Science, Now + Beyond

Will stereotypes ever stop driving us out of math and science?

How can anyone succeed when they are always told they can't?

Stereotypes are one of the many ways that women and people of color are deterred from careers. Although there are many other reasons why certain groups of people are left out from fields, stereotyping is one that affects people from a very young age and is extremely pervasive. In the fields of math and science, women and people of color have grown up seeing the image of a white male doctor.

This white male stereotype in science and math professions and majors has driven women, and disproportionately Black and Hispanic women, out of those fields. Similarly, Black and Hispanic men have lived under stereotyping their entire lives, making each step in their academic careers another chance to leave the STEM fields.

Generally, careers in STEM subjects are dominated by white men. This is due, in part, to the stereotype of men exceeding in subjects like math and science, while women and people of color are fit into stereotypes that gear them to towards a different type of work or, in some cases, no work at all.

While women make up 24 percent of the STEM workforce, only 3 percent of those women were Latina in 2013. In 2012, Black women received 684 STEM degrees. White men came in at 8,478. For men of color, their employment rates in STEM professions are strikingly low as well. Both Black and Hispanic men were represented by 6.4 and 6.5 percent in 2011, respectively. All of this, however, is not consistent with the fact that minority students have the same level of desire to go on to STEM careers as their white peers. It goes without debate, that they also have the same capacity to learn as their white peers. These significantly low numbers are the product of stereotyping at a very young age. While we gear white boys towards futures as doctors and engineers, girls and children of color are left behind. Whether this is done consciously or not, it happens.

This stereotype threat has been heavily researched and proven. The strong, adverse effects of it arise as a young age, which is where the diversity problem in STEM begins. A study done by Clark McKown and Rohna Weinstein in 2003 showed the reality of stereotypes in early child development. The report proved that children become increasingly aware of others’ stereotypes on them from ages six to ten. When the children in the study reached the age of 10, most were able to infer the stereotypes that people would assume about them, as well as broadly accepted stereotypes like the false assumptions that girls are bad at math and Black and Latinx people are less intellectually competent.

Another study done by McKown and Michael Strambler took 124 children from ages 5–11. The Black and Latinx students that were more aware of widely accepted stereotypes performed lower on tests compared to those that were not aware or those who have few stereotypes apply to them. Therefore, the drop off from the STEM pipeline happens at as early as the age of 5. But let me ask you, how good would you be if everyone told you that you would fail? Black and Latinx students who are aware of and subject to stereotyping don’t perform as well not because they can’t, but because they are conscious of society’s predictions of their defeat.

These stereotypes are taught, however. For girls in as early as the first grade reported themselves as being “bad a math,” according to a study by the University of Washington. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are bad at math, but that society has expected them to be. This is the type of culture that is constantly pushing people into specific roles based on their gender, age, race, and class. These are the stereotypes that eventually lead to the low levels of diversity in STEM.

Women in Engineering ProActive Network released a study showing that women graduate high school with comparable knowledge and understanding to men and are more likely than men to go on and complete college, but young women do not pursue careers in engineering or the physical sciences at the same rate.

These stereotypes do not end in school, though. Even once someone fights against society’s wrongful expectations of them as they grow up, they are still subject to constant stereotyping and bias when they are in their fields. According to a study conducted by UC Hastings College of Law, Black and Latina women are experiencing a significant level of discrimination as scientists. This study lays out four barriers that these women of color experience: having to repeatedly prove themselves, walking the fine line between being too masculine and too feminine, the stereotype that women loose their career commitment when they have children, and women holding bias against other women due to “queen bee” syndrome. One hundred percent of the 60 women in this study admitted to experiencing at least one of these biases during their time as scientists.

There is so much research on the lack of diversity in STEM. Almost all of them refer to the STEM pipeline, as established doctors ask themselves, “Where did we go wrong?” Some claim inability of women to “get” science as easily as men, others claim that Black and Latinx people just “aren’t that interested” in those subjects.

These stereotypes are sadly engrained into our society.