Improving the representation of women of color in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is a national imperative. A 2011 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology projected that 1 million more STEM professionals are needed by 2030 to maintain our nation’s global competitiveness. In addition, a 2016 report from the Intel Corporation and Dahlberg Global Development Advisors, Decoding Diversity: The Financial and Economic Returns in Tech, suggests that increasing racial and ethnic diversity and ensuring full representation of gender diversity in the U.S. technology workforce has the potential to add $470 to $570 billion in new value to the U.S. tech industry. To achieve this ambitious national goal, we must draw upon all available talent, including the recruitment and retention of more women of color in STEM (PCAST, 2012), and address longstanding inequities and exclusionary practices that impede our ability to utilize the talents of those who are committed to STEM careers. Although tech can refer to a number of academic disciplines and careers across a wide variety of sectors within STEM, the committee’s statement of task limits its focus to computer science, computer and information science and support services, information technology, and computer engineering; however, the committee has drawn upon research literature and other evidence from related STEM disciplines to inform its discussion of and recommendations for increasing the representation of women of color in tech levels of their academic and professional careers (Box 1-1).
In 2009, the National Science Foundation’s Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering hosted a “Mini Symposium on Women of Color in STEM,” chaired by Evelynn Hammonds of Harvard University and Mia Ong of the Technical Education Research Center. The report recommended that the
National Science Foundation and Congress support “workshops and conferences for critical stakeholders (i.e., professional societies, university department chairs in STEM, honor societies) to discuss preparation of women of color for employment and share evidence-based best practices.” The present report is a direct response to the 2009 report.
The present study was also informed by a series of reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and other research organizations, including the following:
- Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors (NASEM, 2020).
- Barriers and Opportunities for 2-Year and 4-Year STEM Degrees: Systemic Change to Support Students’ Diverse Pathways (NASEM, 2016).
- Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science (Williams, Phillips, and Hall, 2014).
- Women in Tech: The Facts (Ashcraft et al., 2016).
- Seeking Solutions: Maximizing American Talent by Advancing Women of Color in Academia (NASEM, 2013).
- Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads (NRC, 2011).
- Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty (NRC, 2010).
- Inside the Double Bind: A Synthesis of Empirical Research on Undergraduate and Graduate Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (Ong et al., 2011).
- The Mini-Symposium on Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM): A Summary of Events, Findings, and Suggestions (Ong, 2010).
Over the last two decades, the proportion of underrepresented women of color (African American, Latinx, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and other Pacific Islander) who receive degrees at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels has more than doubled (NSF, 2013, 2017). However, despite this important achievement, women of color remain significantly underrepresented relative to the national population, with the exception of some subgroups of Asian American women. The underrepresentation of women of color in STEM fields is especially pronounced in the tech sector (Ashcraft et al., 2016). Major tech companies such as Apple and Dell report that only 3 percent and 4 percent of their employees are African American/Black women, respectively, while companies like Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Yahoo, and LinkedIn report that only 1 percent of their employees or fewer are African American/Black women (Dillon et al., 2015). The underrepresentation of these women in tech careers is strongly influenced by the small number of women of color who pursue academic majors in tech areas such as computer science and computer and information science. According to recent surveys from the Computing Research Association and the Association for Computing Machinery, U.S. universities are experiencing burgeoning enrollments in tech-related majors (Camp et al., 2017a, 2017b), a trend that is projected to continue given the growing impact of computer science on nearly every sector of business, academic disciplines, and most aspects of modern life. A significant proportion of the growth in enrollment for students of color has come from minority-serving institutions. Despite this overall increase in enrollments, the data also demonstrate a decline in enrollments for Black/African American students. In addition, enrollments for women and students of color decrease as course level increases (Camp et al., 2017b). Camp and colleagues (2017b) noted that efforts to increase enrollments may reduce diversity but reported a significant correlation between academic units that took actions to assist with diversity goals and higher proportions of women and students of color. They also reported that only 14.9 percent of academic units specifically
chose actions with consideration of reducing impact of those actions on diversity, and only 11.4 percent decided against actions because of potential impacts on diversity. The current expansion in student enrollment in tech-related education is an opportunity to engage and empower institutions to learn from the past and support a culture of inclusivity. They can do so by considering diversity, equity, and inclusion in the development of strategies to recruit and retain women of color to ensure that students who receive these degrees are more ethnically and gender diverse than they have been historically.
