The marginalization of women in STEM is a well-documented and deeply entrenched phenomenon. As Kristina Henry Collins and others observed in Gifted Child Today, this history can be traced back to the 18th and 19th century, when women were socialized to fulfill traditional gender roles: they were expected to be housewives, mothers, “ladies,” and, for those who did work, low-skilled labourers.
Even three centuries later, we still feel reverberations of this legacy, particularly for Black women in STEM-related fields, who often cannot access the same resources as their white counterparts. In fact, “Black girls and women continue to have disproportionately low numbers in achieving STEM degrees,” said Collins and others, citing the National Science Board.
According to the scholars, this underrepresentation has early beginnings, symptomatic of the systemic problems in kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) education. Such inequities include Black girls being enrolled in lower track courses; experiencing racism at school; being subjected to extreme punitive measures; and underidentification in gifted programming.
In a 2013-2014 report, the Office of Civil Rights found that 10.8% of Black girls in public school were enrolled in gifted and talented programs, while 57.3% of White girls were in these programs. In the US, Black girls are also underrepresented by about 40% in gifted education, according to Donna Y. Ford.
Quantitative evidence suggests that such representational disparity does an enormous disservice to Black girls, particularly those may kindle a passion for STEM. Contextual data from the US National Assessment Governing Board show that 35% of surveyed Black girls in the 8th grade said they want a job in science and 58% said they can use tools or materials to fix something.
Moreover, Collins et. al. contend that Black girls “are less likely than their White female peers to be represented in gifted education and advanced STEM areas of study, even though research has shown that they have higher mathematics career aspirations than their White female peers.”
Historical legacies anchored by political and systemic inequity are stubborn. These barriers are hard to conquer and even harder to eradicate. However, as recent history has demonstrated, reform is piecemeal, painstaking but not impossible. There are changemakers who are eager to take on the mantle — to rupture the status quo and to alter the trajectory of the historically marginalized. These community leaders are driving the tide of change.
And they change the narrative forever.
Here are some pioneering women who are forging avenues of opportunity for young Black girls in STEM.
Black Girls Do STEM is #diversifyinginnovation
Cynthia Chapple established Black Girls Do STEM to change the face of STEM. As a scientist herself, Chapple noticed a dearth of Black and other minority women in her discipline, according to the organization’s website. Chapple said that throughout her career in science, she had experienced cultural isolation in STEM workplaces where she was the only Black woman. So Chapple decided to found a nonprofit program to repair the gender and racial gap in the industry.
“By launching Black Girls Do STEM, I strive to provide middle school-aged black girls the opportunity to learn, create, and build confidence in their abilities to become STEM professionals,” Chapple said on the website. She hopes to equip girls with the skills they need to become scientists and engineers.
The group operates a STEM Saturday Academy, a free program for girls in grade six to nine that participants can join annually. Every February to October, the academy runs workshops in an array of topics including biotechnology, engineering design, math challenges, and cosmetic chemistry.
“By creating a culturally unique learning space,” Black Girls Do STEM said about the academy, “we give room for cognitive and mental resilience, lending to development of a STEM mindset and belief in their STEM capability.” The program provides role models for the participants: exemplars who look like them.
Participants at a Black Girls Do STEM event in Clayton, Missouri (Photo: Black Girls Do STEM/Facebook)
Parents must also commit to attend monthly workshops to facilitate and bolster their daughters’ engagement in the program. According to the organization, the academy is still running during the pandemic, while following health and safety precautions.
Black Girls Do STEM also offers a 16-week After School Program, also for Black girls from grades six to nine. Its integrated curriculum encompasses all areas of STEM and is operated on multiple school sites.
For the college-aged girls, the organization has a Virtual Collegiate Community where teens can connect with STEM mentors and fellow students. It offers resources in education, professional development, and personal growth through tutoring services, interview tips, and a safe space for girls to confide in a trustworthy role model. The Virtual Collegiate Community serves as a connective tissue between high school and post-secondary education, helping girls self-actualize and find their path during this transitionary period.
Lab coat-clad girls in a chemistry lesson (Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Do STEM/Facebook)
Beyond the purview of STEM, however, the organization also advocates for racial equity and social justice in its grand project. Black Girls Do STEM believes that racial and gender discrimination are endemic in American institutions, corporations and communities; and that such biases injure Black girls and women in all spheres.
“Lack of equitable representation did not come by happenstance,” the website reads. “Therefore, to achieve justice the same intentionality must be given to undue racial inequity.” At the heart of the program is the belief that education and activism go hand in hand.
Chapple and Black Girls Do STEM members in a chemistry workshop (Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Do STEM/Facebook)
Black Girls Do STEM is “Opening black girls eyes to the possibilities in STEM while they are still curious and excited to learn new things.” With her program, Chapple hopes to place Black girls and women at the vanguard of scientific discovery and innovation.
“I believe black girls can, black girls will — do STEM!” said Chapple, who received a Salute to Young Leaders Award for her community leadership.
Black Girls Do STEM is now accepting online applications for its programs.
