Last updated June 12, 2020 at 11:14 am
While we’ve seen some progress in the representation of women in STEM, there’s still a lot of work to do in representing other minority groups.
Why This Matters: STEM is stronger when a diverse range of people are involved.
New research has highlighted some of the barriers faced by individuals from minority groups when it comes to pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
The study, carried out by researchers from the UK and The Australian National University (ANU), found an individual’s ethnicity and socio-economic background in particular can impact on their career progression.
STEM academic community has work to do
Nearly 200 early career scientists were surveyed to examine the links between ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, sex, socio-economic background and disability and markers of career success.
ANU co-author Dr Megan Head says around 50 per cent of those surveyed reported having faced barriers of some kind in their careers.
The researchers found that LGBT+ individuals were significantly more likely to report facing barriers to their career than heterosexuals.
Similarly, females were significantly more likely to report facing a barrier than males.
A third of the respondents said that they hadn’t been able to overcome barriers, resulting in some leaving institutions or academia altogether because of it.
“Clearly the STEM academic community has work to do,” Head says.
“We should be concerned that the picture is even bleaker than it seems – it can be very hard to get data from people who’ve fallen out of the system.
“And our study is obviously looking at a subset who’ve been able to get to a certain stage of academia, rather than those who weren’t able to attend university at all.”
Underrepresentation of minority groups comes from complex barriers
The survey reports that 32% of researchers in STEM are female in Western Europe and North America. The number of female researchers overall worldwide drops to 29%.
The figures for other minority groups are even more stark. The survey reports that 10.3% of STEM academics were nonwhite, 0.03% disabled.
Head says the underrepresentation of minority groups is the result of a multitude of complex factors.
“For example, individuals from minority groups are more likely to have negative perceptions of their own career success, less likely to obtain research funding, and have lower likelihood of being promoted,” she says.
“The fact that childcare and caring responsibilities still overwhelmingly lie with women is likely to be a major barrier for many female academics.”
“And while we’ve seen some progress in recent years when it comes to open discussion about the underrepresentation of women in STEM, there’s maybe less of an open conversation around things like ethnicity and socio-economic background.”
One of the other key results was finding that people of a minority ethnicity had fewer “other author” papers to their credit when they finished their PhD.
According to Head, the opportunity to work on these papers often comes about through networking, and “mixing with the right crowd”.
“We know the number of papers a young researcher has published is directly linked to their success in finding a job,” she says.
People with fewer publications generally have to apply for more positions to secure a postdoctoral research job, shows the study. Therefore, the researchers say, the barrier to extra publications has a long-term knock on effect.
“We also found early career researchers from a lower socio-economic background more likely to report being in teaching and research positions, rather than research only positions, which are often viewed as more prestigious.
“Seemingly small discrepancies like this can have a big impact later in a career.”
Overcoming the barriers
While a significant number of respondents stated they had left jobs or academia entirely due to barriers, there were some responses which suggested ways to overcome them – which basically group into “people” or “opportunities”.
For “people” initiatives such as mentoring, allies in senior positions, and diverse networking opportunities were found to be beneficial. These networking opportunities included digital groups which support minority researchers.
When it came to “opportunities”, respondents identified the need to publish frequently and applying widely for positions. They also suggested proactively participating within the departments they work. However, these factors were also identified as areas where minority researchers may not be afforded the same opportunities as others.
“Institutional cultural change is needed to ensure that minority groups do not have to work harder than nonminority groups to succeed or prove themselves,” write the researchers.