Tackling Science and Engineering’s Diversity Problem
Three leaders in science and engineering discuss the obstacles for women and racial minorities to enter or stay in STEM.
The STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – have real work to do in terms of diversity. Right now, women make up only about 30 percent of the STEM workforce – and people identifying as black or Hispanic make up just 11 percent.
What are the barriers to entry -- or the obstacles to staying in -- STEM? And how can we make sure smart, creative thinkers and problem solvers from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and included in these fields? We invited three leaders in science and engineering to a discussion about these issues to find out what places like the University of Texas at Austin are doing about it.
LH: We, women, make up more than 50 percent of the undergraduate population now, I think, at most universities. Why shouldn't we be 50 percent of the scientists?
MA: This is Point of Discovery. I'm Marc Airhart.
MA: The STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – have real work to do in terms of diversity. Right now, women make up only about 30 percent of the STEM workforce – and people identifying as black or Hispanic make up just 11 percent. What are the barriers to entry -- or the obstacles to staying in -- STEM? And how can we make sure smart, creative thinkers and problem solvers from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and included in these fields? We invited three leaders in science and engineering to a discussion about these issues to find out what places like the University of Texas at Austin are doing about it. Our guests today oversee the university's three largest colleges and schools focused exclusively on STEM: Linda Hicke, Sharon Mosher and Sharon Wood are all deans who hold the top leadership positions in natural sciences, geosciences and engineering, respectively. And because this is about women and minorities in science, I handed over the interview reins to Kayla Eboreime, a public health and pre-med student, who is also a campus leader in two student groups: Women in Natural Sciences and the Council for Diversity Engagement. Her first response was from Linda Hicke, dean of the College of Natural Sciences.
KE: So, why do you think it's important for STEM to represent the diversity of society?
LH: We, women, make up more than 50 percent of the undergraduate population now, I think, at most universities. Why shouldn't we be 50 percent of the scientists? Why should there be a difference between the sciences and the liberal arts and the humanities and the social sciences in terms of women and the diversity of backgrounds, too? It's just, we're missing out if we're not recruiting … all of the people that now are at the university into STEM fields who feel passionate about science and engineering.
SM: … if more than half the population in the U.S. are women and under-represented groups, you're leaving all that brain power if you don't have them as part of STEM fields and … there are different problems that you know exist that should be researched based on what your background and experience is and the more people with different backgrounds and different experiences you can have working in STEM fields the more likely you are to solve problems that one segment doesn't know even exists.
Advice for Young Scientists
MA: Research has shown that cultural messages can lead some students toward a mindset that makes them feel alienated from STEM, and Kayla's next question generated some impassioned responses. Dean Mosher weighed in first, followed by Deans Hicke and Wood.
KE: So for the young person who may have trouble picturing them self in science or in STEM overall what would you say is the value of STEM education? What advice would you give them?
SM: Well, I guess I'll answer the question a little differently. ... I didn't think of myself as a woman and I think I thought of myself as a person, somebody who was a budding geo-scientist and so I guess my advice to people is don't let other people define you. If you think oh everybody thinks I'm a woman and that's unusual or I'm black or I'm Hispanic, you're letting other people define you. You are who you are. You are capable of doing what you can do and you should just think of yourself as somebody who is in that particular field and moving forward and be confident in yourself and your own abilities.
SW: I agree with Sharon. We started a program called You Belong Here to let all our students know that we value them and we believe that every single one can be successful. And it's amazing just that if you keep repeating this, it builds peoples' confidence and they don't feel isolated and they feel a part of a group so it's been very helpful for us.
LH: So I, like Sharon, didn't have a whole lot of people who were like me when I was a more junior scientist, but I think it's helpful now to try to seek those people out and that's why I really think it's really important for us to have faculty and mentors and graduate students who come from different backgrounds. A lot of women, for instance are afraid they can't do something like be a high-power engineer or a scientist and have a child because those two things are incompatible. Whereas, if you talk to people who have had children and are in our positions, there's a huge number of advantages, there's tremendous flexibility, there's wonderful things that can happen. And so, you know, talking to people about, well I don't think I want to do that or I can do this because of this and finding out how they have dealt with that situation or overcome that situation or what the challenges have really been I think is helpful …
Closing the Gaps
MA: Kayla's next question prompted each of the deans to offer specific examples of progress they have noticed within their own units.
KE: So once the students are here, what are some ways to close the gaps in student representation in STEM and how do we support students of color and different identities, marginalized identities, in STEM?
