Women Of Color Lead Gender Equality In STEM Education


The numbers are encouraging but there is more work to do.

Latina women have closed the gender gap in technical college-entrance exams, and African American women outnumber men 3-to-2 in those exams. After decades of research showcasing women of color behind both men of color and White women, new UC Berkeley research highlights encouraging data in which women of color are making progress in STEM education.  

The UC Berkeley analysis showcased these two groundbreaking trends utilizing Advanced-Placement (AP) college-entrance exams in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Among African American students, AP STEM exams taken by women represented the overwhelming majority over men. Among Latinx students, the number of men and women was roughly equal; nationally, women took 66,382exams and, men took 66,703 exams per year. 

The research, conducted by Nobel-prize-winning author Dr. Daniel Kammen, Dr. Caroline Harper, and researcher Vanessa Thompson, presents patterns that are surprising given that women of color have continued to be alarmingly underrepresented in many STEM fields. Both of these trends of gender equality showcase strengths among African American and Latinx AP students that could translate to insights for increased gender equity in other STEM contexts

I sat down with Dr. Caroline Harper and Vanessa Thompson recently to discuss their work and findings. Watch full interview here.

Power: Can you tell us about some of the exciting results from your research, some of the highlights you think are important? 

Thompson: “We’ve found that Latina women have closed the gender gap in technical college entrance exams, and African American women outnumber African American men three to two in those same exams. 

“It’s really interesting because when we look into the pipeline, it can indicate some larger trends later down the road. After decades of research showing women of color behind, this shows a context that counters the traditional narrative, which is interesting. The reason that we look at research like this is that increased women and minorities in STEM is correlated with having more revenue and productivity in the workplace, so it’s important to understand what the numbers are telling us.”

Power: Dr. Harper, I want to ask you. You’ve done a lot of work on racial and gender equity. Why is diversity in STEM crucial, and what makes you encouraged by this report and by this research?

Dr Harper: “Thank you, It’s all about perspectives and experiences, and how we see problems, and how we look to solving those problems or coming up with solutions that last sustainably across all communities. If we talk about diversity, we’re really talking about finding ways to really reach a new consensus but also finding new ways to actually deal with real problems, like as we see right now, the things that are happening in Texas, the recent freeze that happened. Issues like climate change are impacting communities of color, and those same people can provide solutions. Or if with talk about the pandemic. It’s a woman of color who leads the research on the vaccination, so we’re talking about finding ways to address new challenges, and that’s why diversity matters. Women of color can help find solutions to our biggest problems and bring different experiences and perspectives to that work.”

Power: I understand that advanced placement courses (AP) in high school have become more broadly available in the country? Is that why we see this increase, or is it because there’s more of a focus on it? Are we counseling kids better these days? What do you attribute to this increase of women of color in STEM fields?

Thompson: “The answer is it’s both demand and supply when it comes to, particularly, AP. AP’s been working to make their tests more inclusive and offer them at more high schools, so we see an increased supply and increased ability to take AP exams. We also see higher demand as universities increasingly want to see AP exams on an entrance appilications.”

Power: Is there a correlation between your AP courses’ grades versus what you major in in college and what you choose career-wise?

Thompson: “Yeah, so the confidence related to a higher score in the AP exam increases your chances that you’ll major in that subject up to five percent, so that becomes interesting, especially with some of the more common majors like biology and computer science. If you get a higher score in those, you’re much more likely to pursue them later in life.”

Power: Dr. Harper, when you get to college, and you have that STEM AP background, what are the colleges doing differently nowadays than maybe they were before? Are we better at getting young people through college and helping place people in jobs?

Dr. Harper: “For students, particularly students of color, to feel successful and comfortable in those spaces, it helps to have faces that look like them, that teach to their learning styles, that teach in ways in which resonate on how they form solutions, so it’s representation in the classroom that matters. The other piece that we are doing is making sure the students are prepared and have the opportunity to develop relationships so that not only are they doing their classwork, but they’re also finding fellowships, internships with large scale employers, major industries that really give them the space to translate what they learned in the classroom into the workforce.”

