Raquel Tamez on Empowering Latinas in STEM Fields
Education and Careers The CEO of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) discusses the importance of nurturing Latina leaders of today and tomorrow.
Latinas are less likely to get a STEM degree than other women. Just 17 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to Latinas in 2010 were in a STEM field, lower than rates for black, white, and Asian women. Why do you think that is?
One issue is visibility. There aren’t enough Latina role models succeeding in or teaching STEM. In some instances, there’s also a lack of support at home, coupled with a cultural belief that these are “men’s jobs.” And while there’s a notable uptick in Hispanic families championing education, everyday pressures — keeping the lights on and food on the table as well as child care and child rearing — often compete with higher education aspirations. Then there is the phenomenon of the transition from community college, where a lot of Latinas begin their higher educations, into four-year universities to pursue certain STEM degrees.
Why is it important to increase the number of Latinas in STEM fields?
Latinas bring value to any field — discipline, dedication, passion. And Latinas don’t shy away from hard work. Empowering them to pursue STEM will increase workplace diversity, which bolsters creativity and innovation while strengthening problem solving. And as more Latinas contribute to household income through non-traditional careers like those in STEM, they are positively changing the trajectories of their families in one generation.
What obstacles have you faced as a Latina that your male colleagues have not?
Before joining SHPE, I was Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel of a national nonprofit and before that I was Deputy General Counsel for a technology outsourcing service provider, so I’ve been in my fair share of male-dominated rooms. My trial background has helped me learn to be comfortable at that table and sufficiently confident to lean in and advocate for myself or a position I feel strongly about or believe in. Most important is that I’d like to think I’m good at my job, consistently prepared to articulate my position or that of my client or organization.
Of course, I can be caught off-guard and in those instances, I rely on a strong network of professional mentors for guidance. (Several of my mentors, by the way, are not Hispanic Latinas. In some instances, they’re white men. Their diverse perspectives have opened my aperture in invaluable ways.) Once, a colleague called me a “feisty Latina,” in a not-so-nice way. To help reconcile this for myself, I turned to a mentor. After serious deliberation with this mentor and deep self-reflection, I decided to lean into the “feisty Latina” comment, using the stereotype to my advantage. I now come back to “feisty Latina” as a source of empowerment. And now, through my position with SHPE, I hope to help the SHPEtinas and other Latinas do the same.
What is SHPE doing to encourage more Latinas to join STEM fields?
Hispanics are the future of the United States workforce. As one of the fastest-growing ethnic populations in the United States, Hispanics are also roughly ten years younger than the overall population. To remain a STEM leader, the United States must realize the untapped potential of Hispanics and more specifically, Latinas. We must also shift our thinking about this field. Two-thirds of STEM opportunities don’t require a four-year degree. We could make a huge impact with technical training investments, in addition to increasing Latinas’ awareness and access to career paths in computer science and artificial intelligence.
This is where SHPE can help Latinas make incredible gains. We are launching a national pilot program aimed at empowering Latinas in their STEM pursuits. Called SHPEtinas: Empowering Latinas in STEM, the program offers 360 support, training and professional development to our women members. It also examines ways to address and eradicate barriers that Latinas face in accessing STEM education and professional opportunities.
It’s an “all hands on deck” approach. Our corporate partners are excited to take this journey with us as we honor and showcase accomplished Latinas working in STEM who are exemplary role models for the young Hispanic women who will follow them. At our annual National Convention, we host a two-day conference for SHPEtinas featuring unique networking opportunities, relevant and cutting edge professional development sessions and robust panel discussions.
All of this work is readying Latina students and professionals for the future. STEM is not just a career, it’s a mindset. One that will transform both our Hispanic community and the world.