Women of color at all levels of their academic or professional careers—including those who have advanced—who work in tech commonly experience feelings of isolation (i.e., feelings of invisibility or hypervisibility), macro- and microaggressions, and a sense of “not belonging” (Ong et al., 2011). In addition, women of color are often excluded from informal professional networks and are more negatively affected when institutions or organizations do not have career-life balance policies that address gender differences in regard to pressure associated with having a family (Kachchaf et al., 2015). These experiences of bias and exclusion that question women’s competence, contributions, ambition, and leadership can culminate in women doubting their abilities and experiencing what is often described as “imposter syndrome”—a phenomenon that is particularly prevalent in biased and inhospitable organizational cultures (Tulshyan and Burey, 2021).
A 2014 study based on interviews with 60 women of color working in STEM fields (20 each of Latinx, Asian American, and Black women) and an online survey of 557 women in STEM (both women of color and white women) found pervasive gender bias (Williams, 2014). One hundred percent of the women interviewed reported experiencing some form of gender bias (Williams, 2014), including prove-it-again bias (Eagly and Mladinic, 1994; Foschi, 1996, 2000), the tightrope bias (Cuddy et al., 2004; Fiske, 1999), the maternal wall bias (Cuddy et al, 2004; Correll et al., 2007), and/or the tug-of-war bias (Derks et al., 2011a, 2011b) (Box 1-2). The type of bias varied by ethnicity. Black women were more likely to report the prove-it-again bias, Asian women students benefited from the stereotype that Asians are “good at science,” Latinas reported being pressured by colleagues to do administrative support work for their male colleagues, and nearly half of Black and Latina women reported regularly being mistaken as custodial or administrative staff. Women of color who work in science and engineering may experience isolation (Williams and Dempsey, 2014), racial stereotypes, accent discrimination, and a lack of role models, effective mentors, and professional networks (Kachchaf et al., 2015).
Educational institutions and employers have implemented many interventions to improve the representation of women in STEM, but these efforts tend to primarily benefit white women (Ong et al., 2011). Thus, it is essential to adopt an intersectional approach to the issue of diversity in tech to account for the
complex, cumulative ways in which multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racism and sexism) intersect in the experiences of women of color.
Intersectionality is an important component to discussions and analysis of the experiences of women of color. The first few subsections provide an overview of intersectionality and related concepts, followed by a description of the committee’s approach. For more than 30 years, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a lawyer, civil rights intellectual leader, and legal scholar, has used critical race theory to interpret the law. She coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways that multiple forms of inequality can be compounded to create obstacles that do not align with conventional ways of thinking about social advocacy. In 1989, Crenshaw published Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex, in which she described Black women’s experiences of discrimination as being at the intersection of gender and race, which, as axes of analysis, are not mutually exclusive. Her work demonstrated the shortcomings of prevailing antidiscrimination law and policy as related to Black women’s experiences, and, subsequently, to the experiences of any woman of color or people experiencing multiple forms of discrimination. In particular, Crenshaw demonstrated that women of color were excluded from legal narratives about racial justice, which largely focused on Black men’s experiences, and gender equality, which largely focused on white women’s experiences.
Crenshaw’s intersectional lens provides the conceptual context for a broader exploration of systemic inequalities that are perpetuated by the systems in which women of color live, learn, and work.
Over the years, the application of intersectionality to research and practice has exploded across multidisciplinary scholarship. Patricia Hill Collins (2015) noted that these variations expose a growing challenge: While intersectionality represents an opportunity to define the complexities of gender and racial disparities as well as other identity-based inequities (such as age and ability), how we conceptualize and understand intersectionality is far from clear or consistent. As intersectionality has grown in popularity and as an accepted field of study, some parts of its narrative are better understood, while other efforts to address intersectionality dilute or weaken its original intent (Collins, 2015). For example, it is generally understood that women of color experience unique forms of gender and racial discrimination, but what is often lost in translation is the fact that women of color are not a monolithic group. Within the populations of groups that are the focus of this committee’s report, there can be substantial variation in experiences and representation. As a whole, women of color require distinct and unique supports, relative to the inequitable power and social systems they experience; however, these supports must be informed by the varying experiences and challenges faced by different groups of women of color.
