Racial and Gender Gaps Widening in STEM

Women and most minorities are being left behind

(Image: Thinkstock)

Early this week I’m in San Diego attending the U.S. News & World Report’s STEM Solutions Leadership Conference. A central theme of the conference is making increasing diversity in STEM a national priority. U.S. News and Raytheon, a technology and innovation leader specializing in defense, civil government, and cyber security, have released an Index that shows, unfortunately, that the racial and gender gaps in STEM achievement are widening.

[Related: Paying It Forward: How One Doctor Uses Children’s Books to Promote Science Careers]

The conference itself, however, highlights what is working in school districts across the country and in organizations that are attempting to rectify the problem, and I’ll be reporting on some of the panels and keynotes I attend. But just to sort of frame this problem, let me share the following: The STEM advocacy group Change the Equation, whose mission it is to ensure that all students are STEM capable, notes on its site that the U.S. was ranked last place in a test of numeracy skills given to adults age 16–24 in 23 developed countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD.

To more fully identify and understand the scope of this problem and how communities of color are affected, let’s turn to U.S. News:

While the number of jobs, types of degrees granted and level of student interest in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields continues to increase since 2000, the second-annual U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index shows that multimillion-dollar efforts by both the public and the private sectors have failed to close gender and racial gaps in STEM.

The 2015 STEM Index, created with support from Raytheon, shows a slight uptick in STEM-related education and employment activity in the United States compared to last year. But the raw data show that gaps between men and women and between whites and minorities remain deeply entrenched — and, in some cases, have even widened.

With few exceptions, women lag behind men in the number of STEM degrees granted, exam scores, and general interest in the STEM fields. White and Asian students and college graduates overwhelmingly outperformed black, Hispanic, and American Indian students in all three metrics.

The difference is especially stark when looking at the number of STEM degrees awarded: While STEM bachelor’s degrees earned by black college students rose 60% from 2000 to 2014, that share shrunk compared to the overall number of bachelor’s degrees earned  by black students. Meanwhile, the portion of STEM degrees awarded to white students grew 10% compared to the number of bachelor’s degrees earned by white students overall.

“There either hasn’t been much progress or it’s declined,” says David Miller, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies STEM trends.

The results match a February report by Change the Equation, which found that the STEM workforce is no more diverse now than it was 14 years ago. Another report last year by the National Science Board also found women and minorities remain underrepresented in the STEM fields.

To read more, go to U.S. News & World Report.

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