STEM’s racial, ethnic and gender gaps are still strikingly large

Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented while it varies widely by field for women

Black person wearing lab goggles and holding a scientific flask

A new report highlights the racial, ethnic and gender gaps in representation among STEM students and professionals.

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

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

An analysis released in early April of federal education and employment data from recent years highlights how wide the racial, ethnic and gender gaps in STEM representation are. “This has been an ongoing conversation in the science community” for decades, says Cary Funk, the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Because the most recent data come from 2019, Pew’s snapshot of STEM cannot reveal how recent calls for diversity, equity and inclusion may have moved the needle. But here are four big takeaways from existing STEM representation data: 

Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented in STEM jobs.

From 2017 to 2019, Black professionals made up only 9 percent of STEM workers in the United States — lower than their 11 percent share of the overall U.S. workforce. The representation gap was even larger for Hispanic professionals, who made up only 8 percent of people working in STEM, while they made up 17 percent of the total U.S. workforce. White and Asian professionals, meanwhile, remain overrepresented in STEM.

Some STEM occupations, such as engineers and architects, skew particularly white. But even fields that include more professionals from marginalized backgrounds do not necessarily boast more supportive environments, notes Jessica Esquivel, a particle physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., not involved in the research.

For instance, Black professionals are represented in health care jobs at the same level as they are in the overall workforce, according to the Pew report. But many white people with medical training continue to believe 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.

Current diversity in STEM education mirrors gaps in workforce representation.

Black and Hispanic students are less likely to earn degrees in STEM than in other fields. For instance, Black students earned 7 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM in 2018 (the most recent year with available data) — lower than their 10 percent share of all bachelor’s degrees that year. 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 stats are similar to employment stats, the study authors see no major shifts in workplace representation in the near future.

Representation of women varies widely across STEM fields.

Women make up about half of STEM professionals in the United States — slightly more than their 47 percent share of the overall workforce. From 2017 to 2019, they constituted nearly three-quarters of all health care workers, but were outnumbered by men in the physical sciences, computing and engineering.

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

There are large pay gaps among 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 man’s salary in STEM. That pay gap narrowed from 72 percent in 2016, but was still wider than the pay gap in the overall workforce, where women earned about 80 percent of what men did.

Racial and ethnic disparities in STEM pay, on the other hand, widened. Black STEM professionals typically earned about 78 percent of white workers’ earnings from 2017 to 2019 — down from 81 percent in 2016. And typical pay for Hispanic professionals in STEM was 83 percent of white workers’ earnings — down from 85 percent in 2016. Meanwhile, Asian STEM professionals’ typical earnings rose from 125 percent of white workers’ pay to 127 percent.

Looking ahead

The new Pew results 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 maybe an even more important discussion.”

The barriers to entering STEM “are very, very different with every group,” says Laurencin, who chairs the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Roundtable on Black Men and Black Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine. In particular, he says, “Blacks working their way through STEM education and STEM professions really face a gauntlet of adversity.” That runs the gamut from fewer potential STEM role models in school to workplace discrimination (SN: 12/16/20).

Esquivel, a cofounder of #BlackinPhysics, is optimistic about change. Over the last year, “we’ve realized the power of our voice, and I see us not going back because of that — because we’ve started grassroots movements, like #BlackinPhysics, like all of the #BlackinX networks that popped off this past June,” she says. “These early-career, student-led grassroots movements are keeping the people-in-power’s feet to the fire, and just not backing down. That really does give me hope for the future.”

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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