Sign in

Forget Password?


Under-representation in STEM Has Long-term Consequences
By John Freeman Posted:February 18, 2014 0 Comments
A Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce related to the future of STEM fields projects a shortfall in STEM workers, perhaps as early as 2020. The authors found that for every 100 people who entered a bachelor's degree-granting program, only eight of them were still working in the STEM field 10 years after graduation. Further, these current rates may be artificially high due to the large numbers of immigrants and foreign nationals who immigrate to the United States to work in the STEM field. Without these individuals, the worker gap would have the potential to be even more pronounced than it is feared it will be. However, there are some avenues that this shortfall can be addressed. Many policymakers and educators have focused on mentoring, student assistance, and early student engagement to make sure that students are motivated to pursue a STEM career. However, one aspect that could have a major impact on the number of available workers in the STEM field has less to do with how students enter STEM and more to do with what kind of students are interested in STEM in the first place.

White men have traditionally dominated the STEM fields. Additionally, Asian men are over-sampled in the STEM field (in other words, they make up a larger percentage of the STEM workforce than they do of the overall population). However, African Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans are all under-represented in the STEM fields. This problem, however, is more than an issue of political correctness, equal opportunity, or a vague head nod toward proper appearances; this is a problem that can have major repercussions on society for years to come.

Many parts of the United States are becoming "majority minority." This means that the traditional racial and ethnic minorities make up a larger chunk of the population than white people. For instance, the city of Los Angeles is over 48 percent Hispanic or Latino, and the United States Census Bureau expects this trend to continue. Therefore, making sure that people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds are a part of STEM is a necessary part of keeping STEM as a national focus. If African American and Hispanic participation in STEM continues to be below average, it will make it harder for major STEM initiatives to take hold in the South and Southwestern parts of the country due to a lack of available talent.

Another consequence of neglecting underserved minorities is that it helps to perpetuate cycles of inequality. Those at all levels of the STEM workforce are more likely to earn more than the American average for their education level than those working in other fields. Thus, one of the best opportunities for many people to work themselves into the middle class may be closed because it does not seem like the STEM fields are willing to support people from all backgrounds. This is not to imply that all racial minorities are in the lowest socioeconomic groups; of course there is quite a bit of diversity of circumstance when talking about groups this big. However, an American Institute of Research study last year found that African American and Hispanic students were more likely to have debt upon completion of a STEM PhD than were their white or Asian counterparts. This same study found that the most disadvantaged group was African American women. If cost is a major factor keeping certain classes of students away from higher education and STEM fields in particular, than this must become a larger part of the conversation about how best to ensure that every student who wants to pursue a STEM career has the opportunity to do so.

Finally, the lack of available role models for racial minorities will continue to be a stumbling block for future generations if under-representation is not addressed. For many students, they may not know of anyone from a similar cultural background that has pursued a successful STEM career. This may continue to contribute to a mindset that blocks these groups from pursuing STEM careers. Since the dominance of white and Asian men in STEM has been sustained for decades, it seems to imply that the lack of other racial groups representation is also a self-sustaining feature. This must be addressed in the present if it will ever stop being a factor in the future.

A Native American proverb says that wise leaders consider the impact of their decisions down to the seventh generation. The choices that are made in the coming months and years will continue to have consequences for generations of Americans to come. Because of this, it is the responsibility of the United States to make sure that all of its students, especially those in traditionally under-represented minorities, can take full advantage of the STEM fields, not only so that they can benefit themselves but also so that they can serve as role models and so that they can continue the process of positive change for decades to come.