistry. However, black women make up just a small portion of total students in every field.


A Diverse Range of Voices Matters


The underrepresentation of African-American women in STEM graduate school is hardly surprising in a field known for being mostly male and mostly white and Asian. Yet to Juan Gilbert, the Principal Investigator and Director of the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences (iAAMCS, pronounced I am CS) diverse voices in science and engineering are integral to the United States’ global presence.


“If you look at the U.S. being able to compete in a global economy, the nations that are most inventive tend to lead,” he says, going on to say that the widest range of ideas come from a group of diverse voices, and that people do not learn much from talking to others exactly like themselves. “I sometimes get asked why a white male in Kentucky should care about our work,” he says about iAAMCS. “That’s why.”


In a society that relies increasingly on machine learning and artificial intelligence diversity is also important in ensuring that technology works for all people. As a graduate student at MIT’s Media Lab studying AI, Joy Buolamwini she found that she had to wear a white mask just to get the facial recognition software she was working with to recognize her face as a face. Looking more closely at the data sets, she realized the majority of photos the software was learning from were those of white men. From this, she launched a project to diversify the faces AI systems were learning from.


Hearn stresses that a more diverse group of academics leads to a wider range of research that is being done and a wider range in the types of problems that can be solved, which will in turn make a more diverse group of people want to be working on those problems.


One Student’s Path


For Jaycee Holmes, a second year graduate student in the Integrated Technology Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, computer science was never really in her plans. In high school, she was known for her talents in musical theatre and everyone had expected her to go to college for it. Instead, she decided to pursue international law at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Georgia.


Once at Spelman, Holmes quickly decided that international law was not for her. A phone call with her younger brother—who was taking a computer science class in high school with the school district’s only black female teacher—convinced her to look into computer science, and she discovered a passion for it.


She knew she wanted to go to graduate school for something computer science-related, but also wanted to do something creative. She found that in the computer science program housed curiously in Tisch, which blends technology and art.


Since most students and faculty at Spelman are black women, she was surrounded by other black women in computer science who served as her mentors and peers. “I was lucky in that sense,” she says. At NYU, Holmes says the demographics more accurately reflect those of the tech industry. She is just one of four black students in her 200 student program. Noting this, she decided to focus her thesis research on getting underrepresented communities involved in the creation of technology.


How Universities Can Help


In getting undergraduate women interested in perusing graduate education, Ross says “undergraduate research opportunities are pivotal.” These opportunities can happen during the semester at students’ undergraduate institutions. There are also summer programs specifically designed to help underrepresented students do meaningful research, with the goal of getting them interested in graduate education.


One such program is the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP,) which is open to all students but specifically encourages those from backgrounds underrepresented in science and engineering to apply. Once on campus, the group of 8-12 students is paired with a graduate student or post-doctorate mentor to do research in their fields.


Hearn directed the program when she was MIT’s Dean of Graduate Education, and says the difference she saw in students by the end of the summer was immense. Students better understood what it would be like to be a graduate student at a school like MIT and what types of research they could pursue in the future. They also had connections with mentors and other students who looked like them.


Other programs seek to do the same work in different ways. The Rising Stars program brings undergraduate women in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering together each year for a workshop, with the goal to increase the number of female faculty in the field. Last year, the program brought 70 women to Stanford University to hear stories from other women in the field.


In Holmes’ case, deliberate recruiting brought her to NYU. Spelman College’s President, Mary Schmidt Campbell, had formerly been Dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, so when Tisch decided to actively try to recruit students from more diverse backgrounds, they went to Spelman to speak with students about the program. Holmes saw the program an opportunity to blend her passions for computer science and visual and performing arts, and applied.


This March, iAAMCS released a set of guidelines for successfully mentoring Black and African-American computing sciences PhD students. Among them are recommendations to recruit African-American students in cohorts of two to three students, recruit students from HBCUs and MSIs, and partner with African-American organizations like NSBE. Gilbert says his team is currently in the process of mailing these guidelines to every computer science PhD program in the country in hopes that they follow them.


The other issue is not just getting African-American women into graduate programs, but getting them to stay. Once they begin school, they often experience feelings of isolation from being the only African-American woman in their program, or imposter syndrome—the feeling that they aren’t good enough to be there.


The iAAMCS guidelines for successfully mentoring Black and African-American computing sciences PhD students also contain recommendations for retaining students. These recommendations include establishing a community of African-American computer science students on campus, encouraging collaboration, assigning faculty mentors and advisors to each student, and ensuring that students’ mental health is supported.


From Ross’ point of view, there are so few African-American women pursuing graduate STEM degrees that even a small increase would change overall representation. “If every faculty member tried to identify just one person that’s a rock star every year, it would make a huge difference.”


