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The racial, ethnic, and gender gaps in STEM are still surprisingly large

A new report suggests that efforts to promote equity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and math have a long way to go.

Over the past year, widespread protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed blacks have sparked calls for racial justice in STEM. Social media movements like #BlackinSTEM have drawn attention to the discrimination faced by black students and professionals and Strike for Black Lives has challenged the scientific community to build a more just and anti-racist research environment (SN: 16/12/20).

An analysis published in early April of federal education and employment data from recent years highlights how broad racial, ethnic, and gender differences in STEM representation are. “This has been a permanent conversation in the scientific community” for decades, says Cary Funk, director of scientific research and society at the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC Because the latest data comes from 2019, Pew’s STM snapshot it cannot reveal how recent calls for diversity, equity, and inclusion have been able to move the needle. But here are four great existing STEM representation data outlets:

Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented in STEM jobs.

From 2017 to 2019, black professionals accounted for only 9 percent of STEM workers in the United States, less than their 11 percent share of the global U.S. workforce. The representation gap was even greater for Hispanic professionals, who only accounted for 8 percent of people working in STEM, while they accounted for 17 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Meanwhile, white and Asian professionals remain overrepresented in STEM.

Some STEM occupations, such as engineers and architects, lean especially blank. But even fields that include more professionals from marginalized backgrounds don’t necessarily have more favorable environments, points out Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Island, who is not involved in the research.

For example, black professionals are represented in health care jobs at the same level as in the workforce in general, according to the Pew report. But many white people with medical training continue to believe in racist medical myths, such as the idea that black people have thicker skin or feel less pain than white people, reports a 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The current diversity in STEM education reflects gaps in workforce representation.

Black and Hispanic students are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than in other fields. For example, black students earned 7 percent of undergraduate degrees in STEM in 2018 (the last year with data available), less than 10 percent of all that year’s degrees. White and Asian students, on the other hand, are overrepresented among STEM college graduates.

Black and Hispanic students are also underrepresented among those earning advanced STEM degrees. Since these education statistics are similar to employment statistics, the study authors do not see significant changes in workplace representation in the near future.

The representation of women varies greatly between STEM fields.

Women make up about half of STEM professionals in the United States, just over 47% of their workforce. From 2017 to 2019, they accounted for nearly three-quarters of all health workers, but were outnumbered in men by physical sciences, computer science, and engineering.

STEM education data do not portend major changes in women’s representation: women earned a whopping 85 percent of bachelor’s degrees in health-related fields, but only 22 percent in engineering and 19 percent in computer science from 2018.

There are large wage differences between STEM workers by gender, race, and ethnicity.

The typical salary from 2017 to 2019 for a woman in STEM was about 74 percent of the typical salary for a man in STEM. That wage gap narrowed by 72 percent in 2016, but was even wider than the wage gap in the overall workforce, where women earned about 80 percent of what men did.

In contrast, racial and ethnic disparities in STEM payment have widened. Black STEM professionals typically earned about 78 percent of white workers ’incomes from 2017 to 2019, down from 81 percent in 2016. And the typical pay for Hispanic STEM professionals was 83 percent of white workers’ incomes, less than 85 percent in 2016. Meanwhile Typical earnings of Asian STEM professionals have gone from 125 percent of white workers ’wages to 127 percent.

Looking forward

Pew’s new findings are important, but not surprising, says Cato Laurencin, a surgeon and engineer at the University of Connecticut in Farmington. "Why the numbers are where they are, I think, is perhaps an even more important debate."

The barriers to entering STEM “are very, very different with all groups,” says Laurencin, who chairs the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s roundtable on black men and black women in science, engineering, and medicine. In particular, he says, "Blacks working in STEM education and in STEM professions are really facing a glove of adversity." That ranges from fewer potential STEM models in school to job discrimination (SN: 16/12/20).

Esquivel, co-founder of #BlackinPhysics, is optimistic about the change. Over the past year, “we’ve realized the power of our voice and I see that we don’t back down because of that, because we started grassroots movements, like #BlackinPhysics, like all the #BlackinX networks that came out last June,” he says. "These first student-led grassroots movements are keeping the feet of power on fire and just not backing down. That really gives me hope for the future."

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