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M. Roy Wilson

Wayne State University

A new National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report notes some improvement in minority representation in higher education related to science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM)—but not enough to match those groups’ share in the overall population.

“Despite improvements, the collective attainment of S&E [science and engineering] degrees for Black, Indigenous and Latine Americans lags behind the U.S. population, and these racial/ethnic groups remain underrepresented throughout all sectors of the U.S. STEM enterprise,” the report says.

“When looking into discipline-specific data within STEM from NCSES [the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics], Black, Indigenous and Latine students are better represented in behavioral and social sciences than they are in engineering and natural sciences,” the report says. (The report uses “Latine” instead of “Latino” or “Latinx,” saying the word “Latine” is gender-neutral while also using a last letter shared with Spanish words such as estudiante.)

“In postsecondary education, Black, Hispanic and White students declare STEM majors at roughly the same rate, but while 58 percent of White students [who declared STEM majors] earn a STEM baccalaureate degree, only 43 percent of Latine students and 34 percent of Black students earn a STEM baccalaureate degree, with 40 percent of Black students and 37 percent of Latine students switching out of STEM majors before earning their degree,” the report says, citing previous research.

As implied by the title of the 359-page document—“Advancing Antiracism, Diversity and Equity Inclusion [DEI] in STEMM Organizations: Beyond Broadening Participation”—the National Academies aren’t just focusing on numerically increasing minority representation in STEMM.

They are recommending systemic changes to better support minority groups to not only enter STEMM education but to work within and advance their careers within universities, hospitals, industries and other STEMM workplaces. The report doesn’t look at government STEMM workplaces.

“I think we were really clear that, yes, you have to have increased numbers, but that’s not sufficient, and that you have to break down these barriers and get at the processes, the policies and really, actually just the culture of institutions to go beyond just the simple numbers,” said M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University and a member of the committee that produced the report.

“The representation is not equal throughout the different levels of advancement,” he said. “In other words, if you look at numbers of students who might be going into college who are minorities, that might be closer to the representation in the general population, but if you look at full professors in the STEMM disciplines who are minorities, that’s going to be much lower. You can keep going—how many presidents are there of universities and deans who are minorities?”

It’s not the National Academies’ first foray into diversity. The report notes that the academies have “issued over 80 reports exploring various aspects of the need to make STEMM more equitable, diverse and inclusive.”

While this new report includes data and discussion regarding multiple minority groups, it focuses on the challenges facing Black Americans.

“Compared to the U.S. population 18–24 years of age, Black individuals are underrepresented in all of the S&E degree recipients,” the report says.

“Based on decades of research and analysis, racial disparities in STEMM careers do not rest on individual deficiency in candidates or even primarily on the individual racism of institutional and organizational gatekeepers,” the report says. “Racism is embedded in our society. For example, wealth disparities across generations contribute to and result from segregated neighborhoods; segregated neighborhoods contribute to unequal school quality, which deprives whole student cohorts of the opportunity to consider, prepare and enter a career in STEMM. Further, racial wealth gaps affect families’ ability to pay for STEMM college (prep, extracurricular experiences, tuition and living expenses). Thus, creating conducive contexts will require structural changes.”

While the report doesn’t delve into it, efforts to make these structural changes could be impeded by ongoing Republican attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and by the U.S. Supreme Court’s possible upcoming ruling against affirmative action in college admissions.

“We’re well aware that there is this push, and I guess what I would say is that underscores the importance of this report and getting it out and widely disseminated to make sure that it stays front and center,” Wilson said.

Among the recommendations are for leaders of STEMM organizations and human resources directors to “include responsibilities related to advancing antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion in leadership role descriptions and requirements for advancement into management.”

The report also recommends these leaders monitor the decisions of “gatekeepers,” which are “defined simply as any individual who possesses power in a given STEMM context or situation, where power includes the control over valued outcomes and resources.” That includes the power over who is hired and who gets tenure.

“Create organizational-level or unit-level information systems to collect data on the decisions of gatekeepers,” the report suggests. “Data collected may include, but not be limited to hiring, admissions, promotion, tenure, advancement and awards. Data should be examined in the aggregate to identify patterns of bias exhibited by gatekeepers based on race and ethnicity.”

The report’s various other recommendations include using media stories, awards and other means to recognize minority group individuals’ contributions to STEMM; removing asymmetric power differentials from teams, especially between white members and minority members; and providing “access to culturally responsive mental health providers or resources with experience in addressing racial stress, trauma and aggressions for minoritized individuals who have experienced distress.”

Hakeem Oluseyi, president of the National Society of Black Physicists, said, “I fully agree with their recommendations for a comprehensive multitiered approach. Specifically calling out gatekeepers and evaluators is warranted and should be emphasized, as ‘getting in the door’ and maintaining a strong performance record is foundational to building successful STEM careers.”

“We would be remiss not to mention that optimizing workplace culture is but one element in a multivariate equation for America maintaining its worldwide lead in technical and scientific innovation and economy,” Oluseyi said. “After a quarter century of promoting STEM to our population, only about 18 percent of undergraduate degrees are awarded in STEM fields each year. Our communities, schools and culture can all be reshaped to achieve a base level of mathematical and technical competence in our society to continue America’s technical dominance into the 21st century.”

Wilson said that “not only is it a moral imperative that all segments of a society should have an opportunity to advance,” but “there is a side to it also in terms of having access to a pool of potential workers in the STEMM fields that are currently not getting that opportunity.”

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