Marlynn Rollins

Diversity in STEM: What is it, why does it matter, and how do we increase it?

Marlynn Rollins — UC Davis PhD Student/California Sea Grant Extension Intern Summer 2020

Due to recent events, academia has seen a major new focus on representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Science and tech fields affect almost every aspect of our lives from the food we eat to the cell phones we use. However, innovations are not spontaneously created; they come from the ingenuity and intelligence of talented individuals working together to problem-solve and achieve goals—and research has shown that diversity can benefit all of these things. Yet despite all the statistics, articles, blog posts, and TED talks, there’s still little agreement on how to achieve diversity within STEM.

As a young scientist of color working on my Ph.D., I’ve been wanting to do the research myself. I’ve been approaching this topic the same way all scientists do: by reviewing the peer-reviewed literature. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far. 

What is diversity? 

No one individual can be diverse; diversity is the existence of variety within a group. This variety may come from differences in gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, disability status, or other factors. Yet despite all these sources of difference, STEM continues to be dominated by white males, while women and other racial and ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented. According to the NSF, the STEM workforce is 89% white and 72% male, while the overall workforce is 78% white and 53% male. Right now in the U.S., there are currently more non-white children than white children, and nearly half of all children born are female. STEM fields do not currently reflect the diversity of our country. 

Why does diversity matter in STEM?

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a more diverse team is more likely to outperform a more homogenous team—even when the homogenous team is considered to have “relatively greater ability” as individuals than the more diverse group. Authors of the study suggest this is because people with different backgrounds have different experiences and perspectives, and because of this, they approach problems differently, ask different questions, and develop more innovative solutions. By being more inclusive, the likelihood of scientific success is higher, promoting economic growth and competitiveness. 

How do we increase diversity in STEM?

Increasing diversity in STEM is a complicated task that requires work in many arenas, but studies suggest the key to doing so is by creating a more inclusive environment. Studies have shown that a sense of belonging or a lack thereof affect academic success. According to a 2019 study done in California, female and minority graduate students published as many papers as their white male peers when they felt accepted by their faculty and peers, had clear departmental expectations and felt prepared for their graduate courses. This suggests that acceptance in academia is in part related to academic success. For many underrepresented students, it may feel overwhelming to “be the first” in a graduate program or job position. Additionally, a lack of representation among faculty members and a lack of cultural awareness by faculty can be intimidating for students or employees.  

Systemic barriers like implicit and explicit bias bar underrepresented groups from entering the STEM workforce and hinder academic success as well. Discrimination has been shown to negatively impact physical health, mental health, and academic outcomes. A study done in 2013 showed that despite support from parents and teachers, discrimination was a major barrier for ethnic minority students pursuing further STEM education. For minority students, discrimination has negative impacts on  grades, value of education, academic curiosity, self-efficacy, academic motivation and achievement. Students who face discrimination are also more likely to doubt their abilities in math, science, and general academic skills. On the other hand, a more diverse group of peers is linked to more positive academic outcomes. By creating a more inclusive environment, providing education in implicit and explicit bias, and doing more holistic reviews of students and job applicants, greater diversity can be achieved.

Further reading

Gibbs, Kenneth. “Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 10 Sept. 2014.

Hall, Alysha Ramirez, et al. “Discrimination, Friendship Diversity, and STEM-Related Outcomes for Incoming Ethnic Minority College Students.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, vol. 103, 2017, pp. 76–87., doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2017.08.010.

Hong, L., and S. E. Page. “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 101, no. 46, 2004, pp. 16385–16389., doi:10.1073/pnas.0403723101.

Ouimet, Maeghan. “5 Numbers That Explain Why STEM Diversity Matters to All of Us.” Wired, Conde Nast, 25 Aug. 2015