How Mentorship Can Increase Underrepresented Groups in STEM
Let’s face it: Women, especially women of color, have been and continue to be underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Don’t get me started on the underrepresentation of people with disabilities – that warrants an entire article of its own! According to a 2017 report from the National Science Foundation (NSF), 49% of United States (US) scientists and engineers in 2015 were White men. 18% were White women, 14% Asian men, 7% Asian women, 3% Black men, 2% Black women, 4% Hispanic men, 2% Hispanic women, and 2% other men and women. In the US in 2014, white men only constituted 31% of the noninstitutionalized population of working age (18-64). White women made up 31%, Hispanic men 8.7%, Hispanic women 8.3%, Black women 6.6%, Black men 6.1%, Asian women 3.0%, Asian men 2.7%, and other men and women 2.5%. Something doesn’t add up. Instead of diving into the historical reasons that explain why White men dominate STEM fields, I will focus on why and how we should all work together to promote other representation in STEM for the present and future.
Most STEM professionals have received rigorous education. Through years of experience and accomplishments, many obtain (or have the potential to obtain) powerful positions in industry, academia, or the government. Here, STEM professionals can publish major scientific claims that influence the public’s viewpoint or make important decisions regarding legislation that will affect the health, safety, and freedom of the public. That’s a lot of power. So, where does diversity come in to play? White men make a lot of influential decisions on behalf of the remaining population. Some of those decisions affect Black people, Hispanic people, Native Americans, and/or women specifically. Logically, these groups of people should have and want to have input on the decisions that may affect their daily lives. The solution? Encouraging (but of course, not forcing) underrepresented groups to pursue STEM careers.
There are several ways of promoting representation in STEM, most of which emphasize starting at a young age. Children are SPONGES! They observe and learn from those they interact with most. Think: Parents or guardians, older siblings, teachers, and other relatives. These mentors provide guidance, culture, life lessons, and support that mold the child into an adult. There is a saying, “you are a product of your environment.” If a child is surrounded by mentors that are experts in education or music, why and how would that child ever become curious about STEM? Education and music are, of course, equally valuable subjects. However, it is important for children to be exposed to a variety of potential career fields (education, music AND STEM, etc.) so that the child can decide what field interests them. Children from underrepresented groups need mentors in STEM.
Finding STEM mentors is not the easiest task – there are already so few of us. Fortunately, several underrepresented groups in STEM have recognized the issue and collaborated to form initiatives that provide STEM mentors for underrepresented groups of children. For example, the Expanding Your Horizons Chicago chapter (EYH Chicago) is a nonprofit organization that hosts an annual symposium filled with hands-on, interactive STEM activities. EYH Chicago strives to serve middle-school girls from underserved communities in Chicago, which includes several communities that are majority Black or Hispanic. At the symposium, girls can meet people who look like them (whether that be by gender or ethnic background) who are pursuing, excelling, and enjoying their STEM field. Not only do the girls meet potential role models, but the program aims to empower girls that they can succeed in STEM, too.
EYH Chicago is one of many initiatives in Chicago that aims to increase minority representation in STEM. The ACT-SO program (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics), organized by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and Argonne National Laboratory, pairs African American high school students with graduate-level STEM mentors. Mentors and mentees work together over the course of nine months to complete a student-led imaginative research project. The Argonne ACT-SO High School Research Program (ARP) hopes to encourage young, Black innovators to pursue a career in STEM.
As a person of color who has previously participated in similar STEM outreach activities as a child, I highly recommend people in STEM to get involved with STEM outreach that targets underrepresented groups. I strongly believe my past experiences in STEM programs positively influenced my self-confidence and curiosity in science. Mentorship is invaluable. Believing and supporting a child’s dreams to pursue STEM increases their self-confidence and answering a child’s questions about your specific field and career pathway provides guidance for their future. Consider mentoring! The future generation of STEM depends on it.
EYH Chicago website: www.eyhchicago.com
Argonne ACT-SO High School Research Program website: https://www.anl.gov/hr/argonne-actso-high-school-research-program