Study Finds Women and Minorities in STEM Are Discriminated Against, to the Shock of No One

Diversity efforts in science and technology aren't successfully combating discrimination, finds Pew Research Center.

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Jan 9 2018, 10:23pm

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Women and racial minorities face extreme levels of discrimination in science and technology fields, according to a nationwide study by Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank. The report, which was released today, implies that highly-publicized diversity efforts—at technology companies, for instance—aren’t measurably combating systemic oppression in the workplace.

In STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), nearly half of women who work in male-dominated environments say that sexual harassment is a problem, according to the study. Half of women in all STEM environments have experienced some kind of discrimination, ranging from unfair pay to being denied important assignments.

Women of color are especially exposed to this. Black women face steep barriers in STEM fields, and are significantly undervalued compared to their white, female counterparts. Discrimination against black women isn’t only present in STEM workplaces; it’s also deeply entrenched in all levels of academia, previous studies have reported.

This study found that 62 percent of blacks (men and women) in STEM reported racially-motivated discrimination. In comparison, 44 percent of Asians and 42 percent of Hispanics said they were targeted for their race, versus only 13 percent of whites.

“People have preconceived ideas of what I am capable of doing,” said a black, male physical scientist in response to the survey.

“This ‘other-ness’ exists intentionally or unintentionally between those of a minority and those of a majority from lacking of common cultural background,” an Asian, female engineer said, also in response to the survey. While relationships between whites and minorities appear polite, she added, work opportunities are infrequently made available to minority colleagues.

Blacks and Hispanics continue to be underrepresented in STEM—a trend that mirrors attendance at America’s top universities. Blacks account for 9 percent of the STEM workforce (compared to 11 percent of the total US workforce), while Hispanics comprise 7 percent of the STEM workforce (compared to 16 percent of the total US workforce).

These percentages contradict the belief that minority underrepresentation in STEM merely reflects US population demographics. Blacks and Hispanics are still under-employed in these fields compared to overall workforce numbers.

An argument known as “pipeline problem,” which claims that a dearth of minority talent contributes to poor diversity, is also weakened by the study. More than 70 percent of black STEM workers, and 43 percent of Hispanics, say that discrimination during recruitment, hiring, and promotion processes is behind a lack of representation. Only 27 percent of whites, and 28 percent of Asians, reported this.

Asians are overrepresented across all STEM groups compared to the total US workforce. They also earn the most, even compared against white STEM workers. (The majority of the Asian STEM workforce, the report notes—82 percent—is foreign-born, and it’s important to acknowledge the different experiences of Asians versus Asian-Americans in any study on race.)

This doesn’t mean that Asians don’t experience discrimination, however. As previously stated, 44 percent of Asians in STEM felt judged for their race, according to the study.

“In this regard, blacks working in STEM jobs share common ground with Asians and, to a lesser degree, Hispanics who are all much less likely than whites in such jobs to believe that members of their own racial or ethnic group are usually treated fairly,” the study points out.

The study also doesn’t denote employment levels—whether someone occupies an entry, mid, or high-level position. Asians, while abundant in STEM, are less likely to occupy leadership roles at American technology companies, one previous study found.

Asian and Asian-American women also face a culture of harassment at these companies, according to recent testimonies. “I felt like I had to tolerate it because this is the cost of being a non-white female founder,” Lindsay Meyer, an Asian-American technology entrepreneur, told The New York Times last year.

The data in Pew Research Center’s study came from the US Census Bureau, and a nationally representative survey of 4,914 US adults between July 11 and August 10 last year. Since then, workers—especially women—in multiple industries, including STEM, have spurred a movement to out sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.