One Way To Highlight Diversity in STEM Fields

Image courtesy of North Carolina State University.
Image courtesy of North Carolina State University.

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known collectively as STEM) have a diversity problem.

In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that women, African Americans and Hispanics are significantly under-represented in STEM fields. For example, in 2011, 11 percent of the U.S. workforce was African American, while 6 percent of STEM workers were African American. And while Hispanics made up 15 percent of the workforce, they made up only 7 percent of STEM workers. Women made up 48 percent of the 2011 workforce, but only 26 percent of the STEM workforce.

Part of the problem is that women and people of color don’t see themselves in many STEM fields. More specifically, they don’t see people that look like them in those fields.

One step forward in addressing this imbalance is to highlight diverse role models in STEM.

So I had an idea. Maybe my employer, NC State University, could do something similar to the This Is What A Scientist Looks Like website. (If you’re not familiar with the site, it was created by science writer Allie Wilkinson to address the pervasive stereotype that all scientists are white men in labcoats.)

This Is What A Scientist Looks Like follows a very simple format: one or two photos of a scientist and an essay from the scientist about his or her life and work.

The photos could be of the scientist at work (in the lab, doing fieldwork, etc.), or the photo could be of the scientist doing something they’re passionate about outside of work (rock-climbing, baking, playing music, whatever). The idea is to highlight the fact that scientists are real people, from real backgrounds, with a wide variety of interests.

In early April, my office launched a new series of posts on The Abstract (our research blog), called “This Is What Science Looks Like At NC State.” I used the word “science” because it is more accessible than “STEM” – which is an unfamiliar acronym to many people. We also decided to include researchers who have physical disabilities. And yes, I got Wilkinson’s blessing to use the concept.

I’ve since posted more than two dozen profiles of STEM researchers at NC State. There are professors, postdocs, grad students and undergrads, representing fields from toxicology and electrical engineering to computer science and plant biology. These are men and women from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, at various stages of their careers.

These aren’t glossy profiles by a public relations team. The researchers are writing about themselves. Some of the posts are a lot longer than others, depending on what the researchers want to say. The photos are, for the most part, photos that researchers send us (I think we’ve gotten three of the photos from university sources). They’re vacation photos, or photos of time spent with family and friends. I’m not trying to make everyone look like Buckaroo Banzai (the fictional physicist/rock-guitarist). Simply letting people know that researchers have lives outside the laboratory (and that they’re not always white guys) is a step in the right direction.

“This Is What Science Looks Like At NC State” has made the transition from “new feature” to “ongoing series,” and we plan to continue adding posts for as long as we can find researchers who want to participate. But there’s something else we can do.

Launching this series did not take a significant amount of time or money. All it took was a little initiative and a willingness to make the effort. Yes, I do spend some time talking to researchers, formatting their photos and proofreading their written submissions for typos, but I think it’s a good investment. I also think it would be great if other institutions followed suit.

There are a lot of universities out there with excellent research programs, to say nothing of state, federal, and nonprofit research institutions. It would be great to see them develop their own efforts to highlight diverse role models in STEM fields. They don’t have to copy what we’ve done, of course – they can come up with their own approaches. But if they are interested in using our approach (and Allie Wilkinson’s) as a template, I think that would be great.

If you work for a research institution and have questions about this project, please let me know.


9 thoughts on “One Way To Highlight Diversity in STEM Fields

  1. Matt, I think this is great! We have also adopted this profile style approach to educating people on what scientists and engineers look like in our NSF EPSCoR project, the Arkansas ASSET Initiative. One of the challenges that we find is in dissemination of the profiles. We pull them together into an eMagazine format and take a lot of care to make them look attractive. We do have to work them in around our other science updates but it’s a battle to get people just to click on the link and we’ve got some pretty talented marketing minded people working on this. Anywho, just thought I’d chirp in and say, “Bravo” and share our latest issue.


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