Data source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, 1999-2016


Overall, 12% of the U.S. population is black. Yet black Americans only accounted for about 3% of all students pursuing full-time graduate degrees in STEM in the United States in 2016, and black women accounted for only about 1%. Despite intervention programs targeting women and black students, this percentage has hardly changed over the past three decades.


According to a “Ignored Potential: A Collaborative Road Map for Increasing African-American Women in Engineering,” a whitepaper joint released by the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society for Women Engineers, black women are often ignored in research about both women in engineering and black engineers because they make up a smaller proportion of each group. Because of this, research looking at women in engineering largely reflects the experiences of white women in engineering, and research looking at black engineers mostly reflects the experiences of black men in engineering.


Yet black women in engineering face the conscious and unconscious biases that exist against both female and black engineers, making their experiences completely separate than those of black men or white women.


Why Go to Grad School When You Could Get a Job?


Ross believes that many black women who earn bachelors degrees in STEM fields but do not go to pursue graduate education for the same reason it took her eleven years to think about getting a PhD. “They don’t even know it’s a tangible option for them,” she says.


Often, they don’t know about funding opportunities for PhD programs or understand how a graduate program could be beneficial to them. Many undergraduate programs focus on preparing students for careers in STEM fields, not necessarily preparing them for graduate school. Ross says that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) are great at preparing students for industry, not as good at preparing them for graduate school.


“We don’t even do a good job of marketing ourselves to our undergrads,” Ross says about Florida International University.


Of course, careers in science and engineering are lucrative. Computer science students can make over $80,000 a year immediately after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree. Trina Fletcher, one of the authors of “Ignored Potential” and current computer science professor at the University of Arkansas, says that fact alone can keep students from wanting to go into academia.


Eboney Hearn, Executive Director of MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach Programs and former Dean of Graduate Education at MIT says that often academia can seem very limiting, especially in terms of the type of problems students see themselves solving as academics.


Students’ undergraduate experiences also effect whether or not they would even want to spend an extra two to seven years pursuing a graduate degree. “If you’re an undergrad and you’ve had to fight to get a bachelor’s degree, why would you get a PhD?” says Fletcher, noting that racist or sexist professors can have a huge negative impact on whether or not students would want to continue their education past the undergraduate level.


Hearn agrees. Many black female students she has worked with feel that their peers and professors don’t see them as being as creative or intellectual as their peers.


A Lack of Role Models


Black women also rarely see role models who look like them in academia. When Ross was an undergraduate at Elizabethtown College, she did not have a single female professor in any of her engineering classes—never mind a black female professor.


Yet the main issue is not the students themselves, but the way graduate programs recruit students. While most universities have a central admissions office that recruits all undergraduate students, no matter what field they are interested in, graduate departments are usually in charge of recruiting their students themselves.


Ross says it’s not enough for universities to say they put out an ad and no one applied. They need to actively recruit students from a wide variety of backgrounds.


“Ignored Potential: A Collaborative Road Map for Increasing African-American Women in Engineering” explores the idea of that most programs geared towards increasing women or African-Americans in engineering are based on fixing deficits in students (for example, improving their math skills) instead of fixing a broken educational system.


While many top schools recruit more international students for graduate programs than undergraduate programs, their U.S. student populations are often less diverse. In the Fall 2017 semester, 6.2% of all undergraduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were black, according to the statistics listed on their website. Black graduate students only made up 1.4% of all graduate students. At Yale, 3.3% of undergraduate students and 1.8% of graduate students were black women in Fall 2016.


Fletcher and Hearn both stress that the real changes need to come from universities’ leadership, saying that unless the individuals of the top start seriously working to make their student bodies more diverse, nothing will really change.


If black women keep perusing STEM bachelor’s degrees, going straight into the workforce instead of graduate education, then they also don’t become professors who can serve as role models for the next generation of students, and the cycle continues.


Different Fields, Different Representation


Even when black women do decide to pursue graduate degrees and get into programs, they often face isolation and the feeling that they do not belong once they start school. The degree of isolation varies among programs.


Fletcher notes that in a field like biology, black women may not be underrepresented, especially in programs made up of mostly black students. However, in computer science, those numbers change, and black men far out number black women.


According to The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’ Survey data, black women in full-time graduate programs at schools categorized as Doctoral Universities: Highest Research Activity by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education are most likely to pursue degrees in “Biological Sciences, not elsewhere classified.” After that, computer science, biology, and chemistry contain the highest concentrations of black women.


Yet, even though computer science is the second most popular STEM field of choice among black women, they represent just a tiny fraction of all U.S. Citizens and Permanent Residents pursing graduate degrees in computer science.


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