As I was choosing the career I wanted to pursue, the thought of always going for things that make me comfortable did not sit well with me. I sought comfort because most of my female colleagues were going for courses that were not STEM-related while I was the only one focused on STEM courses: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The apprehension of not belonging was great. Nobody seemed to understand the profound impact of my fears. I was fascinated by STEM, but I had no one in my sphere of influence who was in STEM who I could look up to.
Once a female relative expressed how STEM-related careers are challenging for girls, and she wondered if I could handle a computer science degree. I knew for sure that she had no ill intentions so I wasn't upset by her comment but hurt that she questioned my capabilities due to my gender. Society played a role in shaping her thinking towards the capabilities of women through perpetuating the myth that male students were more capable of handling mathematics and science. People have normalised this myth and many more. According to the American Association of University Women ( AAUW), teachers who are predominantly female often pass math anxiety to female students and often assume girls need to work harder to achieve the same level as boys.
The challenge I faced was more than just a society that normalised the belief that Black females could not handle STEM careers. I didn’t have access to people I could call role models, people I could approach to be my mentors, and people I who I could see as my allies. On top of my head, I could not name a single Black female in my immediate environment in STEM, but I could name at least one male who had been featured on one late-night news broadcast.
I was interested in computers from a tender age, but I did not have the necessary guidance as my interest evolved to the point where I wanted it as a career. During the different phases I went through, such as fear of failure, questioning my abilities, exploring the right fit universities for me and wondering if I would fit in, I had no one to share my fears with and seek their objective input.
Black female role models in STEM play an important role in the lives of young Black females who want to join STEM careers. During those times I lacked a role model or mentor as I evolved and experienced all these challenges that I felt someone who is not a Black female in STEM might not be conscious of my experience. I was able to figure out my path which is computer science and overcame some of my initial fears. I believe I still need mentors to guide me through the new phases ahead.
Many Black females experience gender biases and stereotypes, which influence their career choices. Dominant social norms that position STEM as male-oriented, influence these stereotypes. Public perceptions of science are shaped by exposure to science, role models, and the cultural contexts and beliefs of the exposed individuals (Noy and O’Brien, 2019). Hence the need for role models who can help address the negative stereotypical perceptions of women in STEM that affect girls interested in careers in these areas. It is not just about having role models, but people Black females can rely on to guide them and encourage them to chart their paths.
Apart from the fact that we need more women in STEM and reduce the gender gap, we need to consider the untapped potential, the new perspective and innovative ways Black females could bring to problem-solving. As Black females, we also have to be bold to take the necessary and intentional steps to connect with other Black females across the globe. Educate ourselves and consistently work towards defying the biases and stereotypes.
Having more women in STEM will make the careers less daunting and inspire more Black females to join such career paths confidently without second-guessing their capabilities because of their race and gender. So take that courageous step today to tackle one of your fears, support a Black female interested in STEM or sign up for an info session about Black females in STEM. Because it all starts with you!
Don’t forget to register for our “Building STEM Capital” event where we aim to foster learning, inspiration and wonder; and provoke conversations that advance the success of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) women in STEM at the link below: