America needs women and minorities to become scientists and engineers
Soon after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama launched "Educate to Innovate," an initiative designed to improve the participation and performance of America's students, particularly girls, African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM.
Those of us leading STEM companies understand just how important this initiative is. Until recently, women and these minorities have held few jobs in the nation's STEM fields. And, today, despite making up more than two-thirds of the country's population, they still comprise only 25 percent or less of our STEM workforce.
If diversity in STEM is one of the country's national imperatives -- and it is -- what has kept and continues to keep women and minorities underrepresented in these fields? And, as important, how do we get them interested and keep them engaged in STEM?
These are critical questions, particularly at a time when shifting demographics demand we bring the ideas, perspectives and skills of all of our citizens to the STEM table.
The latest Bayer Facts of Science Education survey sheds needed light on these issues by adding the voices of those with firsthand knowledge. In the survey, female, African-American, Hispanic and American Indian chemists and chemical engineers share the kind of information about their childhood, academic and workplace experiences that ultimately will help to attract and retain more of today's students in these economy-driving fields. And, make no mistake, those of us in STEM industries have a real role to play.
The good news is that interest in science begins early -- before age 11. That means increased efforts to introduce elementary school students to standards-based, hands-on, inquiry-centered science education are more critical than ever. By forming science education reform partnerships with local school districts like Bayer has here in Pittsburgh with the ASSET program, STEM companies have an opportunity to help ignite young interest in science and keep that interest alive and well.
Unfortunately, the chemists and chemical engineers report facing a number of roadblocks in the U.S. education pipeline and workplace that, while leaving them undaunted, might well extinguish science interest in other students. More than three-quarters (77 percent) believe that significant numbers of women and minorities are missing from today's STEM fields because they were not identified and nurtured to pursue STEM studies early on.
That's a lot of talent we're missing.
According to those polled, the four biggest roadblocks or causes of underrepresentation are lack of quality science and math education in poorer school districts, persistent stereotypes that say STEM isn't for girls and minorities, financial issues related to the cost of education and a failure of the STEM industries to communicate the message to girls and minorities that they are both wanted and needed in these fields.
Tellingly, these barriers, like bias on the part of adults, have nothing to do with intellect or innate ability. Rather they are the kind of larger external social forces that students have no control over. Children can't change the fact that they do not have access to quality math and science education. But, we, as adults can. And we must.
For STEM industries, the message here about outreach is clear. We must find ways to communicate with young female and minority students and give them the tools and resources they need to succeed. For example, as they move through from elementary school into high school and college, mentors and role models take on greater importance, as do scholarships and real-world experiences like internships and lab work.
If a STEM company doesn't have these kinds of programs in place, there are plenty of well-known science organizations that do. One that Bayer supports is the American Chemical Society's Project SEED. By offering economically disadvantaged high school students six- to eight-week-long summer internships at industrial, academic and government laboratories, SEED builds students' self-esteem and confidence.
At this stage, however, other challenges emerge. For instance, a significant number -- 40 percent -- of the women and minority chemists and chemical engineers said they had been discouraged from pursuing a STEM career at some point in their lives. They pointed to college as a place where discouragement was significant and to college professors as those who did the discouraging.
This tells me that attitudes, behaviors, resources and opportunities, or lack thereof, matter. And this is as true for the workplace, where bias and lack of opportunity take center stage. Managerial bias and the more widespread company/institutional bias were both named as barriers by nearly four in 10. Additionally, roughly one-third cited lack of promotion and networking opportunities.
At Bayer, we've found one way to break through these barriers and create opportunity for our female and minority employees is through employee networking groups. These groups empower individuals and give them a place to share ideas and experiences. In fact, when asked to cite factors that have helped them succeed professionally, those polled said creating professional relationships, building networks within their organizations, having supportive management and joining professional societies or networking groups were chief among them.
With the chemists and chemical engineers giving their organizations only a "C" for the job they do in promoting women and minorities to senior positions, it is obvious there is still much work to do for all of us in the STEM fields. We at Bayer hope this survey provides a blueprint for helping us get there.
If we are ever to achieve true diversity in America's STEM workforce, we must first understand the root causes of underrepresentation and the ongoing challenges that women and minority groups face. This will enable us, as a country, to knock down the barriers and provide all of our budding scientists and engineers with the opportunities and resources they need and deserve.
First Published April 11, 2010 12:00 am