Why am I the only Black female STEM academic (Associate Professor) in my faculty and why are there such a paucity of Black women in academic STEM careers?
I’m aware this is a complex issue and there are a number of potential contributory factors. For example, there are very few black science teachers as role models in schools. There is the pervasive stereotype that science is not for girls and women. There is a lack of awareness of the immense opportunities available to those with STEM skills.
There are issues around academic attainment in STEM subjects at all levels of education for Black students, and Black female academics are largely absent at senior levels in STEM disciplines. Given all of these factors, one might assume that Black females have little interest in science and therefore choose other disciplines at pre and post A level. But that is not the case – in fact the opposite is true.
The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) 2014 report Improving Diversity in STEM states: ‘There is evidence that Black women from African or Caribbean backgrounds are more likely to take up STEM subjects than men from the same ethnic groups. In 2009/10 female Caribbean students made up 8% of women in STEM subjects… female Black African students made up a quarter of the cohort of women in STEM subjects...’
There is clearly a lack and loss of diversity in STEM that many say results from intrinsic barriers both structural and cultural, including societal pressures and unconscious bias in teaching and learning practice and inequality of opportunity in the workplace.
How do we address this lack and this loss? I use the word ‘we’ as this is a problem that concerns us all and if it is not tackled could result in a huge loss of skills and talent and all the promise that they hold.
My early introduction to science through medical text books and the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a young child by my parents, was my route to STEM but this was and still is not the typical experience for young Black girls, so as scientists it is incumbent on us to inspire a new generation of young Black women to be leaders in the endless list of STEM disciplines.
How do we inspire? Outreach programmes are ways in which to engage and excite Black girls before their interest and engagement with STEM wanes due to societal and cultural assumptions and pressures.
Some of the programmes and activities that my institution (Kingston University) is involved in and are developing include Saturday clubs, large scale events such as the Big Bang and taking STEM into schools and FE colleges. I’m sure that such institutions are swelling with budding young Black female engineers and scientists eager to know and explore how biology, chemistry, maths and physics are helping us to answer questions about the world we live in.
It is clear that academia is losing young Black women from STEM once they complete their studies and for the few that remain reaching the top is unlikely. This is where I believe instrumental mentoring could have a significant impact.
Instrumental mentoring is about maximising potential, developing skills to facilitate success, building a support network, raising self-esteem and confidence, improving basic skills and knowledge, gaining valuable work experience, developing political astuteness, understanding power and influence, developing resilience and improving self-awareness.
Left: Dr Elizabeth Opara with Jim Andrews, Chief Operating Officer and Equality Lead at BU, at an Athena Swan event. My role in these schemes has been as a mentee and a mentor but it was my experience as the former that gave me the clarity I so desperately needed as a Grade 10 academic who had stagnated and was not part of any of the informal networks that appeared to provide opportunities for others.
My role as a mentee gave me clarity and sparked the determination I need to achieve my ultimate goal – to become a full professor. I know achieving this goal will not be easy – it is not meant to be easy but it must not be made harder because I am a Black woman.
While mentoring schemes help build staff engagement, success can only be measured by increased numbers of Black women rising to senior posts and there are immense challenges ahead in addressing the deficit of Black women in roles of leadership in STEM.
Part of that challenge is recognising that the biggest change that needs to be made to increase Black leadership in STEM disciplines is in transforming the institutional culture within higher education from a Euro-centred environment originally developed for White, middle and upper class males (who most benefit as students and staff alike in terms of attainment and career progression) to a culturally democratic environment that delivers both equality of opportunity and equal power relations.
That is why I am delighted to be appointed to the management team at Black British Academics as STEM Advisor and look forward to leading on strategic development around this issue.
The main picture features Dr Elizabeth Opara (left) with Dr Lucy Jones at Kingston University who developed a model for testing the effetiveness of ‘super foods‘.