Ethnic Variation in Gender-STEM Stereotypes and STEM Participation: An Intersectional Approach
Despite being an underrepresented group in STEM professions, Black women are relatively less likely than white women to associate STEM with masculinity, and more likely to begin STEM studies in college.
Women are less likely than men to participate in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), from college majors to career paths. Women can be discouraged in part by stereotypes associating STEM fields with men and masculine traits. Such gender stereotypes can bias evaluations from teachers and managers, decrease women’s expectations of success, and decrease women’s performance through the stress of stereotype threat.
However, past research indicates that “gender-STEM stereotypes” and their effects may vary by cultural context. For instance, across 34 countries, stronger associations between STEM and men predicted weaker math and science achievement for girls. However, there was a wide range for the strength of this association in different places, indicating the importance of studying what other factors might influence this association. For example, prior studies suggest the traits stereotypically associated with STEM (e.g., independence) are not considered highly masculine in African American culture. Based on these notions and differences among cultures, the authors consider whether the strength and impact of gender-STEM stereotypes vary by race and ethnicity.
In these four studies, the researchers look at these stereotypes through an intersectional lens, examining differences in perspectives of Black and white college women in the United States. Using implicit association tests (IATs), they measured the strength of participants’ unconscious associations between 7 STEM domains and women or men, then analyzed the impact of these stereotypes on college women’s interest in majoring in STEM subjects.
Black women were more likely than white women to select STEM majors in university.
- A national freshman survey showed that Black women were significantly more likely than white women to report intending to major in a STEM subject from 1990-1999 (23.4% vs 16.4%, Study 1). Black women were also more likely than white women to be STEM majors among participants in Study 2 and Study 4 (55.8% vs 15.5% and 37.6% vs 18.8%, respectively).
While Black and white women were similarly aware that “people in general” perceive STEM fields as relatively masculine, internalized unconscious stereotypes associating STEM fields with men were weaker among Black women than white women.
- Among college women in Study 2, Black women held significantly weaker unconscious associations between STEM fields and men than white women (0.36 vs 0.64 on a scale from -2 to 2, with values > 0 indicating association between STEM fields and men).
- Among first-year college women majoring in STEM subjects in Study 3, Black women again held significantly weaker unconscious associations than white women between STEM fields and men (0.05 vs 0.35).
- Among college students, both women and men in STEM and non-STEM fields in Study 4, Black students held significantly weaker unconscious associations between STEM fields and men than white students (0.29 vs 0.49). There was no significant difference between men and women.
- Black women’s weaker unconscious gender stereotypes about STEM partially explained their greater interest in STEM majors, compared to white women, in Study 2 and Study 4.
In short, Black women and men hold less gender-stereotyped views of STEM fields, leading Black women to show greater interest in STEM majors while in college. Further intersectional work may help to illuminate both the barriers causing Black women’s attrition from STEM despite these early interests, and the roots of gender-STEM stereotypes across ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Study 1 analyzed the Higher Education Research Institute’s annual Freshmen Survey data from 1,772,133 college students (7.6% Black, 55.8% women) who identified as either Black or white and provided their intended college major between 1990 and 1999. All majors were classified as STEM or non-STEM.
Study 2 included 149 college women born in the United States (28% Black) from one historically Black college/university (HBCU) and one primarily white institution (PWI) in the South. Participants completed a gender-science implicit association test (IAT) measuring the strength of unconscious association s between 7 STEM domains, contrasted with 7 liberal arts domains, and women or men. Participants also rated the strength of explicit societal gender stereotypes in the same domains, and reported their college major.
Study 3 included 121 first-year college women born in the United States (48% Black) majoring in STEM fields at a HBCU in the South, a PWI in the South, or a PWI in the Midwest. Participants completed the same gender-science IAT as Study 2.
Study 4 included 838 students born in the United States (24% Black) from an HBCU and a PWI in the South, a PWI in the Midwest, and a diverse university in the West. Participants completed the same gender-science IAT as Studies 2 and 3; rated the strength of explicit societal gender stereotypes about 3 domains (physics, biology, and English); and reported their college major.