These days, people talk a lot about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Promoting participation in STEM fields has been a priority of President Obama’s for a while now. There’s concern that the United States is falling behind in STEM relative to our international peers. Campaigns to increase the involvement in STEM fields of women and people of color are propelled by reports like the recent one revealing the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley. But what people don’t talk about as much is what happens when the factors of race and gender are combined, and how we can get more African American girls into STEM fields.

STEM fields are widely thought of as the key to future success, from a national and individual perspective. Companies need workers trained in STEM to fill thousands of vacant technical jobs as part of what has been called the “skills gap,” and these jobs tend to pay well [PDF]. To make individuals more competitive in the job market and the United States more competitive on the world stage, we need to begin with a focus on STEM education. A new report from NWLC and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund examines the challenges African American girls face in education, including the lack of adequate STEM resources in schools that African American girls are far more likely than white girls to attend, as well as stereotypes that dissuade girls from pursuing STEM. Below are some facts from the report that shed light on the barriers to STEM education for African American girls:

  1. African American girls often go to schools that lack the necessary resources for a strong STEM education.
    • Only 57 percent of African American high school students attend schools with the full range of math and science courses, compared to 71 percent of white high school students.
    • In the 2007-08 academic year, 24 percent of science teachers in high-minority schools lacked the necessary materials, compared to only 13 percent of science teachers in both low-minority schools.
  2. Studies show that African American girls are steered to classes that promote dialogue, instead of encouraged to achieve in the sciences.
    • African American girls are underrepresented in AP classes for STEM subjects, making up only 5 percent of AP math and science students, despite comprising over 8 percent of students enrolled in basic math and science classes.
    • In 2012, only 6 percent of African American girls met the ACT science college readiness benchmark compared to 27 percent of girls overall; and 14 percent of African American girls met the math benchmark, compared to 42 percent of girls overall. 
      Percentage of students meeting college readiness benchmark scores on the ACT, 2012 
  3. Although African American girls intend to study STEM in college to a greater extent than some of their female peers, they are still underrepresented among STEM college graduates.
    • Thirty-five percent of African American female undergraduate freshmen intend to major in STEM fields, compared with 31 percent of white female freshmen and 34 percent of female freshmen overall.
    • 28 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African American women were in STEM fields, compared to 27 percent for white women, 29 percent for women overall, and 38 percent for men overall.

Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity offers specific recommendations for improving the representation of African American girls in STEM fields, including targeted outreach and recruitment, implicit bias training for teachers, and Title IX compliance reviews of STEM programs. This is just one of the many educational barriers faced by African American girls and covered in the report. To learn more, go to www.nwlc.org/unlockingopportunity.