Is STEM Racist and Sexist? Investigating why BAME Women get the Shortest End of the Stick

by
Reham ElMorally, PhD Candidate in International Development, SAPD
Billy Wong, Associate Professor, Institute of Education
Meggie Copsey-Blake, MA Education Graduate, Institute of Education

 

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees and work environments were traditionally male dominated, as the belief that males have a higher capacity to rationalize and problem solve. Females, on the other hand, are perceived to have higher cognitive verbal abilities, stereotyping them as unsuitable to engage in public deliberation and better, thus supposedly they are better suited to dominate the private sphere. Throughout the past decades, not only was this hypothesis debunked by numerous scholars, particularly psychologists, but it was also rescinded as it was proven that females can have just as high, if not higher, cognitive functionality than males(Steward-Williams & Halsey, 2021). While the prejudicial and biased accounts of cognitive aptitudes have been challenged by the academics and scholars, the social cycle of female inferiority is still prevalent.  Furthermore, an archaic but dominant belief that people from minority ethnic backgrounds do not have an aptitude for STEM (MacDonald, 2014) can still be experienced in the labour market at worrying rates. This notion can be attributed to colonialism and imperialistic cultural exportation, it was perpetuated in the West by the White social hegemonic bloc to maintain White supremacy and protect the seemingly beneficiary status quo.

 

In the SESTEM research project, we analysed 69 interviews (51 minority ethni cand 18 White British students) from undergraduates in STEM degrees asking them to reflect on the racial and gender dynamics with their respective degrees.

 

In our previous publication ((Wong, ElMorally and Copsey-Blake, 2020 and  2021), the data revealed and supported a de facto institutional bias against minority ethnic students. This is manifested in terms of microaggressions, tokenism, and lack of substantive representative diversity in terms of faculty and staff. We examined the intersectionality of race and gender to better understand why minority ethnic students, specifically female students, are less likely to graduate with a 1st or 2:1 as compared to their White male counterparts, and also less likely to apply for STEM-related employment. The premise of our study is that women and ethnic minorities are subjugated to a variety of institutional and social barriers, including gender roles and expectations, and reproduced by the value for labor as commanded by the capitalist system embedded in the UK system.

 

Firstly, we investigated microaggressions students face during their studies. The literature supports that some microaggressions can result from a general disinterest in utilitarianism, which may include a heightened interest in profit. Other examples may include institutional and political agendas with capitalist objectives, where ethical questions such as effects on the environment and the social wealth distribution are simply irrelevant. However, for this research, microaggressions with a racial and gendered undertone are of interest. Microaggression can also manifest itself in terms of gender discrimination. Melony, a White British female, for example, discussed the gender role division in the STEM workplace:

‘I think, obviously you hear comments like sexist comments. When I was at work, one of the managers was saying, we have to go and lift something and they’re always like, we’ll get the boys together, lift it. The girls were always made to waitress, not be seeing out of the front, whereas the boys do the room service and things like that. There’s still like a pay gap and things.’

 

Secondly, we investigated institutional biases and their effects on student performance and predicted attainability of a STEM degree. We particularly examined how the lack of symbolic and substantive representation affects learning. We have found that an internalized sense of superiority and inferiority  exists among the students we interviewed. For example, Chetachi, a Black British male, felt that these negative stereotypes are not susceptible to change due to the lack of existing role models for Black students. Describing his experiences, Chetachi shared:

‘I barely see any black staff. There’s only one in [my department], and sometimes I ask myself, ‘How does he feel being the only black person in the whole building full of maybe Europeans and whites? How would you feel?’

 

He continued to add there is a lack of role models for black students to guide and substantially tip the scales in favour of ethnic minorities. Respectively, Katherine, a Black British female, touched upon the double-burden of being an ethnic minority and a woman, stating:

‘So many BAME students do come from a working-class background, not all of them, but it could be once again that just not relating to someone [other Black women]. Or maybe the institution itself, maybe, cos obviously uni is a middle-class institution, so it may be hard to just kind of reach to that level.’

 

These accounts led us to propose a more intersectional approach to race and gender mainstreaming at the university level to counteract the effects of historic marginalization and break the socialised inferiority-superiority cycle. We stress that a glass ceiling does exist for minority ethnic students which puts a barrier to entry and achievement. This ceiling is comprised of internalised emotions and unconscious biases towards ‘The Other and Otherhood’. The study also revealed how double-burden (Patimo and Pereio, 2017) of the Stereotype Threat (Dunderson and Li, 2020) negatively affect female minority ethnic students the most.

 

Our study negated the supposed biological predisposition of males and females, as well as reviewed the literature negating racial superiority in relation to cognitive aptitude. We exposed the shallow institutional efforts to appear diverse but in fact exploit tokenism to raise the profile of the institution. Sequentially, we recommend that Higher Education institutions must either substantially reform their approach to closing differential degree outcomes on the basis of race, as well as recognise the shortcomings of the institution in terms of its ‘zero-tolerance’ and ‘affirmative action’ efforts to provide minority ethnic students, especially female students, with a comparative advantage to counter historic, social, and institutional marginalisation. Should HE institutions fails to substantively reform their organisation, we propose that ‘Real-life sessions’, such as ‘Racism and Sexism in the work place’, ‘How to be assertive’, and ‘Your rights as an employee under UK law’, be streamlined and offered to all students, but particularly to ethnic minority ones. This is meant to prepare minority ethnic students for the barriers to entry and challenges they will inevitably face in the capitalist-labour market and improve their chances of success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

AdvanceHE (2020). Students statistical report 2020. Advance-HE, (accessed online):  https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/guidance/equality-diversity-and-inclusion/using-data-and-evidence/statistics-reports

Gunderson, L. & Li, G. (2020). Racist Stereotyping of Asians as Good at Math Masks Inequities and Harms Students. The Conversation, (accessed online): https://theconversation.com/racist-stereotyping-of-asians-as-good-at-math-masks-inequities-and-harms-students-132137

MacDonald, A. (2014). “Not for people like me?” Under-represented groups in science, technology and engineering. A Summary of the evidence: the facts, the fiction and what we should do next. WISE Campaign, (accessed online): https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/not_for_people_like_me-full-report.pdf

Patimo, R., and Pereiro, T.C. (2017). from the double role to the multiple burden of women: career or carer?. In Fussell, E. (Ed). Research in Progress Population, Environment, Health. (Italy: Cacucci Editore)

Stewart-Williams, S., & Halsey, L. G. (2021). Men, women and STEM: Why the differences and what should be done? European Journal of Personality35(1), 3 39. https://doi.org/10.1177/0890207020962326

Wong, B., ElMorally, R., & Copsey-Blake, M. (2021). ‘Fair and square’: What do students think about the ethnicity degree awarding gap? Journal of Further and Higher Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2021.1932773

Wong, B., R. ElMorally, M. Copsey-Blake, E. Highwood, and J. Singarayer. 2020. “Is Race Still Relevant? Student Perceptions and Experiences of Racism in Higher Education.” Cambridge Journal of Education. doi:10.1080/ 0305764X.2020.1831441.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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