A new study led by India Johnson, an assistant professor of psychology at Elon University in North Carolina, finds that a major factor to increase the retention rate of Black women in STEM fields is to have African American role models who will serve as mentors.
According to the research, Black women earn only 2.9 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees in the United States. This is far below the rate of White women, despite the fact that White women and Black women are equally likely to express an interest in STEM fields at the beginning of their college careers.
Researchers showed prospective students photographs of laboratory scenes at a fictitious school of science and technology and profiles of faculty members. Black students showed a greater likelihood of considering the fictitious school if a Black professor was shown or profiled. This was particularly true for Black women. Co-author Ava Pietri, an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis stated that “women who feel like they belong are more likely to enter and stay in STEM, so lack of belonging may be one reason for women of color’s lack of representation.”
Researchers also surveyed Black women at a four-year predominantly White four-year college and at a historically Black college. The women at the HBCU reported that they had on average two or three Black women role models in STEM fields. At the predominantly White school Black women reported either zero or one Black role model.
The researchers also found that White faculty members who went out of their way to encourage Black women students also had a positive impact. The authors concluded that although increasing representation of women of color in STEM is the best way to improve belonging, building tools to help White men or White women become better allies for Black women in STEM will also produce positive results.
The full study, “Exploring Identity-Safety Cues and Allyship Among Black Women Students in STEM Environments” was published on the website of the journal Psychology Women Quarterly. It may be accessed here.