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What we know about gender, race, and STEM – African American women

Sandra Hanson, author of Swimming Against the Tide explains that African American women are interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

A recent publication (in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology) by a group of psychologists found that race and gender intersect in understanding Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) attitudes and participation. The research team was headed by Laurie T. O’Brien and focused especially on African American women. The researchers and subsequent media reports on the findings (e.g. in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education) expressed surprise at the high interest and participation in STEM among African American women. Several decades ago I began doing research on African American women in STEM funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Although some researchers have not focused on the way that race/ethnicity and gender interact to affect STEM experiences we have known for some time that we can expect the unexpected when it comes to African American girls and women in STEM. Some have argued that because women do less well in STEM and minorities do less well in STEM, there will be a double disadvantage for African American women.

Layout 1The argument of double jeopardy sees race and gender as additive. My findings from a representative sample of young African American women (published in a number of journal articles and in my book, Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education) suggested otherwise. Quantitative data from my sample and larger NSF surveys as well as open-ended questions and responses to vignettes were critical in measuring the young women’s experiences. They loved science. The young African American women signed up for science classes, loved doing experiments, went to science camp, and had posters of scientists on their walls. One young woman said that “science was like opening up a present from your favorite aunt.” My findings provided considerable evidence for the African American family and community as key in understanding this love of science. African American families have always made considerable investment in and had high educational and occupational expectations for their daughters.

African American women have historically combined work and family roles. The answer to young African American women’s high level of interest and participation in STEM does not come from schools and teachers. In fact, the young women in my sample experienced considerable difficulty in the STEM classroom. One young girl reflected the opinion of many when she described the attitude of science teachers –“They looked at us like we weren’t supposed to be scientists.” The young women reported not being called on in the classroom and not being chosen as lab partners. Somehow, in spite of the chilly classroom climate, a disproportionate number of African American women manage to “swim against the tide” and persevere in STEM education and occupations.

Data from NSF show that African American women persist in many areas of STEM at a higher rate than do white women. My recent research on the male dominated area of engineering shows that even here African American women earn the largest share of doctorates relative to men (when looking within race/ethnic groups). In my testimony to the U.S Congress (Subcommittee on Girls in Science) I suggested that we need better teachers, science classrooms, and science textbooks. When young African American women look around them and see white teachers and white scientists in the science textbooks, they do not feel welcome. The considerable agency that African American women show in the context of a white, male STEM culture is encouraging. One can only imagine the increased number of talented African American women who would participate in STEM education and occupations in a more welcoming climate. The major science organization in the U.S. – the National Science Foundation – has recognized the problem and is funding a good number of programs to encourage minorities and minority women in STEM. After all, diversity in science makes for better science.

Sandra Hanson provides testimony as an expert witness at a House Subcommittee

1904_regIn this blog entry, Sandra Hanson, author of Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education, describes her research providing testimony at the House Subcommittee on “Encouraging the Participation of Females Students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Fields.”

Statistics on degrees and jobs in science published by the National Science Foundation show progress for women and minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). However they also show that a gap remains, especially in science occupations. I am optimistic about the gains, but we must still work on making science more inclusive.

These young women love science. However, when they go into the science classroom, one girl suggests that teachers “look at us like we are not supposed to be scientists.” What do these young girls say about changing the science classroom? They want, for example: better preparation in STEM in the early years and access to advanced STEM tracks in the later years, changes that make science more accessible, better trained and motivated teachers, smaller classes, more work in groups (cooperative learning), more hands-on experiences (and an active laboratory component), more gender and race diversity in science teachers and curriculum (especially text books), high expectations for all students, special programs to encourage women and minorities in science, and more access to mentoring and networking. My research and other research supported by the National Science Foundation suggest that these changes in STEM education would benefit all youth. In the Q and A after the testimony Representative Fudge (D-OH) asked about access to science for girls (and boys) in inner-city schools. I noted in my response a need to equalize resources across school districts. Children unlucky enough to be born in a lower-income school district should not have to deal with science classrooms that lack good teachers, textbooks and equipment.

The committee inquired about other things that might be done to reduce the gender gap in science. I noted some of my research on girls and sport in my testimony. My research shows that sport provides an important resource in enhancing young women’s science access and achievement. It encourages independence, teamwork, and competition – the same traits that tend to be associated with women’s success in the male domain of science. Female athletes have an advantage in science over non-athletes. Young girls who are given an early opportunity to be involved in sport may well be less intimated and more prepared for the culture of science classrooms and work settings. It was encouraging to hear Representatives Ehlers (R-MI) and Fudge (D-OH) as well as Cheryl Thomas (one of the experts providing testimony at the hearing who is President and Founder of Ardmore Associates, LLC) express interest and support for this notion.

When second grade girls and boys are asked to draw a picture of a scientist they often draw a white male who is alone and ominous looking. This is not an attractive image for boys or girls. We need to change the image of science for all youth and importantly we need to make science available to all. If we are to be economically competitive in an age of global markets we need diverse strategies, skills, and competence in STEM. Students in the U.S. (male and female) score behind students from many other countries on math and science exams. We need to improve the quality of our science education system. We know what works. The new practice guide by the National Center for Education Research (“Encouraging Girls in Math and Science”) offers five recommendations for schools and teachers for increasing girls’ participation and interest in science. Guides such as this one need to be integrated in a routine way into U.S. STEM programs.

For more information on Sandra Hanson’s Swimming Against the Tide, visit: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1904_reg.html

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