Why intersectionality is so important in STEM

People sit before an exhibition of diverse human faces

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are fields whose central tenets involve discovery and innovation. It would be expected, therefore, that STEM networks cultivate an open-minded and diverse culture, but is this really the case? 

When discussing inequality in STEM professions, we often consider known disparities in isolation. However, It is far more realistic to consider the intersection of these and their combinatorial effect on individuals. 

In STEM, as in wider society, individuals may experience direct or indirect discrimination as a result of their gender, sexual orientation, race, or socioeconomic background. Such disadvantages are compounded for members of more than one of these groups. This underlies the concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality recognises the interconnectedness of social categorisations and how these combine to create overlapping systems of disadvantage and/or discrimination. Consequently, we must embrace intersectionality when addressing inclusion and equality throughout our fields. 

Scientific progress is likely to be far more efficient and inclusive when there is a diverse workforce with varying life experiences and expertise. Several studies have highlighted the importance of cognitive diversity (the variation in the ways individuals think and experience the world) in innovative practices. The mixture of viewpoints and thinking styles when teams include individuals with different inherent (e.g., age, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation) and acquired traits (professional and personal experiences, educational status, etc.) breeds a more successful culture of discovery. 

For example, a comprehensive review of over 2.5 million scientific papers  showed that those written by diverse groups received far more citations and had higher impact factors (a measure of an article’s influence based on the frequency of citation) than those authored by a single ethnic group. Needless to say, other than equity and equality reasons, diversity in STEM is highly important for scientific progress. 

However, in reality there are also biases at the level of paper submission and peer review for marginalised groups. There are worse outcomes for authors with institutional affiliations in Asia or countries with lower human development indices as well as countries where the primary language is not English. Additionally, assumed female authors had worse or similar outcomes compared to assumed male authors. These disparate outcomes for authors based on demographics highlight a barrier for scientific progress resulting from institutional bias.

The impact of gender on experiences in STEM 

As in many fields, the expertise and intelligence of women has long been overshadowed throughout history. This notwithstanding, some of their stories have been rediscovered and serve as an example for women wanting to pursue such careers. Several trailblazers have defied the odds and motivated new generations to enter scientific disciplines. Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin are two such scientists.

That said, the representation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) women in STEM is still not as large as one would hope. There are certainly many inspirational BIPOC female scientists around the world that nevertheless do not receive the same recognition when compared with their white and/or male counterparts. 

The 2016 film Hidden Figures shed light on three black female mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. The trio worked at NASA prior to the launch of Apollo 11—the mission which sent Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to the moon. Their work contributed significantly to such an achievement. While a popular and well rated movie, it will take more than a single Hollywood adaptation to represent the work of BIPOC women in STEM. Additionally, like much of the BIPOC representation we see in movies, this focused mainly on the oppression faced by these women rather than their expertise and achievements—a common trope in such media.

Here, in referring to women, I consider all individuals who identify as female, including cisgender, transgender, and genderqueer women. Of course, genders exist outside of classical binary categorisation, and it has been shown that non-cisgender, gender fluid, or non-binary identification significantly affects discrimination. Additionally, transgender and nonbinary individuals were more likely to consider leaving their careers in STEM. They also reported more stress, depressive symptoms, and other chronic health problems than their cisgender sexual minority and non-LGBTQ+ peers. When we introduce sexual identity to the discussion about gender, discrimination in STEM only amplifies.

The gender gap that exists in our society encompasses the disparities between genders in access to social, political, economic, and intellectual opportunities. This societal gap is prevalent in STEM networks, with women comprising only 26% of graduates in core STEM degrees and only 24% of the overall STEM workforce in the UK. This gender imbalance is most prevalent in the fields of computer science, technology, and engineering, where only 19% of graduates are women. Despite the seemingly linear increase in female graduates since 2015, this amounts to only a 1% change from 25 to 26%, as the number of male graduates also increased. Additionally, the number of female graduates with core STEM degrees has stalled at ~26% since 2019.

