Visible Women

Why visible role models are so important for black women in STEM

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Moya Crockett
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Black women scientist in STEM

According to new research, black women are more likely to feel like they belong in STEM if they have access to black female role models. 

The phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ is something of a cliché. But like most oft-repeated sayings, there’s more than a grain of truth to it. If you’re interested in pursuing a particular passion or career path, it’s natural to look to people who are already thriving in that field for inspiration and guidance. If that area is filled with brilliant women who look and sound like you, you’ll likely believe that you might be able to flourish, too.

But if your only available role models are white, middle-class men – and you don’t tick all or any of those boxes – you might wonder whether success is really on the cards for you. That doesn’t mean that you won’t pursue your goals, of course. But it could make you feel daunted, unsupported, or even disillusioned about the path ahead.

It was a desire to raise awareness of women’s achievements in the past and present day that prompted Stylist to launch our Visible Women campaign in January 2018. And now, a new study about black women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has highlighted how female role models can shape the aspirations of younger women.

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The study was carried out by researchers at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly journal. They concluded that black female students were more likely to feel like they belonged in STEM - and thus more likely to continue working in their chosen field – if they had access to black women as role models. 

Astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space
Astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space

Having role models who share their racial identity is essential to making women of colour feel like they belong when studying STEM subjects at university, said the researchers.

“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 colour’s lack of representation,” explained Eva Pietri, PhD, the second author on the paper and an assistant professor of psychology at IUPUI.

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The researchers wanted to investigate the gap between the number of women of colour who express interest in studying STEM subjects at college, and those who actually go on to graduate and build careers in STEM.

In the US, women of colour report interest in STEM majors at about the same rate as white women students. However, just 2.9% of bachelor’s degrees across STEM fields were awarded to black women in 2014-15, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Latinas achieved 3.6% of STEM degrees in the same time period, while 4.8% went to Asian women. (In the UK, black, Asian and minority ethnic [BAME] women obtain undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in STEM at about the same rate as white women – and are actually more likely to then go on to work in STEM occupations.)

Jane Wright, cancer researcher and black woman in STEM
Cancer research pioneer Dr Jane Wright examining a patient, 1956

“Black and Latina women are among the most underrepresented groups in STEM, which means these disciplines are losing potentially talented workers, who can contribute important and new perspectives,” said India Johnson, PhD, the first author on the paper and assistant professor of psychology at Elon University.

Johnson and Pietri conducted two experiments as part of their research. First, they presented black female students from across the US with an imaginary school of science and technology. They then showed each of the students one of four professor profiles, each of which described a scientist working at the fake university. One of the fictional scientists was a black woman; one was a black man; one was a white woman; and the other was a white man. 

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The black female students expected to feel more of a sense of belonging and trust at universities with black male or female scientists on the staff. However, many felt particularly reassured by the sight of a black woman scientist – especially those who were concerned about their gender and race being devalued in society.

“This first study suggests that having role models who match their race and gender, or at least race, is beneficial for black women students’ belonging,” said Pietri. 

Black women in STEM: Annie Easley
Computer scientist, mathematician, and engineer Annie Easley at NASA in the Sixties

In another experiment, the researchers recruited black women STEM majors from two different universities: a predominately white college and a women-only historically black college. The women at the historically black college had around two to three black female role models in STEM, while the women at the majority white university had zero to one.

Overall, the higher number of black female role models a black woman student had at a university, the more likely she was to feel like she belonged there.

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The researchers also saw that having supportive allies who were not black women could still increase black female students’ sense of belonging. “We found that having role models, who were not black women, but who the STEM majors believed were allies related to higher belonging in STEM,” said Johnson.

As a result, Johnson and Pietri want to build tools to help white men and women become better allies for women of colour in STEM, as well as increasing representation of women of colour in STEM more generally.

“Allies can play a really big role in increasing belonging among women of colour,” said Pietri. “But they have to really clearly signal their allyship through actions and behaviours.”

Images: Getty Images

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, politics and psychology. Carrying a bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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