The needle may be moving for women in STEM, but not for people of color, and especially not for Black women.
Four years after the movie Hidden Figures first opened our eyes to the historic role of Black women in STEM, and 40 years after three Black female mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn, helped launch the United States into the space race, the status of women and Black women in science has barely moved. While it’s heartening to learn from the National Science Foundation that women now comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce for scientists and engineers, it is still deeply concerning to see disparity in progress. Fewer than 2 percent of science and engineering employees in the United States are Black women.
I had hoped that it will get better for the next generation, and there are signs of change. Today as I announce the winners of the International BioGENEius Challenge, which honors the best and brightest in high school science, it is wonderful to see the diversity in student representation, and the number of young women finalists, including Black women. But the data overall isn’t encouraging. While women under 29 comprise 56% of the science and engineering workforce, only 2.9 percent of the bachelor's degrees across all STEM fields went to Black women in 2015/2016.
Why does it matter? Because having Black women in STEM matters! And because this is another manifestation of underlying systemic racism that leads to economic and health inequities. Given that women in STEM have 35% more earning power than women in non-STEM jobs, the lack of Black women in STEM careers leaves them economically at a disadvantage. Similarly, the deep disparities in healthcare that predominantly affect Black Americans – and Black women in particular – cannot be fully resolved without equal participation in science and medical disciplines as professionals and as clinical trials volunteers.
We are at a unique moment in history, or an awakening, as former President Obama said last week. Americans are finally mobilizing to actively – not passively – to address racism. We have a real chance now to make systemic change, including in the STEM fields. In the sciences, we have unprecedented opportunity to do more to shine a light on hidden figures. We have opportunity to actively work to bring more Black women into STEM studies and help them stay in STEM careers. And we must mobilize our efforts to ensure that resources, including mentorship programs, biotech venture capital, and #STEM funding are as accessible to Black women as they are to everyone else.
The number of organizations directly tackling these issues are limited, but at Johnson & Johnson we are surveying the field, identifying gaps and working to create new solutions. We stand with Black academics & scientists working to end racism in STEM2D fields, and we remain committed to identifying and implementing actions to address racism and support Black children, students & professionals interested in STEM2D fields. But we can't do it alone. Our progress can only be aided through collaborative action and commitment, and I invite members of the life sciences and healthcare communities to get in touch and work together with us.
Black women scientists have already made an outsized impact on advancing science despite their lack of representation. Imagine what the future will look like when we reach fair representation and create what I hope will be a new chapter in scientific history.