Looking at economic inequality highlights this gap: the median earning of a woman in STEM is around 74% that of their male counterparts. Additionally, a ‘gay wage gap’ has been reported with 22% of LGBTQ+ workers facing pay and promotion disparities in all STEM fields. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ professionals earn 22% less than their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. 

Race also adds to this gap. Black and Hispanic women are repeatedly found to earn less when contrasted with all colleagues. The yearly median earnings of Black and Hispanic women are 86.1% of white women, 63% of white males and 82% and 78% of Black and Hispanic males, respectively.

Racial inequalities in STEM 

Racial systematic and institutional biases are also highly apparent at the level of educational opportunity and participation. Black and Hispanic adults are underrepresented among those earning PhDs or equivalent degrees, especially within the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering. 

Black students earned fewer than 9% of STEM degrees in 2018 across bachelors and masters, comprising only 3% of doctoral degrees in mathematics and no more than 5% in engineering or physical sciences. Additionally, Hispanic adults were awarded only 8% of masters and doctoral degrees in 2018 with enrollment in core STEM degrees declining steeply since 2020 in the US (enrollment in master’s degrees reduced by 43% and in doctoral studies by 26%). 

It is difficult to fully disentangle the origins of this underrepresentation. Suggestions include the result of systematic bias in application and recruitment processes, unequal learning opportunities resulting in less encouragement to enter these fields, and a lack of role models. In a 2018 US survey, Black people in STEM jobs reported experiencing more workplace discrimination than their non-STEM counterparts (62% versus 50%) and 42% of Hispanic workers in both STEM and non-STEM fields reported experiencing workplace discrimination. 

In this study, quotes were published by participants which, in my opinion, encapsulate the experience of a person of colour in STEM. A 39-year-old Black male physical scientist stated that ‘People have preconceived ideas of what I am capable of doing’. A 65-year-old Hispanic male engineer said that ‘the workplace is still geared to the promotion of whites over minorities, regardless of the laws in place to promote equality in the workforce’. One particular quote that really stuck with me, from a 60-year-old Black female database administrator, was ‘my skills are secondary to my race. My race is seen first’.

These personal testimonies describe the weight of patriarchal and racist ideologies on individuals in STEM fields and society more broadly. Despite established legislation and equality boards, I believe that to move forward we must address these issues and imbalances on a much larger scale. Personally, from my experiences as an activist, I know that despite implementing training and rules to ‘fix’ these imbalances, systematic and institutional systems based on discrimination must be addressed and dismantled from the top down.

Unfortunately, such data to describe the gap between cis-gender and transgender or non-binary individuals does not exist. It would be interesting to know how gender presentation and sexuality affect earnings, as well as participation in STEM degrees and careers.

Despite the gendered difference in STEM, women do make up a notable percentage of all people in health-related STEM jobs. A friend of mine, a female medical student, told me about a comment from a male colleague that has stayed with me ever since my undergraduate degree. He said something along the lines of ‘women work in healthcare because they are intrinsically caring and need to look after others’. Despite his insistence that this was meant as a compliment, the sexist subtext left me unsettled, along with the word ‘need’.

The norm that women should care for others based on an innate desire to love and serve is the quintessence of patriarchal and sexist thinking. It diminishes individual attributes and applies stereotypical characteristics to a collective. Of course, women may decide to work in healthcare from a desire to look after others in this way—but why must this be a gender-associated attribute? 

This idea that ‘all women are the same’ is a benevolent sexist ideology (benevolent sexism includes views and behaviours that perpetuate the idea that all women must be ‘caring and nurturing’ or ‘motherly’, etc.) that ultimately removes individual identity from women. This way of thinking assigns female personality traits based on stereotypes created by the patriarchy and diminishes the achievements of women in a very damaging way.

