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by Maia Raynor-French, City Year Providence AmeriCorps Member proudly serving on the National Grid team at Gilbert Stuart Middle School

In the biographical movie Hidden Figures, black female scientists and mathematicians take center stage. The movie tells the often untold story of the black women of NASA whose contributions made the 1969 Apollo 11 space mission possible. When I first heard of the movie I was immediately struck by how few people knew its history, myself included, and how this narrative still rung so true. I had never heard of the women the movie followed, yet they were an integral part of space exploration history. I wondered whether this story failed to fit the mainstream narrative because it showed the implicit and explicit biases of NASA. From my experience as a woman of color, the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) have always seemed far out of reach for me and many of my peers who share similar identities.

The women in Hidden Figures experienced a mixture of sexism and racism in their chosen field that unfortunately persists today. Even though 12.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2010 was black and 16.4 percent was Latino, black and Latino students only represented 7 and 7.5 percent, respectively, of all STEM degree award recipients from 2008-2009, according to a 2011 Department of Education report found[1]. Many speculate on the underrepresentation of women and racial minorities, but what is less often talked about are the systemic barriers that exist that lead to the disproportionate racial and gender makeup of those in STEM fields.

Students of color and female students often face negative stereotypes, which can turn them away from STEM fields in primary and secondary education. Many educators, media outlets, and other influencers promote ideas of what it means to be a scientist. These images more often look like Bill Nye rather than Neil de Grasse Tyson. Moreover, students of color and female students are often encouraged not to pursue their STEM interests or held to a different standard than their white male peers, even by their teachers. Three-fourths of women of color working in STEM field indicated that they were never identified or encouraged to pursue STEM studies, and 40% reported being actively discouraged[2].

Studies have shown that stereotype threat is a major psychological barrier for students of color. Stereotype threat is the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm a stereotype. When students feel they are being viewed stereotypically, it can actually lead to them performing worse. For example, women perform worse on math tests when they think the test will produce gender differences[3]. We must move to eliminate stereotypes and implicit biases, so that students can be free to perform to their ability as a person, not as a statistic.

This is vitally important in urban school districts where school populations are majority students of color. Creating positive identity development around the sciences at an early age and uniformly encouraging students’ interest in STEM can make a huge difference in closing the racial and gender gap. A good first step is to recommend Hidden Figures or other movies that show diversity in STEM to your students, ALL of your students, because what they see may make all of the difference. 

[1] Wang, Evelyn. "Black, Latino Students Face Barriers to Achievement in STEM Education – Despite High Interest." Chicago Bureau. The Youth Project, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

[2] "Why So Few? Barriers to Women's Participation in STEM, and How Science Centers Can Help - Association of Science - Technology Centers." Association of Science Technology Centers. N.p., 19 Dec. 2014. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

[3] Ibid

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