Conference Focuses On Women Of Color In STEM Fields

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 12:30pm
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 2:20pm
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STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Women of color face especially unique challenges when it comes to the business world, and those challenges are even more dramatic in the realm of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. Some of those issues are going to be addressed at the Women of Color Stem Entrepreneurship Conference beginning today at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus. To learn more about the bigger picture related to women of color in STEM, I spoke with Kimberly Scott. She's a professor at ASU and executive director of the University's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology. I started our conversation by asking about what progress she's seen over the past decade or so that she believes has had a true impact.

KIMBERLY SCOTT: I'm encouraged that more STEM industries — particularly tech companies — are paying greater attention to their numbers, and what I mean by that is specifically generating reports on how many women of color are in specific roles. However, what we see is very little movement over the past 10 years according to those reports. I'm really impressed that Google has continued to release their diversity report — and they do so with a critical eye — and that they do admit that the needle has not moved that much. For women we see a greater uptick, but for women of color not so much so. We also see in some of these reports by other industries and most particularly in tech industries and Silicon Valley, that there needs to be greater challenge to what we mean as it relates to underrepresented women. So specifically, Asian American women are underrepresented in leadership positions in tech companies — which oppose the idea of Asian Americans in general and particularly Asian American women doing incredibly well.

GOLDSTEIN: So if we were to consider what companies are doing, is it all of the above — and the question I'm going to ask is it because many companies are not looking out for enough diversity? Is it the fact that they're coming late to the party? Is it a fact that there aren't enough people who have been educated or encouraged to go in those fields for them to have enough people to choose from?

SCOTT: I think that the answer to your question is an incredibly complex one. And the way that I approach it, and particularly my colleagues at the center, is through a systems response. And so it's not only the women or girls of color who considerably lack access to opportunities and resources — certainly by no fault of their own — that poise them to become what I call technologists or have the stem competencies to not only enter a field but persist in it. But then we have on top of that a K-12 system, where we see very clearly in contexts that have a disproportionate number of kids of color — African-American, Latinx and Native American — not having the same access to even advanced placement computer science courses, or teachers in those schools who don't have continued access to professional development. So the answer — as far as I'm concerned — is really one that thinks about the multiple tension points on the pathway that any person must navigate to be successful, but also to continue in science technology engineering or math.

GOLDSTEIN: So what are some of those obvious steps that need to be taken or the need to be at the very least thought about and that action needs to be taken so that we're not continuing with this vicious cycle?

SCOTT: One thing that I encourage individuals, but more importantly organizations to do is to have collaborations, to have dialogues in meaningful ways with other individuals. So what I see is many of these efforts are siloed — and meaning efforts related to diversity, equity and inclusion. And some of those efforts on their own are getting some results. Imagine what we could do if all of those efforts came together under one umbrella — that would require certainly dialogue.

GOLDSTEIN: Where are we seeing the bottleneck in particular? I know there are many options, but is there something about just in general where that's going?

SCOTT: I think there are a couple of responses. The data are clear that when African American and Latin X middle school girls — so tweens around 11, 12, 13 — they many times are much more interested in pursuing a science, technology, engineering and math career. Then there white correlates. However, they don't necessarily have access to the resources or the networks to maintain that interest. — so that's one issue. So it's critical that these efforts start not at higher ed, and really not even in high school — but during those tween years. I myself have a tween, and I can see how significant opportunities to something that they've never thought about can play.

GOLDSTEIN: You mentioned your tween, and obviously your tween has an impressive example to follow because you are in this career and you've succeeded. Is that a struggle as well that there are not as many examples for people to follow through? As you mentioned networking, that the people in the business may be very high achievers — or maybe because there aren't as many there aren't as many examples for me to say 'hey maybe I could ask that person to be a mentor for me or what not.'

SCOTT: I don't think we have done a very good job of documenting individual’s pathways who are successful in science, technology, engineering and math. I think that there are a multitude of examples. But what I found particularly through my compu girls work, is that some young women — and I'm talking about young women who were participants in the program 10 years ago and so now they're in the workforce — and they believe some of them that they failed because they did not go into a traditional STEM career. When in reality, if we look at the histories of some of our STEM leaders, they did not come from traditional STEM backgrounds — to cause an incredible shift and transformation in the way we even think about computers, and that goes beyond simply knowing how to code.

GOLDSTEIN: Kimberly Scott is a professor at ASU and executive director of the university's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology.

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