As in other professional fields, in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, landing a career depends on successfully traveling through a figurative pipeline. This pipeline leads people from early childhood education to university to job opportunities in adulthood. However, the figurative STEM pipeline doesn’t flow smoothly for women and underrepresented minorities.
Some suggestions for “unblocking” the STEM pipeline have included making STEM-related exploratory learning available to the very young, implementing realistic STEM curricula on a widespread basis, introducing students to STEM role models, and supporting students in their STEM learning through college and beyond. However, the last point in this list shows troubling signs of persistent problems for women and underrepresented minorities. Read on to learn more.
Blockages in the STEM Pipeline
A 2019 report from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES), part of the National Science Foundation, indicates that women, people with disabilities, African Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, American Indians, and Alaska Natives are all underrepresented in education and employment in science and engineering (S&E).
Overall, the report shows that in 2017, almost 70% of all full-time employees in S&E were white men. In addition, women, who made up 51.5% of the U.S. population and 47% of the U.S. workforce in 2017, received only 41% of the S&E doctorates awarded. Meanwhile, although underrepresented minorities made up 27% of the U.S. population and 30% of the U.S workforce, this population received only 11% of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in 2017.
Underrepresentation of women and minorities in full-time employment and doctoral degrees are two significant blockages in the STEM pipeline; hiring practices for post-doctoral positions are another. Post-doctoral positions are crucial to professional advancement in STEM fields in academia. These positions allow graduates with doctoral degrees in STEM fields to gain more research or teaching experience before being hired as faculty members.
However, according to a 2019 study by researchers from Florida International University, the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Goldsmiths University of London, stereotypes about gender and race can negatively impact hiring of members of underrepresented groups in these post-doctoral positions.
Bias in STEM Hiring
An associate editor of Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, analyzed this recent study. In her analysis, she explained that the researchers who conducted the study focused on five groups: women, Asians, African Americans, Latinos, and whites. The researchers presented those responsible for the hiring of post-doctoral applicants with application materials that were identical except for the names of the applicants; these application materials were for hypothetical post-doctoral positions. The researchers discovered that those responsible for hiring post-doctoral positions in biology displayed racial bias, while those responsible for hiring post-doctoral positions in physics displayed both racial and gender bias.
The results of this study corroborate the findings of a previous study that was conducted in 2012. The 2012 study, published by the National Academies of Sciences of the United States of America, focused on gender bias in hiring practices for a laboratory manager position. The researchers who conducted this study presented identical application materials to those responsible for hiring. They found that male applicants were considered more hireable and competent than female applicants. The researchers also found that the male applicants were awarded higher salaries and offered more professional mentoring.
A Troubling Lack of Progress
When compared to the 2012 study, the 2019 study reveals a troubling lack of progress when it comes to unblocking the STEM pipeline for those underrepresented in STEM fields. In fact, in its 2019 report, the NCSES shows that the percentage of women earning doctoral degrees in S&E has remained almost unchanged since 2006. The NCSES report also shows that although members of underrepresented minority groups have made some progress in earning both bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in S&E at higher rates over the years, this group’s representation in earning S&E degrees still lags relative to its percentage of the U.S. population.
Proposed Changes to Post-Doctoral Hiring in STEM
Terry McGlynn, a biology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills and author of an article published in ChronicleVitae, a publication of the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggests that one way to reduce bias in post-doctoral hiring in STEM would be to require a formal hiring procedure that ensures accountability and equity. He explains that this would be an improvement over the current system, in which much hiring of post-doctoral positions is done in an informal, non-transparent manner. McGlynn also suggests that a rotation system, in which those hired for post-doctoral positions are placed in laboratories and teaching posts on a rotating basis, might be another solution.