The Double Bind and Intersectionality
In December 1975, the American Association for the Advancement of Science convened a two-day workshop chaired by Jewel Plummer Cobb, a member of the National Science Board and advisor to American Association for the Advancement of Science. Thirty Black, Mexican American, Native American, and Puerto Rican women were invited to participate, representing various fields of science, engineering, medicine, and dentistry and coming from a variety of educational and work experiences and generational and geographic backgrounds. The workshop participants discussed the experiences of countless women who had been consistently excluded as contributors to and scholars of the scientific community. In her preface to the workshop report, Plummer Cobb wrote:
Although this group of women came from the “pure” and applied sciences, with a wide range of ages and experiences and diverse backgrounds and cultures, we shared a common bond; and a special and warm sense of sisterhood sprang from this. Generation gaps did not divide us, nor did our varied vocations, nor our cultural diversity. The common ties were those of the double oppression of sex and race or ethnicity plus the third oppression in the chosen career, science (Malcom et al., 1976, p. ix).
The report of this workshop described this double oppression as the “double bind,” the systematic biases—based on racism and sexism—that women of color
experience in the professional scientific community (Malcom et al., 1976). These findings—which provided insight into the “differentness” that women of color experienced across educational (pre-collegiate and collegiate), familial, cultural, and societal dimensions—described the experiences of the 30 women who attended the workshop. Forty-five years later, the same experiences echo within the STEM community of women of color, particularly in the contemporary contexts of educational and workforce development.
The double bind contends that men of color and white women must understand two dimensions related to the experiences and realities of women of color: first, that enormous and unique demands are commonly placed on them and, second, that racial and gender identities cannot be separated from their lived experiences. Intersectionality acknowledges the interlocking nature of racial and gender discrimination that women of color experience and underscores the roles of power and privilege in causing and, in some cases, enforcing discrimination at multiple levels.
Systems of Power and Intersectionality
Collins (2015) highlighted variation in scholars’ definitions of intersectionality and defines attention to power and social inequalities as a common thread. Moreover, she argued that categories of group membership are best understood from an orientation of relational terms because categories of group membership “underlie and shape intersecting systems of power; the power relations of racism and sexism, for example, are interrelated” (Collins, 2015, p. 14).
To inform solutions intended to increase the representation and success of women of color in tech, it is critical to consider systems of power and oppression that affect individuals’ experiences. Winston and Winston (2012) highlighted several characteristics of systems of power within racialized societies such as the United States. They asserted that power systems have important attributes: (1) structure, form, and stability over time; (2) uniform and identifiable patterns; and (3) systems may be “theoretically neutral” as in Brazil or systems may partly be specified in law as in the southern United States, contrasted with customary practices as exemplified in de facto segregation in northern states. Critical institutions become the effective operational structures of such discriminatory systems (e.g., education, housing, and the health care system).
The systems theory most relevant to intersectionality is critical race theory. Many scholars trace the origins of critical race theory to legal scholars’ analyses of critical legal studies. These scholars argued that critical legal studies restricted the legal ability to analyze racial injustice in the law and within critical institutions because the studies did not adequately consider race and racism (Bell, 1985, 1987; Crenshaw, 1989; Crenshaw et al., 1995; Delgado, 1988; Winston, 1991). To address this deficiency, scholars developed a jurisprudence that accounts for the role of racism in U.S. law, asserting that the failure to explain how systems
of power promote structural inequalities that systematically discriminate against individuals, based on their racial group membership, maintains and perpetuates hegemony and the status quo. Similarly, legal scholars in the late 1980s and 1990s described the inadequacies of the U.S. laws at that time to account for both racial and gender discrimination simultaneously experienced by women of color in the workplace (Crenshaw, 1989; Crenshaw et al., 1995; Winston, 1991). Thus, it is important that the use of the term intersectionality in the context of women of color in tech recognizes its roots within legal studies and U.S. law.
