By: Lakimba B. Desadier –
It is clear to most economists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers that America’s ability to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy requires innovation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). These innovations have the potential to solve domestic issues related to health, infrastructure, energy, transportation, housing, etc. Globally, these innovations will determine the trajectory of international policies related to climate, public health, food production, and clean water—all of which will benefit this nation and the world.
Recent data from Silicon Valley – widely regarded the “technology and innovation capital” – indicate that America faces significant challenges with regard to workforce diversity in STEM-related professions. Among the top seven technology giants, African Americans constitute 2% to 7% of the workforce, with not all of those employees working in STEM-related positions. While women fare better, they represent only 30% to 40% of the workforce, although they are approximately 50% of the population. It is important to note that many of those positions in Silicon Valley are outside of the STEM fields, occurring in areas such as retail and sales. The data confirm widespread concerns expressed over the last two decades regarding the limited number of women and people of color entering STEM professions. Recognizing the challenges, some companies have already invested in bringing STEM programs to schools in communities of color and developing mentoring programs to support diversification of the workforce. In the meantime, there have been few documented improvements in the data – anecdotal or otherwise – regarding the Silicon Valley workforce.
There are many theories as to why there is such a lack of diversity with regard to gender, race, and ethnicity in STEM professions. Some easily point to the lack of women and people of color graduating with degrees in relevant fields, while others say that the small number of the aforementioned populations entering STEM-related fields is because of the perception that STEM coursework is “hard.” In addition to this, recent data indicate that although the number of African American women graduating with STEM degrees has increased slightly over the past decade, they often end up in non-STEM related jobs or spend only short periods in STEM-related positions before going to work in other fields. Less than 1% of African American women complete PhDs in STEM, a pre-requisite for high-level, decision-making positions in technology companies. Some people believe that the lack of STEM workforce diversity originates much earlier than college and that its roots are in elementary classrooms where bias, racism, and stereotypes limit students of color and girls from exploring, engaging, and excelling in STEM curricula. In addition, there are few visible role models and mentors for girls and African Americans that demonstrate interest or capacity to excel at STEM education.
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