President, Broadcom Foundation
Women of color make up a rapidly rising percentage of the U.S. population. If our country is to remain a global competitor with a robust STEM workforce, young Black and brown girls need inspiration, equity, and STEM education, now.
If we fail to fully equip and empower girls of color, a fast-growing demographic of capable, untapped talent to be among the next generation of innovators and business leaders in science and engineering, our nation cannot realize its full potential of economic growth.
Underrepresentation in STEM by all girls in the United States is deeply rooted in their historic socio-political marginalization, and Black girls disproportionately so. Achieving scientific and technological literacy, logical thinking, and mathematical skill sets has been especially difficult for young women of color because STEM fields have long been perceived as the province of white males, and they have lacked equitable access, incentivization, and mentorship from an early age.
Equity in STEM
To nurture a “STEM identity” in young women of color, Broadcom Foundation sponsored Design_CODE_Buildfor girls at the Computer History Museum. However, it quickly became apparent that seismic changes in the number of Black and brown girls pursuing STEM will only occur when greater numbers of women of color are business leaders who mentor and grow future STEM talent from among their ranks. As Vikki Shepp, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Orange County says, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
“Throughput of our nation’s STEM pipeline will not grow if our goal rests on simply adding employees,” observes engineer Nicole Washington, member of the Angel Capital Association and former director of innovation and growth for Octane. “To achieve race and gender equity in STEM, we need pathways to entrepreneurship for women of color — funding and championing them to build their own STEM companies. These are the people who will create much-needed jobs in the very communities they live and who will become role models for those who, for far too long, have gone underrepresented in science and technology.”
Developing confidence and an entrepreneurial spirit in young women of color is as equally challenging as imparting STEM skills — it requires creating incentives for them to believe in their power to excel and lead as scientists, engineers, innovators, and entrepreneurs at an early age, just as is done with young males. Lifestyle-driven STEM education programs that provide mastery experiences help build the confidence that is critical to becoming a future leader in STEM. All-girl programs like Afterschool Studios and Black Girls CODE, and STEAM enrichment programs through all-girl organizations like the Girl Scouts reinforce essential team building and leadership skills among peers, which are equally important for long-term career success as acquiring STEM expertise.
Taking this principle into account, United States Senator and Democratic candidate for Vice President Kamala Harris introduced the 21st Century STEM for Girls and Underrepresented Minorities Act of 2019 that could drastically change how grant money for science and technology training is directed, reduce racial and gender bias in low-income communities, and, importantly, implement more after-school STEM clubs.
It is critically important that we keep front-and-center the long-term goal of creating a vibrant, STEM-driven economy as the nation strives to reconfigure STEM education under the economic and socialization constraints of a global pandemic, and after-school programs like Black Girls Code are forced to go virtual. Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant is calling on software developers in Silicon Valley to help reshape and sustain programs like hers to prevent Black and brown women from being frozen out of STEM opportunities.
Young women of color are a precious national resource for future innovation and addressing their potential to become leaders in STEM must be factored into shaping education policy.