The Pandemic Is Our Chance to Fix the Black Women in STEM Gap

It is up to companies to recruit, support, retain and offer equitable pay to Black women in order to further advance and enhance society.

Black women STEM
Black women are now the most educated group in the United States, but only 2 percent of STEM jobs are held by Black women. (WOCinTech Chat / Flickr)

Black women are now the most educated group in the United States, but they remain woefully underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The COVID-19 pandemic is our chance to repair this gap. 

As a therapist and career coach working with adults throughout the pandemic, I have assisted people with a wide range of career concerns. I have worked with individuals who are reassessing their career goals in the context of the pandemic, looking for more flexibility as companies transition back to in-person workdays or languishing in their current role and looking to find fulfillment at work and in their personal life. Economists and workforce development professionals have been baffled by how to address the Great Resignation.  

Since the pandemic began, employees are leaving the workforce or finding new work opportunities en masse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the U.S., more than 4 million Americans have left their jobs since September 2021. 

What does this mean for STEM industries, which have historically been in high need for skilled workers? Every year there are thousands of unfilled positions in STEM. It is estimated that more than 3 million jobs in STEM will need to be filled by 2025.  

The U.S. consistently lacks professionals in the STEM workforce and struggles with diversifying the STEM workforce. Specifically, the U.S. continues to lack Black women in STEM. The workforce gaps in STEM can be directly traced back to pipeline leaks in K-12 and post-secondary education. Beginning in high school, fewer women and racial minorities expect to have a career in STEM at age 30. Then, in college, significantly more men than women declare STEM majors and significantly more Asian and white students declare STEM majors when compared to their counterparts.  

Although women now make up over half of the overall workforce, they are underrepresented in certain high-paying STEM sectors, such as computer and engineering jobs. In 2018, more college degrees were awarded to women (58%) than men, yet women comprised only 22 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and 19 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science.

When we focus on Black women in particular, only 2 percent of STEM jobs  are held by Black women. Compounding this disparity, Black women tend to earn the lowest wages in STEM fields. 

Black women STEM
More than 3 million jobs in STEM will need to be filled by 2025. (WOCinTech Chat / Flickr)

Some might question why we need more diversity and more Black women in STEM during the pandemic. Some could argue the priority should be to focus on filling the vacant job positions that are left open due to the number of individuals leaving the workforce. Yet, research has consistently shown that companies need diversity of thought to develop innovative solutions to tomorrow’s problems and diverse teams tend to outperform homogenous teams. 

When we examine many of the successes in STEM in recent years, Black women are often at the forefront. Dr. Gladys West was responsible for the mathematics that brought the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and in 2020. Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett from the National Institutes of Health was at the forefront of the COVID-19 vaccine development. If we harken back a few decades, mathematician Katherine Johnson played a critical role in the NASA calculations that made the 1969 landing on the moon possible.  

In the context of both the pandemic and the era of the Great Resignation, the U.S. can’t afford to lose professionals in STEM fields and especially the few Black women who currently hold positions in STEM. 

So, how can companies not only recruit but retain more Black women in STEM? It takes more than making sure there are equal and equitable opportunities for Black women to have access to science and math coursework. Companies also need to implement intentional career interventions that address mental health. STEM careers are important and directly impact and improve the world we live in, but they are also stressful.

Many Black women in STEM will experience racial microaggressions, a lack of representation in their field, self-doubt and other mental health concerns. During the pandemic, four in 10 adults in the U.S. report experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms.  

The combination of the Great Resignation, an increase in mental health symptoms and the need for more Black women in STEM requires companies to provide career development interventions such as conducting career needs assessments, developing structured mentoring programs, investing in specialized skills training and sharing opportunities for Black women to secure promotions and increase their earning potential. 

In addition, STEM companies need to consider the mental health of employees, particularly Black women. Initiatives such as allowing for mental health days, creating meaningful mental health programs with employee assistance program therapy contractors, promoting mindfulness and adopting trauma-informed practices can help support and retain Black women in STEM.  

Companies that don’t use the Great Resignation as a growth edge and chance for reflection will struggle to bounce back from the pandemic. The Great Resignation is an opportunity to make innovative and impactful changes in the STEM workforce. Major societal challenges require contemporary solutions. 

Once given the opportunity, Black women can lead the charge in using their talents to tackle the climate crisis, healthcare disparities, advances in tech and other STEM problems. It is up to companies to recruit, support, retain and offer equitable pay to Black women in order to further advance and enhance society.

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Autumn Cabell is an assistant professor in counseling at DePaul University and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.