By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor
Women are underrepresented in most science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. However, Black women are extremely underrepresented. According to data collected by the National Science Foundation, in 2014 Black women earned 4.3% of bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences, 2.61% in computer sciences, 2.35 in mathematics and statistics, 2.83 in physical sciences, and 9.19 in psychology. In 2014, of all early career STEM doctorate holders, only 2.7% were Black women, whereas 39% were White women.
Terrell Morton, the co-author of a study on Black women in STEM published at the end of 2018, said: “Imagine walking into a lab or a classroom and seeing pictures of people on the walls that are nothing like you. People have a very narrow view of what science looks like, and right now, it’s older white men wearing goggles and holding beakers. When a young woman of color sees those images in a learning environment, it can make her feel unwelcome because there is nothing in that image that represents her.”
Black women also face social identity threat—they may expect to be undervalued or discriminated against because they identify with a stigmatized minority group. Stigma consciousness, or sensitivity to the possibility of experiencing discrimination because of race and/or gender, can increase vulnerability to social identity threat.
Now, results from a new study (Exploring Identity-Safety Cues and Allyship Among Black Women Students in STEM Environments) published March 21, 2019, in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly, show that successful Black women scientist role models are vital to signaling a sense of belonging to Black women college students and signal them they are valued in STEM environments. Eva Pietri, one of the study co-authors, said: “Women who feel like they belong are more likely to enter and stay in STEM, so lack of belonging may be one reason for women of color’s lack of representation.”
For the study, researchers recruited U.S. Black female students, and introduced them to a fictional school of science and technology. Then, the students viewed the profile of a professor who was either a Black female or Black male scientist, or a White female or White male scientist. The study results show that students anticipated more belonging and trust in the fictional school environment if they saw the profile of a Black man or Black woman scientist, as compared to the profile of a White woman or White man scientist. However, the Black woman scientist was especially beneficial for Black female students who were high in stigma consciousness.
Next, the researchers surveyed Black women STEM majors from a predominately White four-year college and from a women-only historically Black college. The two colleges were chosen to ensure there was variability in access to role models of different identities. The researchers found that the students from the historically Black college had approximately two to three Black female role models, whereas the women enrolled at the primarily White institution had zero to one. Across both samples, the higher number of Black female and Black male role models the students had, the more belonging they felt at their institutions. The researchers found that having role models who the STEM majors believed were allies increased their perception of belonging in STEM, even when the role models were not Black women.
The researchers also found that stigma consciousness had important implications for belonging. Higher stigma consciousness related to less belonging in STEM for women at the primarily White institution. However, for women at the historically Black institution, higher stigma consciousness did not harm belonging in STEM—instead, it correlated with more belonging at their institution.
India Johnson, lead author of the study, said: “Under the right conditions, greater stigma consciousness might be beneficial. These results show that we don’t necessarily want to decrease it, but we want to create environments where it’s not detrimental. We find stigma consciousness can even be helpful when there are a lot of Black female role models and supportive allies available.”
Pietri added: “Allies can play a really big role in increasing belonging among women of color, but they have to really clearly signal their allyship through actions and behaviors.”
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