Tech Education Is Racist—Here's How to Fix It, Experts Say

Attitudes need to change

  • A recent study finds that racism in STEM is holding back members of underrepresented groups. 
  • White males are still more likely than other groups to earn STEM-related degrees even when they have a worse academic record. 
  • Experts say they have often encountered racism working in tech-related fields.
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It's often tough getting ahead in the tech industry for members of underrepresented groups in the US. 

A new paper finds structural racism in academic STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs. The problems with education often mean obstacles to hiring minorities in STEM fields. Experts say the results of the report tally with their own experiences. 

"I persevered through undergraduate and graduate courses where professors and peers dismissed my presence and contributions," Ivory Willams, the vice president of STEM Teaching, Learning, and Innovation at Liberty Science Center in New Jersey told Lifewire in an email interview. "I have been subjected to additional scrutiny and criticism professionally. I have been looked over for opportunities and compensated less than my colleagues."

Battling Racism

The study found dramatic disparities in the outcomes of students of different ethnicities. Using a dataset of 110,000 students across six research universities, the study found that white males are more likely than other groups to earn STEM-related degrees even when they have a worse academic record. 

"Our study indicates that something is happening in the classes themselves," one of the study's authors, Chad Topaz, wrote in a blog post. "Especially for students from already marginalized groups who receive a low grade in introductory courses. The system somehow treats them differently."

Racism in STEM education can lead to employment problems among minorities, other studies show. Only  9 percent of engineering jobs and 6 percent of life science jobs go to Black workers; only 8 percent of math and physical science jobs go to Latinx workers; and only 15 percent of engineering jobs and 25 percent of computer jobs go to women, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report.

"When the number of people from different racial and ethnic groups in certain jobs and college majors don't reflect the demographics of society, we have to ask ourselves why that is," Beth A. Livingston, a professor in Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business told Lifewire via email. "If the answers are rooted in bias and stereotypes, we should recognize that structural barriers related to race and ethnicity are likely to blame."

Finding Solutions

Combating racism in STEM is complex and requires a multi-prong strategy, Mandë Holford, a chemistry professor at Hunter College in New York, who is involved with efforts to diversify STEM, told Lifewire via email. There needs to be "full inclusion" of individuals from underrepresented groups in their STEM career pathway. She said more funding is needed to provide financial backing for STEM programs and underrepresented individuals. Also, institutions must ensure that a diverse group holds more decision-making roles.

"We wholeheartedly believe that STEM can better society, but for that to be true, STEM must reflect the population it hopes to serve," Holford added. "Our strategy is to build collective impact by aggregating like-minded partners to work synergistically in the next ten years to ensure we end circular conversations and see true movement that changes the STEM ecosystem."

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Nicole Fonger, a mathematics education professor at Syracuse University who focuses on teaching math in urban public high schools, told Lifewire in an email interview that she frequently sees racism in STEM classrooms. She said students from underrepresented backgrounds are too often "tracked" as the "lower track" in STEM subjects. 

"Combating racism in STEM needs to be addressed through antiracist action in STEM," Fonger added. "This means being able to name, critically interrogate, and change racist policy and practice. There is work to be done at all levels, from the micro level of individual biases and ideologies, to the classroom level of relational interactions among teachers and students, to the institutional level of policies and practices."

But Kyra Kyles, the CEO of YR Media, a nonprofit that supports the career development of BIPOC and underrepresented youth, said that education is only partly a solution to the problem of racism in the tech industry. She said in an email to Lifewire that hiring practices need to change so that the makeup of the tech industry reflects the demographic diversity of the US. 

"It is not enough to pay lip service to a desire for diversity, equity, and inclusion; instead, employers must set aggressive goals and hold themselves accountable with metrics that reflect a significant shift," Kyles added. "Those in hiring positions need to get outside of their closed, often segregated networks to recruit and encourage aspiring BIPOC professionals to get engaged at earlier and earlier stages."

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