Power: Dr. Harper, How does this research counter the traditional narrative of women of color in STEM? 

Dr. Harper: “Great question; the reason is that people don’t talk about it very much. We’ve always assumed that women of color weren’t interested in STEM or didn’t have the aptitude when that’s not true. The talent is there. We know for a fact that girls generally show a stronger aptitude for STEM fields in middle school, much more than boys. Then of course, social things happen where they become uncomfortable or feel like an outlier, and nobody wants to be that person, so they pursue something different.”

“By the time you get to AP, though, what we find is that the more increase in access because AP hasn’t been traditionally available in schools of color so this push for the research and advocacy to get more of those tests available to prepare students has also helped this conversation.”

As you talk about this narrative, you now are seeing this be changed because those AP test scores substantiate it, but you know, the idea of women being interested in it, we see on the big screen, with Hidden Figures, and this helps the momentum for tech and STEM.”

“I’m hoping to see that there is an increase in confidence of black women in particular, that we are talking about, the reality is that from 1995 to 2004, 46% of black women who pursued STEM degrees came from HBCUs. So I hope that this research will give some credence to the kind of work you are doing to get to the stage where they can compete. Still, I hope that this proves that these people are very well qualified, with unbelievable experiences, and capable of doing the work. I’m hoping to see more doors open in corporate America.”

Power: With the decline of young men going to college, it seems to me that in five or ten years, there are going to be more women in the workplace. It’s going to force some of this change, and some of the systemic change, culture change, in organizations, it’s going to kind of force it, isn’t it?

Thompson: “I think that one of the challenges that we see going forward, though, is who’s going to be hired and promoted? We see many women at the bottom of organizations, which is true with almost every STEM profession and profession in general. In test, women are outscoring men in math, science, and technology in general. Still, when we go to high-performing spaces like advanced placement or STS, a big science competition that’s very competitive, the number of women drops significantly. Then when we choose the finalists for STS, the number of women drops even further.”

“I think that there needs to be a societal culture change. Even though we’re seeing more women go to college, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to see more women CEOs, so I think there needs to be a lot of work done to help women and women of color to get into the C-suite.”

Power: You’ve spent a lot of time on this research. What are you encouraged by, and what worries you the most? And bring out your crystal ball and say, “This is what I think we’re going to see in a few years from this.”

Dr. Harper: “For me, I think I’m encouraged by, if you’re looking at African-American women, there was the most significant gap between men and women for the group in any of these scores, so it’s a growing number of black women who are interested in STEM and also pursuing the avenues to make sure that that can happen as a career, so for me, that’s the most encouraging data point. I want to see the next level and do everything that we can do to help get young people into organizations or be competitive in those jobs and lead change within those organizations.

Because, you know, it’s one thing to be there, but it’s another thing to be able to make the decisions that allow for more of us to be in those spaces, so for me, that’s what I’m looking forward to seeing.

Power: And what are you worried about? Where do we need more work?

Dr. Harper: “I think it’s the promotion piece. How many people know of the work that we’re doing? How many people know? How many people know that Spellman College is, in fact, the place where it’s the only national team of all African-American women in robotics? Nobody knows that, and that’s an important fact, so for me, it’s the promotion and making sure that people know and that our stories are being told. That’s what I want to see really addressed, so I do the work, but hopefully, other people will catch onto this work.

This is an excerpt from our interview. Watch the full interview here:  

Dr. Caroline Harper earned her Ph.D. in political science with a concentration in politics and international relations from Howard University. Currently, she is a lecturer at Howard and a mainland American Council of Learn Society’s ACLS public fellow. She is a diversity scholar at the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan.  

Vanessa Thompson is a researcher and economist from UC Berkeley. She’s worked at Google, the United Nations, the Nature Conservancy, Jane Goodall Institute, and the World Bank.



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