Such sexism has seemingly always existed in STEM. Watson and Crick were famously celebrated as the ‘fathers of DNA’ while observations in their studies were based on data obtained by Rosalind Franklin. More recently, 2001 Nobel prize winning scientist Tim Hunt publicly stated at the World Conference of Science Journalists, ‘let me tell you about my trouble with girls… Three things happen when they are in the lab… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry’. 

Again, this gives in to sexist tropes of women and diminishes female scientific expertise. The fact that this highly celebrated scientist would publicly make these remarks truly embodies the work we need to do in our field and in society at large to dismantle the systems built upon sexism, patriarchy, and injustice that we live by. Thus, despite our ‘progress’ in the representation of women in STEM there is still a way to go.

Crossing the socioeconomic barriers

As well as race and gender, socioeconomics also play a large role in STEM accessibility. A 2020 study stated that ‘low socioeconomic status is the biggest barrier to STEM participation’. This study used longitudinal data from surveys of young Australians. These data are collected annually and involve a representative sample of young people aged 15–25 to follow transitions from school to vocational work and/or tertiary education. The study showed that socioeconomic status significantly impacts whether secondary-school students decide to pursue further scientific study. This participation is worsened by a lack of diversity in school syllabi, which also reduces participation from ethnic minorities. 

Students from areas of lower socioeconomic status are likely to have less access to resources that aid scientific learning, including books and laboratories. This puts them at a disadvantage compared to students provided with such materials. The study also found that students from families with low socioeconomic status are less likely to choose STEM majors in higher education and are more likely to drop out; the reasons for this likely stem from a combination of the disparities discussed above. 

When researching this article, I could not find any data surrounding specific reports of discrimination against STEM professionals from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Speaking from personal experience, however,integrating into social environments where colleagues have had drastically different life experiences from you can be challenging, and is a likely driver of social exclusion arising from these different experiences. When socioeconomics is combined with mistreatment due to gender, race, or sexual orientation, students in two or more of these groups face a much greater barrier to entering a STEM field.

LGBTQ+ representation and inclusion in STEM

I believe the systematic inequalities faced by LGBTQ+ professionals in STEM are not as well discussed as other issues. Many biological phenomena and cultural norms in STEM are based around dichotomous, binary thinking. Such thinking amplifies hetero- and cis-normativity, namely, people who don’t fit these categories are more likely to experience exclusion. Representative survey data which included information from 21 STEM societies showed that LGBTQ+ professionals across all STEM disciplines and employment sectors experienced harassment, social exclusion, career limitations, hiring and wage discrimination, and professional devaluation. 

LGBTQ+ STEM professionals were also 30% more likely to have experienced harassment than their non-LGBTQ+ co-workers and this was also more likely for individuals working in STEM-related federal agencies. 

When considering intersectional thinking, LGBTQ+ STEM professionals in racial minorities and LGBTQ+-identifying women were more likely than white and male LGBTQ+ workers to experience harassment and professional devaluation. LGBTQ+-identifying participants in a survey for Stonewall, the largest LGBTQ+ rights charity in Europe, reported that they experienced inappropriate questions or comments from colleagues, exclusion from social events, and discrimination which halted their career progression. Thus, due to the likelihood of discrimination, it is unsurprising that individuals also said that they were less likely or wary of disclosing their non-heterosexual identity to colleagues.

Overall, in my opinion, LGBTQ+ role models in the sciences are lacking. For this reason, we still have work ahead of us in diversifying the scientific community and celebrating LGBTQ+ individuals to increase representation.

The influence of STEM professionals on national security, technological advancements, public health, and many other public well being-related tasks highlights the importance of a diverse workforce. For these reasons, equality and access must be improved to address the underrepresentation and mistreatment of systematically minoritized groups in STEM. 

Having individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, sexualities, and genders ensures STEM innovation is unbiased and can offer a safer and more inclusive workspace for all. To make STEM truly intersectional, however, addressing other prevalent issues in the STEM community, including ageism and ableism, will also be essential.