LH: I'll start with an example from the College of Natural Sciences, we have a program called the Freshmen Research Initiative in which instead of our freshmen coming in and taking standard intro biology, chemistry and physics laboratories they jump right in and work in groups of about 20 to 30 students on a really novel independent research project that is near and dear to a faculty member's heart and I think this really encourages people who don't come from traditional backgrounds that have supported the sciences in several different ways. One is that some of our students, those who come from low socio-economic backgrounds or very rural areas or, you know, urban areas that haven't had some of the amazing facilities in their high schools that some of our other high schools do, they get to see what doing real lab research is like, all of the cool, fun experiments and technology that go on to make up a research laboratory experience. They get to really explore and understand what it is like to discover something new as one of the first things they do in science at the university and I think that provides a lot of impetus and motivation for sticking with the science degrees when they become tough. … And so I think this particular program, the Freshman Research Initiative, really helps folks who are not from your traditional scientific mold experience the joy and the wonder of doing science.
SM: Our experience is a little different, we actually start with high school students and so we have a program called GeoForce Texas and we take students from inner city Houston high schools and southwest Texas and for the four years they are in high school we take them on field trips for a week everywhere from the Grand Canyon to Mount St. Helens. So we try to make them passionate about science and see the different kinds of things that students can do, but we also -- they have to solve problems and think about what they see and their last year we are now taking them to UT, where they get to go to labs and see all the different kinds of things that can be done so that we are encouraging more and more of them to go to college and particularly to go into STEM and we've got 90-some percent of the students who have gone through the program since 2005 have actually gone to college and most of them are ones that have come from families where nobody has. They are first generation students. And 60-some percent have gone into STEM fields as a major. So, then when those that come to UT we continue to work with them and really certainly in the geosciences try to make sure they get in involved in doing research early because as Linda just said the Freshman Research Initiative has shown that's really valuable.
SW: One of the things that we've done is have a lot of outreach activities. So probably the biggest one that we do is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. It happens in the spring, we get between four and six thousand students to come to campus and not only does it give an opportunity for these young girls who are usually in K through eighth grade to … get some idea of hands on activities but it means that our students get to be volunteers and get to be excited and do that. And so I think it's been really nice for me to see. … We now have students that their first introduction to engineering was going to that program and now they are engineering students. So, they get to pay it back and they get to get introduced at an early age. And I think having multiple opportunities to see people and see people closer to your age, I think that has been very effective also.
KE: What makes you hopeful about seeing more representation of women and other marginalized identities in STEM for the future?
LH: I think the fact that we're doing things like having this conversation is amazing. Look, we have three female deans of the science colleges of the University of Texas at Austin that is still pretty unfortunately unusual, but it's happened. I think there is an immense amount of conversation and recognition of what we call the problem of diversity that Marc addressed … so just recognition that there is value in having diversity throughout the sciences and engineering which wasn't there probably a decade ago and all the conversation happening about it, it's got to lead to some good progress.
SM: I guess I would say it very encouraging to me to see so many women in sciences, particularly for me in the geosciences, but also seeing an increasing number of minorities going into the geosciences, as well. That gives me hope for the future, that we will continue to grow in those directions. …
SW: You know, I'm excited because I just see a record number of women and under-represented minorities applying to the Cockrell School, being admitted into the Cockrell School. We've also been successful in trying to increase the number of faculty members and then I get feedback from students who are not under represented, about how much they like having those faculty members and the unique perspectives they're bringing. So I'm very hopeful for the future.
MA: You've been listening to highlights from a conversation between UT Austin's three STEM deans. A big thank you to Linda Hicke, Sharon Mosher and Sharon Wood. We'll post the full conversation as our next, bonus episode. In that episode, they talk about some of the causes for the lack of diversity in STEM, what inspired them to become scientists, and how they became deans.
KE: So again, thank you all for being here and engaging in this conversation with me. I just want to thank you for being here.
LH: Thank you, Kayla.
SM: Thank you very much, it's been very enjoyable.
SW: Thank you.
MA: Special thanks to our guest interviewer Kayla Eboreime. And a super big thanks to the staff of the Liberal Arts ITS studio for their extreme professionalism and skill in capturing this conversation with five – count them, five -- microphones and two video cameras. I cannot thank them enough for their help. I want to especially thank Michael Heidenreich and Jacob Weiss.
MA: Point of Discovery is a production of the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. We're on the web at pointofdiscovery.org. Our senior editor is Christine Sinatra. I'm your host and producer Marc Airhart. Thanks for listening!