The science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) industry should make every effort to work from the top down to encourage women and minorities to pursue careers in those fields, according to a study by the Bayer Corp., a health-care and nutrition company.
The Bayer Facts of Science Education XIV survey polled more than 1,200 female, black, Hispanic, and American Indian chemists and chemical engineers, who also are members of the American Chemical Society, about childhood, academic, and workplace experiences that play a role in attracting and retaining women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields.
“Almost eight in 10 of our survey respondents say women and underrepresented minorities are missing because they were not encouraged to study STEM fields early on,” said Bayer Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer Greg Babe.
Mae C. Jemison, a chemical engineer and America’s first black female astronaut, noted that she was lucky when she was growing up to have access to scientists and science programs that allowed her to explore her interest in the field.
“When I was in grade school in Chicago, we thought an engineer was the person who drove the train,” she said, pointing out that it was her access to teachers who were passionate about science that let her know becoming an engineer was an option.
Regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity, interest in science begins in early childhood.
Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they first became interested in science by age 11. This parallels the findings of a 1998 Bayer Facts survey of American Ph.D. scientists, which included white men. In that survey, six in 10 also reported interest in science by age 11.
“All children have an innate interest in science and the world around them. But for many children, that interest hits roadblocks along an academic system that is still not blind to gender or color. These roadblocks have nothing to do with intellect, innate ability, or talent,” Jemison said.
“On the contrary, they are the kinds of larger, external socio-cultural and economic forces that students have no control over. As students, they cannot change the fact that they do not have access to [high-] quality science and math education in their schools. But adults can. And we must.”
Jemison pointed out that her childhood and early academic experience were exceptions and not the rule.
The survey results identified the three top causes or contributors that respondents thought lead to underrepresentation in STEM fields.
Those causes include a lack of high-quality science and math education programs in poorer school districts (cited by 75 percent of respondents); persistent stereotypes that STEM isn’t for girls or minorities (66 percent); and financial issues related to the cost of education (53 percent).
Discouragement also is something that those surveyed said they have to face and overcome if they want to be successful in STEM fields.
“Sixty percent say college is the leading place they are discouraged,” Jemison said. “I had professors who were not entirely pleased to see me in their classrooms.”