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STEM Careers and 21st Century Academic Racism

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This week, I came across a study that found that a significant number of women and AALANAs (African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans) were discouraged from pursuing their STEM careers. 

 In “Facts of Science Education XIV,” the research firm Campos surveyed 1,226 women and AALANA members of the American Chemical Society—particularly chemists and chemical engineers — and found that 40 percent of them had been “discouraged by individuals during the course of their successful pursuit of a STEM career.”  Latino women and Black men had the highest levels of discouragement— half in the sample for both groups.

 And who were the worst offenders?

 Their college professors!  Almost half of those pointed to their college professors as the chief source their discouragement, and 60 percent reported they experienced dissuasion in college. African-American women were dissuaded the most by their professors — an alarming 65 percent.

To me, this is a glaring manifestation of collegiate sexism and racism in the 21st century.  I am not conceiving of the discriminatory aspect of these “isms.”  I am talking about its evil twin — the conception of the natural racial and gender hierarchy.

 One of the elements of this hierarchy concerns intellect. There was a time when it was believed by too many men and too many Whites that women and AALANAs were only intellectually capable of service and supposedly low-skilled work. This idea and others have retreated from the public sphere and even many minds, as their capability has become obvious.

 Women and AALANAs may have forced their way up the ladder, but the hierarchy of intellect still remains.  At the top of the gender and racial hierarchy has tended to be those people in STEM areas.  The smartest people, the idea goes as many people think, are those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Those areas reside on the Broadway of intelligence.  They exist in the penthouse suite of the hierarchy.

In other words, most people, I would assume possibly wrongly, consider those in STEM careers to be the smartest.  A large segment of racist and sexist America also consider, I would assume with more assurance, that White men are the most intelligent demographic group.  When you put the two ideas together, you have White men being most appropriately suited to STEM careers.  We should, the line of thought goes, encourage White men to pursue STEM and discourage everyone else, specifically African-American women who are pushed to the basement of the hierarchy. 

 In effect, the powerful campaign of efforts to encourage women and AALANA to enter STEM careers is continuously hitting a wall of sexism and racism in higher education.  We can not see the wall, but like sexism and racism more generally in the 21st century, the victims surely do feel it.

 Often times when these students are discouraged, the professors that give them advice are genuinely concerned about the students’ well-being.  But they do not recognize their concern may stem from their ingrained hierarchy of intellectually capability.

 Also, I think some women and AALANA faculty in the social sciences may discourage students from STEM not necessarily because of this hierarchy and more because of their encouragement to pursue their own disciplines.  But even though I love producing African-American historians, snatching students away from STEM continues the cycle of under-representation and the consequent sexist and racist hierarchy.

 I am starting to realize that in a larger sense, a college professor should rarely (to never) discourage students away from something they want to pursue.  I think it is better to question rather than all out dissuade and allow the students to dissuade themselves because of the thoughtful questions professors provide.  In STEM or any field, faculty should be those sources of support to women and AALANA students.  A professor should be a tour guide, not a director.

 Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of African-American history at SUNY College at Oneonta.

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