The Committee’s Perspective on Intersectionality
This committee used intersectionality as an analytic framework to interpret evidence about the underrepresentation of women of color in tech. As such, the committee recommends solutions that account for the interconnectedness of the multiplicative experiences of sexism, ageism, and racism encountered by women of color in tech within the organizations where they learn and work. The committee also considered it important to unpack the term “women of color” in order to better understand the experiences of Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women. The experience of people in each group—and within each group—is steeped in gender and racial inequities that intersect differently and thus require interventions and policies that acknowledge those differences. In a similar way, women of color within each group have distinct and diverse backgrounds, cultures, and histories within the United States and throughout the world. Collectively, women of color share similar experiences, but their communities are not monoliths. The committee also believes that it is important to challenge assumptions about the meaning of “underrepresented,” as it does not imply an impoverished background or an inherent inability to excel academically or professionally. As a result, the committee has taken the opportunity, when possible, to avoid the use of words like “minority” and “underrepresented” to describe individuals who have been historically excluded, instead describing the people we seek to support and understand clearly, rather than identifying them in statistical terms.
There are also systemic differences in how women of color need to be supported with respect to access to equity and excellence in education and the workplace; therefore, the committee’s definition of intersectionality extends beyond describing racial and gender group membership (i.e., the intersection of race and gender) to incorporate dimensions of oppression, power, and privilege that plague the tech environments in which women of color learn and work. In terms of education, systemic differences include funding for educational equipment, identification of role models, and an inclusive curriculum. For the workplace, it is important to acknowledge power structures that may be barriers to success or to develop specialized programs that support the unique experiences of women of color. Often these differences are influenced by power and privilege to create
barriers to the entry and persistence of women of color, which can result in low numbers of women of color in tech at all levels.
Throughout the report, the committee calls for the scientific community to adopt an intentional intersectional approach in its efforts to study the experiences of women of color in tech. Too often, the methodologies the scientific establishment relies upon, which may apply well in some situations, do not account for intersectionality and therefore do not yield critically important information that is needed to better understand the experiences of women of color in these fields or identify the factors that are affecting their attrition or lack of advancement in these fields. Slaton and Pawley (2018) articulated this well:
Because of the small numbers of women of color in engineering, analysts deem it methodologically necessary to aggregate all women together even when participants’ experiences differ by race, or to aggregate all African American participants together even when their experiences differ by gender, even though this methodological decision results in losing not just nuance but entire lived experiences of engineering education. The idea of what may comprise “representative” experience (in the statistical sense) takes precedent, and may discourage researchers’ engagement with the idea of intersectional identities. In any inquiry where sheer numbers dictate viable populations for study, we risk dismissing curiosity about the forms of identity (for example, along lines of sexuality, dis/ability, nationality, or age) that are associated with the most severe underrepresentation. Meaningful patterns of student participation in engineering education are seen to reside only in studies above a certain scale, as prevailing evidentiary standards determine what may and may not be subject to study. In other words, the logics of acceptable methods function to ensure that some stories are never studied because there aren’t “enough” of them, even though their scarcity is precisely what makes the subjects critical to study.
In keeping with the rationale described previously, much of the research reviewed by the committee in this report is from projects that use qualitative research methods with small sample sizes. The purpose of such qualitative research is to gain an in-depth understanding of a phenomenon—often centered around answering why and how the phenomenon is experienced and the meanings it holds for people—which can be done with small samples of participants (APA, 2019; Creswell, 2013; Glaser and Strauss, 1967). Research based on qualitative methods, such as interview work, aims to understand phenomena by creating categories from the data and then analyzing relationships between categories, while paying attention to the lived experiences of the research participants (Charmaz, 1990, 2006). The committee recognizes the limitations of data using small sample sizes and the ability to generalize the findings to women of color at scale; however, qualitative research conducted within the field of psychology uses standards for quality more aligned with its nature, such as methodological integrity, rather than standards typical in quantitative research such as generalizability, validity,
and reliability (APA, 2019; Levitt et al., 2017). The committee has approached its review of evidence with a recognition of the value of understanding the unique experiences of individual women of color. In addition, the committee reviewed literature related to STEM fields more broadly, when applicable, to inform its understanding of trends in the experiences of women of color in STEM that also affect women of color in tech.
