Why Representation Matters!

One of the most frequent questions children are asked by well meaning adults is “what do you want to be when you grow up”. I wanna be like Mike when I grow up, they might say. I am going to be the next Viola Davis or Issa Rae. No, you got that, I’m going to be like Tiger. Younger kids might want to be a princess, or a ninja, a ballerina or even a doctor. But before kids have the cognitive ability to form for themselves what they want to be, they are influenced by what they see on TV, in movies, on YouTube or in the news. Prior to the age of Obama, there may not have been a lot of little black children saying, “I want to be President.” Michelle Obama had me thinking whether I wanted the smoke involved with going to law school. Doc McStuffins (albeit fictional) has inspired more than a few future doctors. It is hard to believe that you can be something where you don’t see people like you in that space. Our kids need to see Black people in the C-suite. They need to see Black engineers, and hackers and developers, and scientists and mathematicians. There are 3 black people who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They are all men (Davis, 2020).When was the last time you were asked your favorite basketball player? Now how about your favorite Engineer? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had its first Black graduate in 1892. It gave its first Civil Engineering degree in 1917 (25 years later) (Kershner, n.d.). Throughout that time the engineering discipline was dominated by white men. In 2019, Engineering occupations have only 15.7% women, and 6.8% Black. White men still represent over 77% of the engineering profession (Statistics, 2020). That is why it’s important to see Black people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  

Lack of Diversity in STEM fields doesn’t start with diversity training, it isn’t fixed with diversity programs, its fixed by encouraging young black (and minority) boys and GIRLS to engage in Summer STEM camps, to focus on practical applications of math besides handling finances, and to engage in robotics and computer programming and engineering at a young age. It starts in early childhood education. From 2006 to 2016 the number of Black people in undergraduate education increased from 1.82 million in 2006 to 2.11 million in 2016. For comparison, the number of White people enrolled went from 9.2 million in 2006 to 8.6 million in 2016. Of that 1.8 million Black people, 1.2 million were Black women. The number of women enrolled in engineering programs went from 65,169 in 2006 to 135,414 in 2016. For context the number of all undergraduates in engineering programs went from 379,004 in 2006 to 624,096 (NSF.gov, Undergraduate enrollment in engineering programs, by enrollment status, sex, ethnicity, race, and citizenship: 2002–16, 2020). Although women represented 56% of students enrolled in undergraduate education, they only represented 21% of students in engineering in 2016. And while Blacks represented 12% of the 2016 undergraduate enrollment, they only represented 5% of the engineering students (NSF.gov, 2020). What this says for Women and Blacks in STEM is that while they are well represented in undergraduate education, the number of women, and black women specifically in the pipeline to STEM fields is severely lacking. To begin to fix the disparities in STEM fields children need to see more women and minorities in STEM. They need to know that we have amazing men and women in cyber (Shout out to Lisa Jiggetts of Women’s Cyberjutsu and Marcus J Carey of Tribe of Hackers) and amazing Black Women in Mathematics and Data Science (Shout out to Kim Martin at Netflix).

To address the lack of diversity in STEM, we need to see more Black STEM heroes. We need to see them on the Boards of companies, and the executive suites of Fortune 500s. But most importantly when they get there, they need to use their influence and resources to reach back and create programs that expose children to STEM at an early age. Representation matters because there are those of us out here who wanted to be a hacker when we grow up and we need a face and a name for our vision boards, for our “who’s your favorite engineer” conversations and for our #goals.

Davis, D.-M. (2020, July 21). One of the only 4 Black Fortune 500 CEOs just stepped down — here are the 3 that remain. Retrieved from BusinessInsider.com: https://www.businessinsider.com/there-are-four-black-fortune-500-ceos-here-they-are-2020-2

Kershner, K. (n.d.). Famous Black Engineers Throughout History. Retrieved from howstuffworks.com: https://science.howstuffworks.com/engineering/structural/famous-black-engineers.htm

NSF.gov. (2020, September). Undergraduate enrollment at all institutions, by citizenship, ethnicity, race, sex, and enrollment status: 2006–16. Retrieved from NSF.gov: https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/data

NSF.gov. (2020, September). Undergraduate enrollment in engineering programs, by enrollment status, sex, ethnicity, race, and citizenship: 2002–16. Retrieved from NSF.gov: https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/data

Statistics, B. o. (2020, January 22). Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Retrieved from BLS.gov: https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm

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