The Paradoxes in Getting More Women and Minorities in STEM

The other day, I got an email from a mathematics grad program, encouraging me to apply. At the end of the email, they listed off some statistics about the "diversity" of their grad program: they have 47 grad students with 11 females and 4 from underrepresented groups. And, this statistic was presented as though it were a selling point, as though having 11 women and 4 minorities out of 47 total was diverse, and thus I should definitely feel right at home.

A little disclaimer before I seem too rant-y: 1) I don't blame this grad program for the lack of diversity as there is a disparity in women and minorities all across STEM fields and 2) I'm not applying to grad school right now so this email did catch me on a particularly careful day. But, this statistic spoke to something that my mind has been buzzing about for months...

My mind's been buzzing about the lack of women and minorities in STEM as I am one of three females in my math class. And, because I attended this great summer research program that was focused on getting those from underrepresented groups involved in mathematics, which was a wonderful experience. But, on one day, a recent PhD graduate talked about how hard it was to find a community in her grad school, where she is currently the only black graduate of their math PhD program. And, then she told us the advice that her adviser gave her when picking out a graduate school, "You can pick a program that supports a woman or one that supports a minority, but not both." So, following their advice, she made the strange and impossible-seeming decision to choose which category she identified more with.

And, my mind has also been buzzing about this disparity of representation in STEM fields as I have attended two conferences in the past two months that have had a focus on getting minorities and females involved in STEM. But, then you hear these speeches on the current concerns, and you hear those troubling statistics, about how even after obtaining a PhD there are struggles in getting tenure, or being heard out at faculty meetings. And, while we must obviously be aware of the problems in order to solve them, hearing these stories leave me in a weird place as those speeches have felt equally inspiring and discouraging. I know I should feel encouraged by these troubling statistics to disprove the odds and keep going, but I feel like I can't be the only one who also hears them as a warning of what you're signing up for. You're signing up for more classes with three women to twenty-something men. You're signing up for not being in classes with people who look like you. You're signing up for years of being aware of these differences that your colleagues may get to disregard or never have to think about. And, while I know that if every woman or minority got discouraged by these speeches and statistics, we would never make any progress in this area, going off of another point that the recent PhD graduate told us, the lack of people who look like you is a subconscious reminder that you're not supposed to be there. And, it could be a reminder that you get every single day.

And, I say all this not to be a downer, but to just speak honestly and realistically about this whole minorities and women in STEM because nothing is a perfectly tied-together nice story. Because you don't have to just overcome being underrepresented once; you have to keep overcoming it, and that's a tough choice to decide that you're okay with doing that for the rest of your life. As a female math major, I am all for minorities and women in STEM, but I feel like voicing out about the complexities with this issue and why it's far from a straightforward fix. So, while mathematics strives for simplicity and directness, the problems with getting more women and minorities involved in this subject is far from simple or straightforward.