March 23, 2021
The STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) industry has moved toward a more diverse and inclusive workforce, especially nurturing a diverse talent pipeline. Unfortunately, the leadership gaps for women, particularly Black women, are still stark. A 2016 report from National Science Foundation showed that despite Black women earning over 33,000 bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields, only 5% of senior-level positions were held by Black men and women combined.
This disparity highlights the need for STEM companies to focus not just on bringing in diverse candidates but also on nurturing their talent to succeed in higher-level roles. Below, a panel of female STEM professionals shared their stories and insights on how to bridge the leadership gap.
Mentorship and Support for Black Women in STEM Are Crucial for Success
According to Dr. Marian Croak, vice president of engineering at Google, it’s rare for her to meet other Black women in leadership roles in the industry.
“I hardly ever run into ‘myself’ at meetings, although I wish I would,” Croak said. “But … I think it gives me a unique perspective … and I think that uniqueness can be attributed to my social identity.”
Croak has used this unique perspective to take on a mentorship role, particularly with young children in STEM and leadership within the Black technology community.
“It’s clear people have majored in these subjects, and so they’re qualified, but they’re reluctant to come in the door,” she noted.
Croak added that “encouragement is so vital just to make people feel like they truly belong, that you support them and that you have confidence in them.”
Women Are Fighting Harder to Be Heard in the Workplace
Dr. Priscilla Johnson, founder and CEO of EcoDaisy, agreed that companies and C-suite staff must focus on welcoming their diverse employees.
“When you go to work every day, you want to feel like you are a part of an organization; you want to feel like you’re part of the team. But here’s what’s happening: women, Black women in particular, [are] being ignored,” said Johnson, citing a qualitative study in which Black women’s ideas were remembered less than those of their white counterparts.
“I fight for my ideas because I fight for [an inclusive] environment, and a lot of other people do, but they do it at a cost,” she said. “[Black women who] want to do the work, have excellent work ethic, are well-qualified are not being given the opportunity or the voice.”
Businesses Need to Give Underrepresented Groups a Seat at the Table
Erika Jefferson, president and founder of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE), noted that diversity initiatives must include the people affected by them.
“White males have led every part of [the] industry, and now I’m seeing them leading diversity efforts, which is fine,” Jefferson said. “But they can’t be the only voices at the table … Black women have to have a voice [about] the challenges that are going on, the barriers that need to be removed.”
Johnson concurred, noting that people’s awareness and sensitivity of these issues has evolved over the last year: “They are understanding that they need to make room at the table, they need to call their peers [out] when [they] leave someone out of a conversation.”
Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Take Time But Can Happen for Companies That Care
Jefferson suggested that, rather than forcing companies to undergo unconscious bias training (which employees may not believe they need), leaders should have “fireside chats” in which Black female STEM leaders discuss their experiences.
“We’ve got to normalize race,” Jefferson stressed. “It shouldn’t be any different than hair color and eye color.”
She also noted that this type of change doesn’t happen overnight.
“You’re having to do that one organization at a time,” Jefferson said. “Hopefully, that’s what we’re able to do with some of our corporate partners who are serious about investing their money and making their companies and organizations inclusive places to work.”