Voices in Education

Increase the Representation and Advancement of Women of Color in STEM
What are the factors that sustain women of color through higher education and contribute to their educational and career success? What strategies can increase the representation and advancement of women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields?

Established in 1980, the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering (CEOSE) is a congressionally mandated advisory committee charged with advising the National Science Foundation (NSF) on policies and programs to encourage full participation by women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in STEM fields. In 2009, CEOSE called for a mini-symposium to examine the current state of women of color in STEM higher education and careers. This mini-symposium, held in Arlington, VA, in October 2009, brought together a unique configuration of experts to discuss the representation and advancement of this key demographic in STEM fields. (A complete report can be downloaded here: http://www.nsf.gov/od/oia/activities/ceose/reports/TERC_mini_symp_rprt_hires.pdf.)
Suggestions emerging from the mini-symposium were developed into ten key policy recommendations and sent to NSF Director Dr. Subra Suresh. These recommendations are listed in CEOSE’s 2009 – 2010 Biennial Report and will be presented to every member of Congress in 2011.

CEOSE is recommending that NSF and comparable agencies undertake the following:

1. Increase the participation of women of color in NSF programs.
2. Invest in developing leadership abilities in STEM by women of color.
3. Disaggregate data by race/ethnicity, gender, and disability and report it widely.
4. Establish and support a Science of Broadening Participation Program at NSF.
5. Support research and evaluations on understanding causes of drop-off and dropout rates of women of color in STEM education and careers and on practices that circumvent attrition and improve retention.
6. Fund research, evaluations, and development of practices that target key transition points where the greatest loss of women of color from STEM occurs.
7. Fund workshops, conferences, travel awards, and social networks that enable women of color scientists and engineers to network and mentor one another.
8. Fund programs and workshops that teach managers, administrators, and senior staff of colleges, universities, and federal agencies how to mentor women of color in STEM in a culturally competent fashion.
9. Develop and support a centralized, digital clearinghouse of information about women of color in STEM.
10. Restructure grant funding so that a portion is withheld until a follow-up report is submitted by the grantee on how the broadening participation component of the Broader Impacts criterion will be met. (For further explanation of the Broader Impacts criterion, see http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/policydocs/pappguide/nsf11001/gpg_3.jsp.)

Rapid implementation of these action steps could play a major role in closing the significant gaps in higher degree achievement and STEM career advancement between women of color and other demographics. Women of color should be playing major roles in providing much-needed science and engineering talent as faculty and researchers and contributing to the nation’s overall social well-being through scientific and technological advances. The challenges associated with these roles are large, but not insurmountable. Greater policy supports are needed to help provide the necessary skills, mentoring, networking, and opportunities that will aid in building an effective workforce in STEM.

At this key moment in our nation’s scientific and economic development, let us commit to maximizing our talent pool and developing the potential of all Americans, including those too often left behind.

About the Author: Muriel Poston is the Chair on the Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering.