Scientist using microscope in laboratory. (Photo by: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via AP Images)

Boasting a stellar academic record, a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and an MBA, Carla landed a plum job at one of the nation’s leading computer and information technology companies. She was excited to join the tech world and contribute to the Texas-based company where she hoped to make her career.

Carla’s excitement didn’t last. A Black woman, she felt overlooked and excluded from opportunities to advance. She found herself fighting for her annual raise. “I honestly felt,” she said, “like it was because I was a woman. I had probably one other woman on my team at various times, and it just seemed like the men weren’t having the same problems we were having … I felt like at some point they weren’t listening to me.” After being asked to clean out the office of a colleague who had left the firm, she came across one of his old pay stubs. She discovered that he’d been making four times her salary despite having just one more year of experience. She abandoned her dream of working in technology and now works as a human resources officer for a law firm.

Carla’s story is one of 25 qualitative interviews at the core of a new report, STEM Voices: The Experiences of Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Occupations, published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). (Subjects spoke to us on condition of anonymity.) Carla’s account—and others—echoes many of the themes discovered in an earlier AEI survey of STEM worker perspectives, which identified sharp differences in perception about workplace environment, support, and opportunities. In that survey, conducted in 2020, white and Asian men saw the workplace as collaborative, open, and friendly and believed that women and minorities experienced their jobs in similar ways. Female and minority respondents said quite the opposite: They felt overlooked, not included as teammates, and cut off from the kind of coworker support their white and Asian male coworkers said they enjoyed. The survey data showed two almost entirely different worlds.

For STEM Voices, we tracked down 21 participants from the 2020 survey to paint a clearer picture of the people behind the survey data (interviews with a handful of other STEM professionals supplemented this research). Our findings help explain why diversity remains elusive in STEM: Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (DEI) can get workers to the foot of the ladder, but they don’t help them climb.

Despite myriad recruitment programs and initiatives to boost the number of women and minorities pursuing science and tech careers, women make up just 34 percent of the STEM workforce, according to the National Science Foundation. At the same time, Black and Hispanic Americans are underrepresented, especially among workers with a bachelor’s degree or more.

To be clear, the problems for women and minorities in STEM start well before employment and even before graduation from post-secondary institutions. One reason for these failures is a faulty “pipeline” of female and minority students into STEM. Blacks and Hispanics, for instance, are less likely to attend college, major in STEM, or complete a degree than whites. In 2017–19, Black and Hispanic students earned just 7 percent and 12 percent of STEM bachelor’s degrees, respectively, according to the Pew Research Center, though they collectively represent 31 percent of the U.S. population.

But as Stem Voices reveals, the pipeline isn’t the only problem. Our interviews delved deeply into workers’ personal and career trajectories to understand their experiences and the challenges they faced on the job.

Over and over, female and minority workers recalled confronting barriers to success, including social isolation, lack of mentors, and outright discrimination. Though STEM careers might be among the most lucrative and in demand in today’s economy, many of the female and minority workers we interviewed did not believe that those opportunities were available to them. “It’s very hard for women to rise,” said Michelle P., a white computer science instructor and author in her late 50s.

Exclusion and marginalization were common phenomena. For instance, many of the female and nonwhite workers we interviewed spoke of the isolation and pressure of being “the only one” in offices dominated by white men. “I feel like I need to be better than everybody else, just to show that I totally deserve to be here,” Sarah N., a Black female biochemist in her 50s, said. (She earned a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology.) Many said they felt shut out from opportunities for advancement and lamented the lack of supervisors and mentors who looked like them. As the computer instructor Michelle P. told us, “I never had a female manager. Ever.”

A majority of women and workers of color interviewed also said they had experienced some sort of stereotyping, discrimination, or bias because of their race or gender. Out of 19 female and nonwhite interviewees, only two said they had never personally experienced discrimination or disparate treatment. Many reported hurtful comments based on stereotypes about their intelligence or capabilities, which affected their morale, performance, and perceptions about their field. Others said they were passed over for promotions and other opportunities.

John D., a Black computer programmer, said he overheard colleagues at his firm say they “had to overlook qualified white people to hire unqualified Black people.” Tiffany C., an Asian doctoral student, said she was labeled as “difficult to work with” at the engineering design firm in Austin, Texas, where she worked before returning to graduate school. Carla A., the engineer, was told she needed “to smile more.” Another interviewee said one of her supervisors micromanaged her work but not those of lesser-qualified whites. “There is some sort of preconceived notion that Black people don’t do well in sciences,” J.S., who holds a doctorate in veterinary science and works for the federal government, said. 