Black Girls CODE is closing the digital divide
In 2011, Kimberly Bryant launched Black Girls CODE, a nonprofit organization that aspires to bridge the digital divide. “As more and more information becomes electronic, the inability to get online can leave entire communities at an extremely dangerous disadvantage,” the website reads. With seven established institutions, the organization strives to make computer technology and know-how more accessible in the US and around the world.
“Now, we’re in a position where there’s a lot of bold activism happening in this space,” Bryant told Shondaland. “We are a voice in terms of what we do and how it fits into social justice, women’s rights, and a more career-driven, future of work.”
Two participants at a Black Girls CODE event (Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Do STEM/Facebook)
In her interview with Shondaland, Bryant revealed that she had initially received pushback for the name of the organization. However, she fought to retain the strong emphasis on Black girls in her program.
“I think the way we rode the chains is by being bold, unapologetic, and just started to do the work,” she said to Shondaland.
Black Girls CODE provides tools for girls in underprivileged communities from ages seven to 17 to explore computer science and technology. Community outreach initiatives include workshops and after-school programs that teach fundamental computer coding and programming languages to young girls of colour.
Black Girls CODE also offers a financial-need based scholarship for girls coming from low-income households who wish to participate in the program. As the organization puts it, computer literacy is “an essential tool for surviving in the 21st century.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Do STEM/Facebook)
“The skills they acquire through the programs give these young women a chance at well-paying professions with prestigious companies,” the website reads, “as well as the ability to enter into the field as entrepreneurs and leaders of technology.”
In April 2020, Black Girls CODE collaborated with Nike to host a virtual hackathon, “Just Hack It: Powering Human Connection.” The three-day event was open to girls, dubbed #futuretechbosses, from 12 to 17 years old, of all levels of coding proficiency. The hackathon focussed on the power of collective innovation and the “intersection of sports and activism through a digital lens.” To this end, participants created tech projects and built digital communities for a social issue they were passionate about.
Black Girls CODE’s hackathons “allow students to participate in creating solutions to social issues within their communities while they build their skills, confidence, experience and have lots of fun!”
Black Girls CODE mentor and students (Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Do STEM/Facebook)
In December 2020, the organization joined forces with Netflix in a panel discussion with the creators, directors, and producers of holiday film, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020). The “Imagining the Impossible” panel allowed the girls to ask direct questions to the creative masterminds behind the film, illuminating the power of imagination and STEM through an artistic medium.
Imagine, build, and create are the mainstays of the Black Girls CODE program. Its long-term objective is “To provide African-American youth with the skills to occupy some of the 1.4 million computing job openings expected to be available in the US by 2020, and to train 1 million girls by 2040.”
Girls STEM Institute is using tech to create social change
Math professor Dr. Crystal Morton created Girls STEM Institute (GSI) to help girls of colour explore STEM education in a “meaningful and culturally grounded context,” fostering future leaders and innovators in the industry. It is a four-week summer program that is followed by monthly year-round follow programming.
Morton, associate professor at the Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI), said that the impetus to found the GSI came from her own experience as a STEM student as well as the personal anecdotes from Black female students during her years as an educator.
“I have talked with several Black females,” Morton told The Lighthouse Almanac, “that share their lack of connection with school mathematics, the negative experiences they have in classrooms as well as not seeing how their mathematical knowledge can be used as a catalyst for social change.”
GSI members at a STEM Summer Institute at Indiana University in July 2019 (Photo: Courtesy of Black Girls Do STEM/Facebook)
The GSI emboldens its participants to seek a future in STEM fields, where women of colour are routinely excluded. The program boosts confidence of young girls through fortifying their STEM knowledge and providing mentorship from industry professionals, who are embodied proof that women of colour can flourish in STEM. The institute also offers experiential learning through college and career preparation initiatives.
The institute reinforces the importance of higher education and aims to help young ladies develop more positive perceptions of STEM and increase the flow of underrepresented groups to upper-level mathematics courses as well as other STEM-related degrees and careers.
CSI participant Adeola Yusuf said that the Summer Institute opened her eyes to the world (Photo: Courtesy of Indiana University/YouTube)
“You learn that not every subject is going to be your best but you just have to try your hardest to make it your best,” Adeola Yusuf, a GSI participant, told Indiana University.
According to Yusuf, the GSI not only provided a wholesome habitat for learning but also a family with other young girls. “It made my eyes very wide open to the world.”
In 2020, the GSI’s Summer Institute was cancelled due to COVID-19, however, the institute held a virtual experience in lieu of the usual in-person program.
The program’s holistic approach helps girls cultivate a curiosity in the field and nourishes their skills and talents while they come of age. The GSI combines rigorous STEM education with family and community engagement to develop both the intellectual and social facets of its proteges.
“GSI is unique in that it focuses on the whole person through the integration of STEM learning with overall wellness and well-being,” according to the website.
For the GSI, however, the STEM industry can effect change beyond technological advancements: “As STEM learners, they are empowered to use STEM as a tool for personal and social change.”
(Photo: Girls STEM Institute)
A tribute to the #BlackExcellence hashtag, Black Excellence is a special INN24 series honouring the talent, innovation, and ingenuity of Black trailblazers who are weaving the tapestry of Black history today.
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