Careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) increasingly offer employees stability, pay and opportunities that outpace other industries and occupations. Unfortunately, these positions and their benefits are also notoriously inequitable. Winnie Karanja, founder and CEO of the media company Represented Collective, is working to change these conditions and inspire more BIPOC women and girls to enter the field.
While women make up roughly half of the total workforce (48 percent), they comprise a mere 34 percent of employees in STEM-related fields. And even then, their ratios are skewed toward the medical field and the social and life sciences — away from engineering and the computer and physical sciences. Black, Latina and Indigenous women are even more severely underrepresented than the average — together they make up fewer than 10 percent of STEM workers.
Karanja — who made Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2020 after founding another STEM initiative, Madym — explained to TriplePundit what motivated her to go beyond just working in the field to working to transform it: “I was inspired to help others get into the field from an experience that I had talking with a former elementary school principal around getting her students to learn how to code," she said. "It was really this place of seeing the need to have more people who look like me get into the field, but also to have the support structures in order to do that.”
Inequity in any industry ultimately hurts BIPOC women as well as their families and communities. But it is especially damaging when the jobs in question are among the fastest growing and best paying — with a median annual salary that was $22,000 higher than non-STEM wages in 2019. Unemployment was also half for those who were in STEM positions at the time versus those who weren’t, with the same pattern continuing into the pandemic, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). These jobs are also expected to grow at twice the rate of all other industries combined through 2029.
“The STEM field offers a lot as far as economic opportunities that then ripple into other sorts of structures," Karanja explained. "If you’re able to have high-wage employment, you’re able to have access to better healthcare, housing, education opportunities and all sorts of different areas." She described how her work with Represented Collective inspires her to ensure healthy work environments. “No one wants to go into an environment where their contributions aren’t going to be welcomed. And we want to create an environment where people can grow and can continue to grow. STEM offers so many opportunities in terms of high-wage employment and that’s still an area where, for women of color, they’re getting paid less than their white non-Hispanic male counterparts are.”
Karanja encourages employers to review their processes to ensure that everyone is measured by the same standards and given the same opportunities. “Again, exploring the bias that tends to take place within that space but also how are we ensuring that there is upward movement of Women of Color, of People of Color, within the company? And are we ensuring that there is management training? And different forms of support structures and upward mobility that is often offered to white men, that that’s offered to Women of Color, to People of Color, as well?”
Of course, recruiting and retaining BIPOC women goes beyond just paying a fair wage and offering advancement opportunities. As Karanja so astutely pointed out — “No one wants to go into an environment where their contributions aren’t going to be welcomed.” And yet, workers in the field report higher rates of gender bias and racial discrimination from both their co-workers and management. While this illustrates why STEM continues to be a boys’ club, she offered leaders a remedy to turn it around, by, in her words, “Really ensuring that we’re listening to different voices, that we are valuing the contributions that women and people of color are bringing and that we’re creating an environment that cultivates collaboration, that cultivates bringing of new ideas as well.”
Recruitment and retention issues in STEM begin before employees even walk through the door, however. According to the American Associate of University Women (AAUW) girls and young women are “systematically tracked” out of science and math throughout their educational careers. Karanja and the Represented Collective are working to change this dynamic through products, expert panels and curated experiences. One of these products is the organization's Legendary card collection, which tells the story of women from around the world like Alice Ball — a Black chemist whose painstaking dedication to developing a cure for leprosy was nearly forgotten by history. Like the other women featured on the cards whose scientific innovations and contributions have been forgotten or ignored, Ball’s work was originally credited to a man instead.
“The Legendary card collection is all about telling these nuanced stories of women, primarily women of color, and the innovations that they’ve had in this field and really taking that and saying let’s celebrate their achievements. And alongside celebrating their achievements let's have this nuanced take on their life. Let’s explore and showcase their intersectionality.” Karanja related how by delving into issues of racism, sexism, ageism, identity and positionality that they experienced, these historical figures are not only humanized to inspire girls and women but also, she said, “to make sure that people realize that those challenges are very much our reality right now.”
Image credit: Christina Morillo via Pexels
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.