Diversity & Inclusion
Education / Events / STEM / Women in tech

How can universities better support women of color pursuing STEM careers?

Drexel's Women's History Month panel invited student leaders to talk about their experiences and make connections with industry pros. Here's what they say is needed to boost diversity within STEM education.

Drexel students and panelists. (Courtesy photo)

This guest post is a part of Universities Month 2023 in Technical.ly’s editorial calendar.

You may recognize the name Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who was recognized in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.” But you might not know the names Terry Coley, Lynelle Martin, Kera Jones or Summer Beasley.

Those four are STEM students at Drexel University. The commonality among all five? They’re women of color in STEM fields.

This week for Women’s History Month, Drexel hosted a panel discussion honoring Katherine Johnson and discussing the importance of role models for women in STEM as part of the school’s President Speaker Series on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. Before the panel, some Drexel students were invited to have lunch with the panelists and talk about what it’s like being a woman of color in a STEM field.

Meet the women in STEM

Coley, a biomedical engineering student with a concentration in biomechanics, is a DEI assistant in the College of Engineering and the VP of the National Society of Black Engineers at Drexel. Martin, who is also a biomedical engineering student, is the secretary of the National Society of Black Engineers.

Jones, a biomedical engineering student with a concentration in neuro and tissue engineering, is the VP of the Neuroscience Society on campus and is involved in Drexel’s pre-medical fraternity. Beasley, who is studying cybersecurity, is a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s CyberCorps Scholarship for Service, through which she is a cybersecurity student researcher focused on industrial control systems.

The luncheon allowed the students to have one-on-one time with the panelists, ask them questions, and share their stories about their struggles and successes in their careers. Jones told Technical.ly the panelists — which included Michael Moore, Katherine Johnson’s grandson, who talked about his grandmother’s life and legacy — were excited for the students as they shared their career goals, and their interest was encouraging to her.

“It was really nice being able to show them, ‘This is what you guys have done. Here we are and we continue to do this,'” Martin said. It was inspiring, too, to be around people who paved the way for people like her, a Caribbean American student, to thrive in STEM: “If this was 50 years ago, I wouldn’t have these same opportunities.”

You can’t be what you can’t see

Knowing others share the same struggles is important, Martin said, and she hoped to hear some words of wisdom at the event that would resonate with her enough to help her through the tough times pursuing her degree.

India Johnson, a social psychologist at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, sat on the panel and offered her perspective as someone who researches the importance of role models and allies, focused on Black women in STEM. She said seeing someone is a field who is the same gender identity as you is important, but seeing someone who is the same racial or ethnic identity is even more important. specifically in the early stages of deciding what field you want to go into.

“For Black women in particular, it’s really critical to have access to individuals who share their racial identity,” she said. “Oftentimes, it’s critical to have access to someone who has a shared racial identity because they recognize that there’s the similarity and experiences of discrimination.”

Only about one in five engineering degrees go to women, and an even smaller percentage of those degrees go to women of color. There are so few Black women in STEM fields not because they lack the skills or training, Johnson said, but because of the negative experiences that they often have in STEM spaces.

Six panelists sitting on a stage.

Drexel’s panel focused on women of color in STEM. (Courtesy photo)

What can institutions do?

Technical.ly asked these women how they think institutions can better support women of color in STEM fields. Here’s what they said:

  • Supporting groups where women of color can gather and discuss shared experiences is helpful, Martin said. Companies should also make sure they represent their diversity well at job fairs to attract new people.
  • As someone who came to Drexel to study STEM through a scholarship, Coley said more scholarship opportunities for women of color are needed. She said there should also be a safe space for students who come from school systems with fewer resources to talk about their struggles and fill any gaps they might have.
  • Student affinity groups can do a better job of advertising that there are women of color in STEM who want others to join to help new people know they aren’t alone: “In my clubs at Drexel, we don’t have the best diversity within the club,” Jones said, “just because people don’t know about us or they’re afraid to step into that space.”
  • Advocacy for women of color should come from all types of people, especially non-people of color, Beasley said: “When you have allyship from professors that do not look like you and they advocate to see that maybe we should have a little bit more representation in these certain departments, it really does help a lot.”

Martin and Beasley added that it’s important to see actions along with words — the panel and luncheon being good examples — to know that organizations are actually doing something, not just saying they’re doing it.

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Drexel University
Series: Universities Month 2023
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