Why diversity in STEM is important

by Yoliem S. Miranda Alarcón | May 6, 2019

Steve Jobs once said, “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” The best solutions sometimes come from the most unexpected places. In research, applying the scientific method requires critically thinking about a problem and looking at solutions from different angles. For these solutions to occur one must bring together those with different perspectives and experiences that can add their point of view. Research allows for inclusiveness of people with diverse backgrounds, which enables a melting pot of ideas. Yet, the statistics show a lack of diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

As a graduate student, I have seen first-hand how students from other parts of the world assess research problems in creative ways. As I get to know them, I learn that their cultural and personal experiences have shaped them to see things from a different perspective. I am personally surprised by their resourcefulness and the innovative ways of how they approach the scientific method. In the US, research labs are equipped with very sophisticated machinery where you add a sample, and in return, you get processed data. Although this saves us time, we lose the opportunity to think about how the equipment works and what might be some factors that affect the data that you could not see otherwise. Other countries might lack access to high-tech equipment, but they become resourceful by finding creative ways to get the data they need. It is crucial to think about how we can further our research by bringing someone else’s perspective. By increasing the participation of students with diverse backgrounds in STEM fields, we can come up with unique solutions to relevant problems that are affecting our society as a whole.

In the US, underrepresented minorities in STEM include women and historical minority groups mainly composed of African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics. Although there is more participation from underrepresented minorities, there is a lot of room to grow. In 2015, the National Science Foundation reported the outcome of a comprehensive study on the demographics in science and engineering education and employment. The study points out that there is a wide gap in educational attainment between underrepresented minorities and whites and Asians, which are the two groups that have a higher representation in STEM education. Additionally, there is a gender disparity in STEM fields were male remain predominant in terms of jobs compare to females. It was also found that at every level—bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate—white women earn a smaller proportion of degrees than white males. In contrast, underrepresented minority women earn a higher proportion of degrees than their male counterparts1.

Movies like Hidden Figures and On the Basis of Sex highlight the barriers that underrepresented groups had to overcome to be able to have a sit in the table. Thanks to those who were aware of the social barriers and decided to make a change, now we have academic and professional environments were regardless of your gender or ethnicity you can give input. Yet, there is still work to do. We need to redefine diversity as a competitive edge and economic driver in our society. Instead of coming up with linear solutions, let’s focus on attaining multicultural perspectives to come up with better solutions and innovative ways to connect the dots.

As you think about starting your undergraduate or graduate studies in an academic research institution, consider looking up organizations and clubs that aim to increase diversity in STEM. Some examples of minority science organizations that promote diversity and inclusion are the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), among many others2. They work as allies by providing mentors, resources, and opportunities to students that have a passion for science but have limited access to them. Additionally, programs like the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, as well as state and federal initiatives are helping students through financial support and mentorship.

What can you do? Well, there are a lot of ways you can help. Becoming an ally is the first step. Being advocates and spreading the word of the importance of diversity in STEM can help in developing initiatives and supporting policies that can impact the nation at large. Many scholars and policymakers are joining forces to increase the awareness of diversity in STEM. Let’s break down the expectations of what scientists and engineers should look like!

  1. “Resources.” American Physical Society, www.aps.org/programs/minorities/resources/index.cfm↩︎

  2. “Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering Report Released.” Phys.org, Phys.org, 31 Jan. 2017, phys.org/news/2017-01-women-minorities-persons-disabilities-science.html. ↩︎