Author: Nikole Collins-Puri, CEO of Techbridge Girls
It’s clear that STEM education is not working for Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls. In the last couple of decades, despite increased investment in STEM education, representation for Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls in STEM careers has remained stagnant.
Simply channeling more girls into a STEM education system that wasn’t designed for us won’t lead to more girls succeeding and persisting in STEM careers. Black women still only hold 1.8% of STEM jobs in the United States; Indigenous women still only hold 0.1%; and Latina women hold only 2.4%.
It’s not enough for girls to simply “fit in” and mold to existing environments. At Techbridge Girls, we want to create new environments that allow our girls to show up as their full, authentic selves in environments where they immediately feel they belong — where they feel accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others, especially their teachers and peers. This is why belonging is core to all of our work. By addressing the lack of belonging Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls feel in STEM learning experiences, we will be able to create environments where girls thrive in STEM education and persist into STEM careers.
The first step is our decision to focus specifically on Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls. We believe that in order to address the root issues behind the lack of representation, we need to define and focus on those most impacted by systemic inequities. And in the STEM education space, the data consistently shows that the most impacted are Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls in marginalized communities.
We haven’t made progress in increasing representation because the STEM education space as a whole is still trying to solve the wrong problem. STEM advocates and educators focus too often on how many Black and Brown youth can be pushed into the STEM pipeline without stopping to deeply assess the structure of the pipeline itself, which is riddled with leaks that cause youth to fall out and not persist into STEM careers.
To identify and address the right problem, Techbridge Girls has outlined an advocacy roadmap — Solving STEM’s Inequity Problem: The Belonging Blueprint. The Belonging Blueprint was developed based on our 20 years of experience in the STEM education field, consultation with peers and advocacy experts, observation, and a deep understanding of what it takes for Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls to succeed and persist in STEM.
The Belonging Blueprint calls for three solutions to solve STEM’s inequity problem:
1. Intersectional data that points to the right solutions for Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls.
The first step of the Belonging Blueprint is to advocate for more intersectional data — data that is broken down by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and/or other indicators that paint a fuller picture of who the data represents and what it says. Accurate, nuanced data is critical in order to identify and address systemic issues that go deeper than representation. It’s impossible to solve a problem that we don’t fully understand, and data allows us to pinpoint the multiple factors that are challenging our girls’ persistence, and then guide us toward a curated and unique solution.
What’s wrong with the data we do have? A lot of the data we currently have groups all women and girls together, leading to an inaccurate picture of what Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls across varying socio-economic backgrounds experience. When grouped together with Asian women who earned more STEM degrees at the master’s and professional doctoral levels than Asian men, and white women who earned more degrees in STEM fields at the bachelor’s, master’s, and professional doctorate levels than white men, it’s clear that grouping these demographics together would skew the results.
We also need data to be collected in ways that don’t perpetuate the dominant-culture approach to data and research, which often leaves out the voices of those most impacted. This looks like investing in research methods that acknowledge the worth of racially and ethnically minoritized students, dismantling the dominant logics that typically shape how we engage with research and data collection.
How can we achieve this? Imagine, what if instead of measuring our success based on the number of girls in STEM programs or careers, we measured success through research and data that indicates whether or not girls feel a sense of belonging in these STEM spaces? How are Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls showing up in STEM spaces? Can we change how we measure a STEM program’s “accessibility” to include factors beyond program availability — taking into account our girls’ safety, caregiving responsibilities, and economic factors that impact a girl’s ability to engage in the program? Can they confidently use their voice? Can they envision a future for themselves in STEM?
In order to create STEM ecosystems where Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls can thrive, we need to know where the gaps are and what solutions work. We are calling on everyone in the space to work together to begin investing in the systems and structures to collect intersectional data that identify systemic issues in STEM so that we know what Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls actually need to persist and thrive.
2. Proper funding that ensures our girls have access to quality STEM education in their own communities.
The second step in the Belonging Blueprint is to ensure that there is proper funding that supports both equity-focused out-of-school time programming, and invests in the workforce that is delivering it through educator training — so that girls have access to quality STEM education programs in their own communities with highly skilled out-of-school time providers who look like them. The Ms. Foundation for Women found that foundations giving to women and girls of color in the United States totaled $356 million in 2017. This $356 million only accounts for one half of one percent of the total $66.9 billion given by foundations overall. When analyzed more closely, this amounts to about $5.48 for each woman or girl of color.
Where is this funding most needed? Out-of-school time (OST) spaces like afterschool and community-based programs are where the majority of quality STEM education takes place, especially in marginalized communities of color, yet they remain undervalued and underestimated by the philanthropic community. In fact, a 2020 survey by the Afterschool Alliance found that there were still 24.6 million children in the U.S. who were not enrolled in out-of-school-time programs due to inaccessibility. Out-of-school time (OST) offers Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls the space and freedom to show up as their full selves in and alongside girls from their own communities, providing the ideal environment for deep, meaningful STEM learning.
Funding is also necessary to get the data we need. There are many reasons for the current lack of intersectional data, but one of the main ones is the lack of funding. It’s time to fund more data initiatives to gain a clearer picture of the STEM education landscape.
We need quality, equitable STEM learning experiences that center the brilliance of Black and Brown girls to ultimately attract and retain a diverse workforce. But, broad and blanket philanthropic investments are not enough — we need more investments that are specific and unique to the needs of Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls. Out-of-school time programs are the most effective venue for STEM education, providing girls, no matter their zip code, with a space inside their own communities to learn, innovate, and feel like they belong.
3. We need STEM spaces where our girls can show up as their full, authentic selves.
The final step in the Belonging Blueprint is to create an understanding of the role belonging plays in girls’ ability to succeed in STEM education and persist into STEM careers.
Research shows that women of color in STEM report feeling a sense of belonging less frequently than other demographics — less than white men, white women, and men of color; And it’s clear that one’s sense of belonging in STEM has a large impact on success and persistence into STEM careers. This is only compounded for Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls, as struggles with belonging are disproportionately overlooked at the intersection between race and gender.
With decades of STEM advocacy focused on output and numbers — how many girls participate in STEM programs — we know that this will take time and partnership with STEM education advocates and educators.
So, what does it mean to create an environment of belonging for Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls in STEM education? Educators and program administrators must…
- Map out their own identities and biases, so that they can enter the classroom aware of what they carry from their own life, educational experiences, and identities.
- Acknowledge the power they hold in creating this environment of belonging, which has the potential to impact the trajectory of our young girls’ lives.
- Support Black and Brown girls by creating communities that allow and encourage them — and all of their identities — to feel comfortable, welcomed, and supported in the classroom. The types of classroom environments that foster a sense of belonging are where educators are good listeners; where they are supportive of girls through the ups and downs of their STEM education journey; where they adopt and implement culturally-relevant curricula; and where they provide programs that are accessible, affordable, and within girls’ own communities.
- Acknowledge that our girls’ days don’t start or end inside the classroom, taking into account their real life experiences happening outside of the classroom. Are our girls leaving the emotional safety and comfort of their own community to enter the classroom? Are they caretakers? What are they going home to?
- Educators and administrators can foster a sense of belonging outside the classroom by ensuring that students have a safe means of getting home, have enough food and resources to stay comfortable after class, and have the support and encouragement they need to continue their studies at home.
When you implement solutions that are targeted toward the most marginalized, you create better systems for all. As we advocate for unique solutions that focus on creating a sense of belonging for Black, Indigenous, and Latina girls in STEM, we are not leaving everyone else behind but rather ensuring everyone gets across the finish line.