Diversity in STEM: An American Imperative

The equity issues in the nation’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are well-documented. According to the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, despite representing two-thirds of the country’s population, women, African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians comprise only 25 percent or less of the nation’s STEM workforce.

While this lack of inclusion — and the attendant ideas, creativity and perspectives these individuals bring to bear — has long been unacceptable, a number of converging trends now make it unsustainable as well. Shifting demographics that include growing minority populations, an aging STEM workforce, looming retirements and a future workforce that looks nothing like the old (i.e. male and white) all point to the pressing need to bring more of the country’s STEM talent to the table.

Today, that need is made all the more urgent as employers voice a growing demand for STEM workers. A recent survey of recruiters at American Fortune 1000 companies commissioned by Bayer, where the author works, reveals a robust jobs picture at some of the country’s largest employers for new hires with two- and four-year STEM degrees but difficulty on the part of these employers to find these new hires.

That difficulty is more acute for employers trying to hire female and minority professionals who hold STEM degrees. Very few of the talent recruiters polled — just 16 percent — say they are seeing adequate numbers of minorities coming through their doors for job interviews. And while more recruiters report seeing an adequate number of Caucasian and Asian female job candidates with STEM degrees, even in those populations, the numbers are still well below those of Caucasian and Asian males.

So what’s a diversity executive to do? Here are some things Bayer has learned and put into practice.

  • Begin at the beginning. The STEM workforce pipeline begins early in elementary school. Several studies of scientists and engineers show that interest in science begins at or before age 11. Studies also show that the best way to spark and maintain student interest in science — and level the academic playing field for all students — is through inquiry-based, hands-on science learning. Bayer, as well as a handful of companies like Merck, Hewlett-Packard, GlaxoSmithKline and IBM, has been involved in supporting this kind of experiential STEM learning for decades. Some programs and organizations to investigate include the National Science Resources Center, Math Out of the Box and MESA.
  • Provide students with access to mentors and role models early and often. A myriad of research demonstrates the importance of exposing students to STEM professionals early on. Doing so helps students better appreciate the opportunities posed by science and engineering careers. Seeing people who look like themselves also boosts students’ confidence and the belief that they, too, can succeed.
  • Work with expert organizations. Not sure how to get started? There are organizations dedicated to supporting the STEM educational goals of female and minority students. Work with them. American Women in Science, the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED, the National Action Committee for Minorities in Engineering and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society offer programs like scholarships and internships and are excellent organizations with which to partner.
  • Create and maintain diverse employee engagement programs. Once hired, make sure female and minority STEM professionals have the support they need to succeed. Employee networking groups empower individuals and give them a place to share ideas and experiences. In fact, when asked to cite the factors that have helped them succeed professionally, female and minority chemists and chemical engineers in a recent Bayer survey said creating professional relationships, building networks within their organizations, having supportive management and joining professional societies or networking groups were chief among them.
  • Leverage corporate philanthropy to support best-practice STEM education programs. There are a range of quality education programs from elementary school through high school, college, graduate school and beyond with proven track records of helping young women and minorities succeed and achieve in STEM. Do your homework. Check with organizations like the National Science Foundation, Change the Equation and STEMconnector to find the right programs that fit the mission of your corporate giving programs.
  • Be a partner, not just a donor. When using corporate philanthropy to support STEM programs, choose to create long-term partnerships over simply giving a donation. Why? Partnerships allow companies to leverage resources in a way donations cannot. For example, corporate partners can help education partners bolster fundraising by assisting with grant writing or by enlisting the support of other companies.

Sharyn N. Jones is vice president of U.S. talent management and diversity and inclusion for Bayer Corp. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.