Role Models and Mentors Can Inspire More Women of Color to Join STEM Fields

Role Models and Mentors Can Inspire More Women of Color to Join STEM FieldsAs we celebrate Black History Month and the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we see so much potential for Black and Hispanic women to make great contributions in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Yet, there are still far too few women of color in the pipeline to take on these high-paying, in-demand roles. Where are we falling short, and how can women leaders (in all fields) help turn the tide?

Opportunities are significant

A Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics prior to the pandemic showed job growth in STEM fields expected to be much higher than job growth overall through 2029 (9.2% for STEM jobs compared to 3.7% overall). Updated analysis shows especially strong gains in research and development, and increasing demand in computer-related occupations, especially with the rise of remote work.

In addition to offering growth, these fields pay well above average. The median annual earnings of full-time workers age 25 and older in 2019 dollars for all jobs is about $50,000. For STEM jobs, it’s $77,000. The need for a talented STEM workforce has grown nearly 80% in the past three decades and remains strong, according to Bridget Long, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, commenting in The Harvard Gazette. But hot job prospects are only one reason STEM professionals are needed. “STEM fields demand curious individuals eager to solve the world’s most pressing problems,” Long said.

To address global challenges, diversity of perspective, talents and background would seem more important than ever.

The disconnect

Unfortunately for all of us, that diverse talent pool is still not fully present in STEM roles. Black and Hispanic people remain significantly underrepresented. While Black workers comprise 11% of all employed adults, they hold only 5% of engineering jobs, with no growth in that number since 2016. Hispanic workers make up 17% of the total employment across all occupations, but only 8% of STEM workers, according to Pew.

Women represent fewer than a quarter of workers in computing and engineering, and those who do work in these fields earn less than men, with Black and Hispanic women earning the least. Time won’t solve the issue either because there are not enough women and people of color earning degrees in STEM disciplines today to meet current or future needs.

Role models can help show the way

Felicia Warren, MPH, Team Lead, Operational Policy and Training Team, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is grateful for the mentors who helped her discover the critical field of public health and she is always eager to introduce other women of color to the abundant opportunities in STEM disciplines.

“I was an undergrad at Emory University when I had the chance to work with a research group focused on clinical research and public health,” Warren explains. “They opened my eyes to the difference I could make in the world by helping to identify public health risk factors and develop strategies for prevention.” She went back to school to earn a master’s degree in public health.

“As a first-generation college graduate, I didn’t have a blueprint,” Warren explains. “Mentors have been essential and have guided me through the process.” The value she has drawn from mentors who have shared advice and served as sounding boards has made her want to give back in the same way.

Critical need for diverse perspectives

Warren’s deep engagement in the COVID-19 pandemic further strengthened her belief that people of color must be represented in STEM fields. “We really need to have everyone included in tackling big problems,” she says. “We need that diversity of experiences and thoughts and the ability to bring our whole selves to any role we’re in.” During the pandemic, and in many areas related to public health, she has seen how disproportionately people of color are affected and says their voices and perspectives need to be reflected in leadership.

Expanding opportunities, increasing inclusion

With increased emphasis today on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) in many organizations, Warren strives to surround herself with leaders who actually practice the ideals of making room for others, opening doors of opportunity and sharing their networks. “Because of great mentors, I have a career that has taken me all over the world and enables me to contribute from the community level to the international level to make the world a better place. It’s a priority for me to give back and inspire other people of color, and especially other women of color, to consider STEM fields too.”

Warren recently spearheaded an effort that resulted in $10 million in new funding to recruit scientists from primarily Black, Hispanic, Tribal and Asian institutions of higher education for a CDC global health fellowship program.

She encourages young women (and career changers) to ask questions and get exposure to STEM fields. “You may not see that job being done right now by someone who looks like you, but ask, ‘Why not me?’” she says. “It’s not easy, but it’s okay to blaze new trails and then surround yourself with people who can offer support, guidance and advice. Many leaders want to mentor and help; you just have to let them know what you’re interested in so they can advocate on your behalf.”

Even women in other disciplines can inspire young women to consider STEM careers and connect them with peers who can show them the way.