JUN 14, 2020 1:14 PM PDT

Why Are There So Few Black People in STEM?

WRITTEN BY: Annie Lennon

On June 10th, 2020, thousands of STEM scientists and organizations around the world went on strike to protest systemic racism in academia. Uniting under hashtags including ‘#ShutDownSTEM’ and ‘#Strike4BlackLives’, they hope their efforts will lead to direct action within academic institutions and organizations to eliminate racism for good. 

"In academia, our thoughts and words turn into new ways of knowing. Our research papers turn into media releases, books, and legislation that reinforce anti-Black narratives. In STEM, we create technologies that affect every part of our society and are routinely weaponized against Black people.” write the organizers of #ShutDownSTEM on their website

“I don’t want more diversity and inclusion seminars. Those activities are used to provide a shield to institutions so that they can do the bare minimum.” says Brian Nord, an astrophysicist at Fermilab and organizer for ‘Strike For Black Lives’ and #ShutDownStem. 

While black and African American people make up around 13% of the US population, they graduate from 9% of bachelor degrees in science and 3.9% of undergraduate engineering degrees. 

By comparison, white people make up 55.7% of science degrees and 59.3% of engineering degrees, despite making up around 72% of the US population. Although those of Asian descent account for just 6% of the US population, they hold 9% of undergraduate science degrees and 10.8% of undergraduate engineering degrees. 

The disparity for black and African American citizens in the US becomes more pronounced when looking at the demographics of Ph.D. graduates and academic faculty members. In 2017, just 6.7% of PhDs awarded to US citizens and permanent residents were given to black students. Meanwhile, white people received 70% of PhDs, and Asians: 10%. 

The same year, while black and African American students accounted for 14% of the undergraduate population, just 6% of faculty members were black. In the meantime, 81% of professors and 80% of lecturers were white. 

What could be responsible for this disparity? 

Representation in institutions of education may be part of the problem. Research has pointed out that students are more likely to regard teachers of the same race and ethnicity as role models, and due to proximity to them, put more effort into education and have higher college ambitions. Other research from community colleges has suggested that performance gaps between minority students can close between 20% and 50% should teachers and professors have more similar ethnic backgrounds to their students. 

Socio-economic factors may also play a role. Although increasing numbers of black students have completed high school and enrolled in college programs over the last two decades, they also have some of the highest dropout rates and the largest debt burdens among all ethnicities. Between 2015 and 2016, while the median loan per doctoral student in the US for a four-year program in a public school was $57,968, the same amount for black students was $107, 602. 

Given that black and African American people have the lowest median household income among all ethnicities in the country (at just $41,361 in 2018 compared to an average $63,179 among all ethnicities), high-cost barriers towards pursuing education may make a difference in both college achievement and aspiration. 

The treatment of black and African American college students in STEM fields, and more general academia, could also discourage many from pursuing academic and research careers. Not only do black scientists and faculty members often recall being the only black person in the room, but they also recall numerous moments of racial discrimination. These range from having their achievements belittled and attributed to 'positive discrimination', to being hassled by university guards and police for no reason while at work, and reportedly experiencing negative bias when applying for research grants. 

Renowned science journal, Nature, said, "We recognize that Nature is one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship. The enterprise of science has been — and remains — complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices."


Sources: New York Times, The Verge, Nature, MassiveSci, Peter G. Peterson Foundation, JSTOR, SAGE Pub, Pew Research Center, NSF, NCSES, ShutDownSTEM, Science Mag

About the Author
  • Science writer with a keen interest in behavioral biology, consciousness medicine and technology. Her current focus is how the interplay of these fields can create meaningful interactions, products and environments.
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