Many interviewees said they confronted unwelcoming office cultures and that they struggled to fit in. Women with children said balancing work and family obligations was a particular challenge, while other women said they kept to themselves to avoid sexual harassment. “One of the things … I kind of learned early on, too … was to really make clear that … I was happily married and not looking for anything,” said the IT instructor Michelle P. David B., a Black engineer, said he felt the need to seem unthreatening to white colleagues and bosses at the naval shipyard where he worked. “I had to downplay the fact that I went to a good engineering school,” he told us. “As a matter of fact, I had to downplay that I even had an engineering degree, and I was going for a master’s degree.”

Compounding these issues are the vastly different perceptions alluded to above, held by white workers in STEM.

According to our July 2020 survey of STEM degree holders, more than 50 percent of women and nonwhite STEM workers said they believe that women and minorities encounter more obstacles in STEM than in other industries. AEI’s 2020 survey also found, however, that many white workers don’t agree that their female and minority colleagues face difficulties in advancement, which perhaps presents the thorniest challenge to improving diversity in STEM. To these white workers, there is no problem to fix.

Just 26 percent of whites in AEI’s previous survey, for instance, thought Black workers face more obstacles in STEM than in other fields compared to 51 percent of nonwhite workers. While only 34 percent of men said women face more hurdles to advancement, 54 percent of women said they did. The white men we interviewed for STEM Voices also reflected these sentiments. “I didn’t see people, females, and the few minorities that were there held back,” said the retired chemist Jack H., who spent his career in the Army and is white. “If you have the ability and the drive, people will see that.”

Moreover, some interviewees, such as the wildlife biologist Todd B., said they believed that concerns about racism and sexism are overblown. “When you have a fire and you let the fire burn down to nothing but an ember, when you start blowing on that ember, it’s going to break out into a flame again,” he said. “My opinion is if we stopped focusing on all the racism … if we just let it die down, it would eventually go away.”

This chasm in perceptions between white male workers on the one hand and their female and minority colleagues on the other means that STEM’s diversity crisis defies an easy fix. Culture, moreover, is notoriously difficult to change through policy.

This is something of a tautology: One of the best ways to solve the STEM diversity problem is simply to increase the number of women and minorities in the sector. To do that, we need complementary strategies that boost the numbers of women and minorities in the STEM pipeline and “stop-loss” efforts focused on retaining those already in the field who can strengthen diversity and inclusion efforts on the job and provide more mentors for those in the pipeline.

Historically black colleges and universities play a crucial role in building the pipeline. Many of the interviewees in STEM Voices, for instance, attended an HBCU, where they had mentors, felt challenged in their courses, and belonged to a community. These foundational experiences, interviewees said, instilled the confidence and self-reliance they’ve needed to survive in challenging work environments. One obvious step, therefore, is to increase investment in HBCUs, which produce a disproportionate share of the nation’s Black STEM graduates. Nearly half of the Black women who earned degrees in STEM between 1995 and 2004 graduated from an HBCU. Although the American Rescue Plan granted HBCUs a historic $2.7 billion, this much-needed infusion didn’t reverse decades of chronic underfunding.

Another pipeline strategy is to dramatically increase the number of Black and Hispanic K–12 teachers in STEM. Just 6 percent of K–12 STEM teachers in 2012 were Black, and only 6 percent were Hispanic, according to research by Tuan Nguyen of Kansas State University and Christopher Redding of the University of Florida. Increasing the number of minority teachers in STEM would provide more minority students with the role models and mentors that many of our interviewees said were critical to their decision to major in STEM fields in college. Expanding internships and early work experience would also allow minority students to develop mentors and professional networks for future guidance and support.

The retention challenge is rooted more in culture than in formal education and is, therefore, harder to address. The answer is not, however, more “diversity training.” As Frank Dobbin of Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University write, these efforts can backfire because “anti-bias messaging tends to provoke resistance in white men who feel unjustly accused of discrimination or worry that their employers’ commitment to equity threatens their careers.”

Most of the disadvantage women and minorities experience is subconscious and unintentional, rather than overtly racist or sexist. This accounts for the wildly different interpretations of working conditions and opportunities we discovered in the survey and STEM Voices. Everyone understands the awkwardness and discomfort of being outnumbered in a social setting. Alerting managers and employees to “go the extra mile” to ensure that women and minorities are integrated into day-to-day work will do much to break down barriers. As Dobbin and Kalev suggest, managing diversity should not be “relegated” to women and workers of color but be part of every manager’s job description.

Over time, structural investments and human resource efforts like these will produce the numbers of women and minority professionals necessary to shift the culture of STEM for the better. In the interim, those in positions of authority and advantage in the workplace need to redouble their efforts to build resilient workers who can succeed despite the odds against them.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.

Brent Orrell

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he conducts research on workforce development and criminal justice reform issues. Follow on Twitter @OrrellAEI.