THE STUDY CHARGE AND COMMITTEE’S APPROACH
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine named a diverse, multidisciplinary committee to fulfill the statement of task in Box 1-3.
As previously noted in this chapter, the committee acknowledges that the tech disciplines, as defined in its charge, are a subset of the broad number of academic disciplines and careers that are solidly based in technology. The committee made efforts to identify evidence and published research literature, with particular attention to identification of sources directly related to the disciplines identified in the statement of task. However, the committee also recognizes the applicability and relevance of evidence from disciplines in tech defined more broadly, and has drawn upon published research as well as presentations from experts in STEM, when appropriate, to further inform its deliberations and recommendations.
With the goal of reducing the impact of bias and discrimination, the committee hosted a series of four workshops (one in-person, and three virtual) that focused on systems-level changes, including the identification of practices, strategies, and policies for the academic, industry, and government sectors to change the culture, climate, norms, and values in tech fields. The workshops focused on intersectionality in order to ensure that the strategies and models would specifically address the multiple categories of identity that apply to women of color. The committee’s scope included a broad range of career stages and tech sectors, including students and faculty in higher education and professionals in industry and government agencies.
The barriers and challenges encountered by women of color in STEM fields are well documented, but our knowledge of effective strategies to remove barriers is very limited.
The workshops were intended to achieve the following objectives:
- Articulate the evidence-based programs, models, and practices that academic institutions, employers, and individuals can implement to have a positive impact on the retention, recruitment, and advancement of women of color in tech.
- Engage and empower stakeholders with evidence-based practices to improve equity and diversity in these fields.
The committee also commissioned a literature review to summarize the body of empirical research on the topic of women of color in tech.
The committee took steps toward building a community of practice, bringing together a network including women and men who participated in the committee-sponsored workshops, to address the underrepresentation of women of color in tech and create novel research-practitioner partnerships. The committee’s in-person workshop in February 2020 had over 100 attendees, and the attendance for the virtual workshops in April, May, and June 2020 ranged between 358 and 578 attendees.
The purpose of the network is to catalyze changes in the climate, culture, norms, and values of academic departments, business teams, government agencies and laboratories, and other entities in tech and engineering fields. This report
summarizes the findings derived from the regional workshops, the commissioned literature review, and the committee’s discussions.
OVERVIEW OF THE REPORT
In the chapters that follow, the committee reviews the state of knowledge on the factors that contribute to the underrepresentation of women of color in tech education and careers in industry and higher education. The report recommends the actions that a range of stakeholders could take to support the improved recruitment, retention, and advancement of women of color in these fields. While the report’s recommendations are primarily focused on women of color in tech, many apply to women of color in STEM academic disciplines and careers defined more broadly.
Chapter 2 presents an overview of current knowledge on the structural, social, and psychological barriers faced by women of color in tech education and the workplace, and presents an overview of strengths and assets operating at the individual, community, and institutional levels that help women of color persist and succeed in tech and related fields. In Chapter 3, the committee focuses specifically on institutions of higher education and describes assumptions frequently perpetuated by leaders in higher education about the barriers to recruitment, retention, and advancement of women of color in tech in their institutions. The committee then draws on data, both statistical and empirical, to recognize and challenge these assumptions. Chapter 4 describes the unique challenges in industry settings and the social and environmental factors, both inside and outside of tech, that have the potential to increase the recruitment, retention, and advancement of women of color in tech careers. Chapter 5 reviews government efforts to support equity, diversity, and inclusion in tech and points out the many ways in which government efforts have often failed to take an intersectional approach in national programs, policies, and initiatives. This chapter also describes research on the importance of transparency and accountability in promoting change and highlights opportunities for Congress and federal agencies to take steps to promote transparency and accountability among tech companies and in the government itself. Chapter 6 describes alternative pathways that have opened up to meet the growing demand to facilitate entry into the tech workforce, such as employer-offered training, certification courses offered by two-year and four-year colleges, community-based and nonprofit organizations, apprenticeship and re-entry programs, and digital badging, and the role of professional societies in supporting women of color in tech.
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