Crucial Steps We Can Take To Achieve More Diversity In STEM

Black and Hispanic workers are still vastly underrepresented in STEM fields.

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Despite the considerable growth in STEM industries, Black and Hispanic workers are still vastly underrepresented, and progress for women of all races is uneven, too. Recent research also indicates that degree attainment in these fields will increase diversity over time, but there is still more work to do — especially across the globe.

Creating a more inclusive workforce starts well before students even think about college degrees, says Moderna expert and STEM diversity advocate Barbara Salami. She identified three key areas of focus that could help bridge the gap.

Early Education

Long before students start thinking about careers, schools could begin fostering an interest in STEM fields. “It could be as simple as changing the narrative within education to focus more on discovery and application,” Salami explained. “Young, impressionable students who are taught the basic mechanics of science, math, etc. may not be able to grasp the bigger picture.” But because science, math, and technology drive so much of our day-to-day lives, giving students a glimpse into various STEM careers with guest speakers or taking field trips to labs can pique their interest in a major or job they weren’t initially aware of, just by giving them an idea of how these fields apply in the real world.

Less than half of schools in the United States teach computer science, and those numbers are even greater among low-income students and in rural areas. “I see huge benefit to implementing coding programs in schools, as it provides students with skills that can be applied successfully across disciplines,” Salami said. “We are facing a huge digital skills gap across the industries and building a strong pool of future STEM and digital technology experts is a winning strategy.”

That said, we can’t expand educational programming without proper resources. According to a study completed by progressive think tank The Century Foundation, K-12 schools are underfunded by $150 billion annually, and a shortage of STEM teachers has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. These factors have been found to impact Black, Hispanic, and low-income students the most, too.

Thinking Beyond Careers

Inclusion in STEM isn’t just about careers, though — all races and genders need to be represented at every step of the innovation process. For example, women and people of color are consistently underrepresented in clinical trials. Because medical diseases and conditions affect different sexes and races differently, it’s imperative that these trials reflect the population accurately. “At Moderna, we ensure that we select clinical research sites with representative demography and partner closely with those sites to ensure that they have the resources to work within their local communities to reach a diverse population,” Salami said. “We can only advance science and advance clinical outcomes for all patients if they’re represented in clinical trials.”

Breaking Stereotypes

Prior to her time in healthcare, Salami worked as a radar and missile systems engineer, and has experienced first hand how the industry, along with commonly held social beliefs and stereotypes, can prohibit young women from entering STEM fields. “Growing up in Nigeria, STEM fields, especially the technology, engineering, and math subject areas, were viewed as masculine,” she explained. “Sadly, the few females who ventured into these areas, they were considered less competent and had to work harder to prove their worth. Coming over to the States to further my education, I quickly realized that this was a global phenomenon. The same stereotypes existed during my years as an engineering undergrad and as a young engineer.”

Salami has seen first hand how mentors can have a huge impact on young women and diverse candidates when breaking into these fields. Beyond encouraging women currently working in STEM fields to take on mentorship roles for young girls interested in the sciences, she said they also need to widely share their career paths and wisdom — through talks at schools, for example — to help others overcome these barriers.

“I was fortunate to have parents and teachers who saw past my gender and the stereotypes and encouraged me to always strive to be the best version of myself,” she said. “It is imperative for teachers, coaches, and parents to ask the right questions and get these girls excited about fields they are interested in. They should help them see beyond the possible, inspire them to tackle the hard problems, celebrate the wins, learn from the failure, and strive to change the world.”