Underrepresentation in Research: Steps Towards Progress

Jadiel Wasson

Originally published April 11, 2015

If you take a look around you, what do you see?  Does your environment reflect what the real world looks like? If not, why do you think that is? And how does this difference influence the nature of science?  In the past few decades, this disparity of representation from different groups, specifically women and minorities, has become increasingly apparent. Many studies have demonstrated that this lack of diversity leads to a different kind of “brain drain” in that it caps interest in STEM careers in the up-and-coming generation which can ultimately take away minds that can contribute significantly to STEM.  Although very few government initiatives have been put into place to address this issue, they have greatly influenced the demography of STEM degrees and careers.  In addition to this, a handful of studies in conjunction with media attention have altered diversity trends in STEM by bringing greater awareness to the underrepresentation that plagues these fields.  But has enough been done to truly alleviate this issue? What steps have already been taken to address this issue of underrepresentation?

Step 1: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first step taken to address inequality in the workforce. This act significantly increased the availability of equal opportunities in education and employment for women and minorities. Before the implementation of this act, less than 5% of women earned PhDs in STEM careers.  That number tripled to around 15% in the early 1980’s. In the late 1950’s, prior to any official census data, it was estimated that about 500 total African-Americans had a PhD of any kind. In 1975, only about 1.2% of PhDs were earned by African-Americans.  

Step 2: The Science and Engineering Equal Opportunities Act of 1980 was mandated by the National Science Foundation to increase the participation of women in science.  This act aimed to increase female participation through various propaganda campaigns. These campaigns aimed not only to increase the public’s awareness of the value of women in science, but also to increase support for women who chose to pursue STEM careers by implementing committees, fellowships and programs.  Since the inception of this act in 1980, the number of women holding STEM PhDs has increased from about 15% to fewer than 40% in 2011, lending to the effectiveness of such measures.

Step 3: Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering is a national academy of sciences report that was published 2006.  It is incredibly extensive in how it addresses the issues that still plague women in STEM disciplines that prevent them from advancing in their careers regardless of their academic stage.  This report ultimately refuted many of the biases and “reasonings” behind the gap between men and women participation in STEM careers.  Some of the key findings of this report include evidence of institutional biases against women and taking a look at the loss of women from each stage on the track to a career in STEM. One of the main contributions of this work came from some of the recommendations that were made to rectify the representation problem.  In 2007, the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, created the working group on women in biomedical careers in response to the findings in the report.  This group has subsequently established many sub-committees with specific goals, such as public outreach and mentoring, all aimed at increasing the retention of women in STEM.  

Step 4: Current steps to enhance diversity in the STEM disciplines include the Enhancing the Diversity of the NIH-Funded Workforce program. This program was established in 2012 to increase underrepresented minorities in the STEM disciplines through a series of initiatives that will try to address how to keep minorities engaged in the STEM disciplines.  

Current state: Even with these steps, there still remains a discrepancy in equal representation. For example, a recent report entitled “Double Jeopardy?” published in February of this year highlighted some of the prevalent biases that still plague women of color, such as differences in how they are perceived compared to their male counterparts. In addition to these findings, although we have seen the percentage of women employed in the STEM disciplines steadily increase each decade since the 1970’s, there has been a decline in this trend since the 1990’s. All in all, initiatives to increase women in science have worked to a certain extent, but a large gap still remains.  We need more measures that aid to reverse this trend.  

Edited by: Brindar Sandhu