The Importance of Diversity in STEM Education

A science teacher wearing a lab coat presents a lesson to the class.

The lack of diversity in STEM is a social justice issue. Despite much progress, women and individuals with certain racial and ethnic backgrounds remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

The factors that contribute to underrepresentation––cultural bias, discrimination, and structural inequities––harm not only the people who face unfair disadvantages but also society as a whole. STEM fields address complex problems that benefit from diverse perspectives. Failing to encourage and support all students who might pursue scientific and technological studies robs those fields of valuable talent.

Examining the causes and impacts of underrepresentation illustrates the critical role that educators can play in promoting diversity in STEM.

Understanding STEM Diversity

Almost 70% of full-time scientists and engineers in the United States are white, a demographic that accounts for approximately 60% of the population. This disproportionate representation comes primarily at the expense of women and individuals with certain racial and ethnic backgrounds, as shown by statistics from the National Science Foundation:

The number of women receiving computer science degrees has grown over the past two decades, but still only 19% of bachelor's degrees in computer science are awarded to women. The number of science and engineering bachelor’s and doctoral degrees awarded to underrepresented minorities (Hispanic, Latino, Black, African American, American Indian, or Alaska Native individuals) has also increased over the past two decades. Still, students from those underrepresented minority groups receive only 22% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering and just 9% of doctorates in those fields.

Causes of the Lack of Diversity in STEM

The following factors, all interrelated, contribute to the lack of diversity in STEM fields:

  • Gender and racial stereotypes. Sexist and racist biases about the abilities of women and people of color to excel in STEM subjects persist. Those biases can lead teachers to be less encouraging to women and people of color about STEM subjects and have lower expectations for their success.
  • Male- and white-dominated cultures. White males continue to dominate many STEM fields. As a result, fewer people in those fields are likely to actively participate in encouraging women and people of color to pursue STEM careers.
  • Fewer role models. Because women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM fields, aspiring students and graduates have fewer role models.
  • Confidence gap. Gender and racial stereotypes about academic ability can affect children's confidence. For example, research has shown that young girls have less confidence than young boys in their math skills, a phenomenon that some experts attribute to the myth of the male “math brain.”

The Impact of a Lack of Diversity in STEM

When people are denied equal opportunity to pursue STEM education, they lose opportunities for high-paying jobs in growing industries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 3.4% growth in non-STEM occupations between 2019 and 2029, whereas it projects the number of STEM-related jobs to grow by 8%. The median annual wage for non-STEM occupations is $38,160, while the median annual wage for STEM occupations is $86,980.

Discouraging women and people of color from pursuing careers in STEM exacerbates a broader problem in pay discrepancy. An analysis by PayScale, which looked at male professionals with at least a bachelor's degree, found that Black individuals earn $0.87 for every dollar white individuals earn. Looking at all workers, PayScale reported that women make $0.81 for every dollar a man earns.

The Role of Educators

Teachers and administrators can promote diversity in STEM fields by creating an educational environment that promotes inclusiveness and educational equity. Ways to achieve this goal include developing inclusive curricula, promoting cultural representation, and creating hiring practices that support diversity.

Developing Inclusive Curricula

Educators can take the following steps to encourage cultural diversity:

  • Raise awareness. School administrators and teachers can receive diversity training to better understand the needs of marginalized groups and address their own implicit biases.
  • Explore diverse teaching styles. By exploring various teaching and learning models, educators are more likely to reach diverse students with different aptitudes, communication preferences, and learning styles.
  • Model cultural inclusion and appreciation for diversity. Teachers can provide a powerful example to students by demonstrating respect, appreciation, and understanding of diverse students.
  • Promote diverse representation. Educators can invite non-white, non-male professionals from STEM fields to speak to students about their experiences and serve as role models.

Representation in the Classroom

Evidence suggests the demographic match between students and teachers affects educational outcomes. Having even one same-race teacher can improve standardized test scores, attendance, and disciplinary issues among students of color, according to the Brookings Institution.

The benefits of representation can be long lasting. A study conducted by researchers from American University, the University of California, and Johns Hopkins University found that Black male students who had a Black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade were significantly less likely to drop out of high school. The study also found that Black male and female students’ exposure to a Black instructor increased the likelihood that they would attend a four-year college.

Inclusive Hiring Practices

School administrators promote diversity by utilizing inclusive hiring practices that attract diverse teachers.

  • Create inclusive job descriptions. Using gender neutral pronouns (they/them) and including language that demonstrates support for diversity, equity, and inclusion can help organizations attract a more diverse pool of candidates.
  • Deliberately recruit people of color. Creating relationships with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and high-Hispanic-enrollment institutions (HHEs) can help schools recruit more people of color..
  • Establish diverse search committees. Groups that lack diversity tend to perpetuate exclusionary cultures; they are also less attractive to job candidates who are not of the dominant group.

Contributing to the Solution

Teachers and school administrators cannot address all of the factors that contribute to a lack of diversity in STEM fields and the inequities that historically marginalized groups face. Even when women and individuals from marginalized groups succeed in STEM, they can experience pay disparities compared with their white male counterparts. However, educational leaders can ensure that students receive equal support and encouragement to pursue STEM education.

Education needs leaders who can make organizational change and champion teaching environments and policies that create a more equitable world. Mills College teaches a collaborative leadership model that values inclusiveness, teamwork, and information sharing. Its online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership is suited to public and independent school teachers who want to advance their careers and build knowledge while continuing to work. Emphasizing public service, the program develops ethical leaders who are prepared to effect change through the work they do at schools, nonprofits, and community-based organizations.

How to Be a Transformational Leader in Education

How to Promote Change and Equality in Education

Social Justice in Education: The Role Educational Leaders Play

Sources

American Association of University Women, “The Myth of the Male Math Brain”

The Brookings Institution, “The Importance of a Diverse Teaching Force”

IZA Institute of Labor Economics, “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers”

National Science Foundation, Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering, 2019

PayScale, Racial Wage Gap for Men

PayScale, “The 2020 Gender Pay Gap Report Reveals That Women Still Earn Less for Equal Work”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment in STEM Occupations

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics From the Current Population Survey