Black Women More Interested In STEM Majors Than White Women, Study Shows

By Madeline Will — September 24, 2014 1 min read
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Black women entering college are more likely than white women to be interested in majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields, new research shows—but they are less likely to earn degrees in those fields.

The study, published by the American Psychological Association, also found that black men and women are less likely than whites to subconsciously think of STEM fields as gendered or more masculine.

But among women who earned undergraduate degrees in 2010, just 8 percent of black women earned degrees in a STEM field, compared to 10 percent of white women, according to the National Science Foundation.

The study, published in the APA journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, analyzed nine years of data from about 1.8 million college freshmen—56 percent of whom were female—who participated in the Cooperative Institute Freshman Survey between 1990 and 1999.

From that sample, 23 percent of black women said they planned to major in STEM fields, compared to just 16 percent of white women.

The researchers also conducted three more recent surveys of a total 1,108 students at several universities across the country.

In one of those samples, the researchers surveyed 838 college students (212 of whom were black) between the ages of 18 and 56 at four universities in the South, Midwest, and West—two of which were primarily white, one historically black, and the other ethnically diverse.The researchers found that 38 percent of black women had declared a STEM-related major, compared to only 19 percent of white women.

Black women at the historically black university in the South were more likely to participate in STEM majors than their peers at the other institutions, the survey found.

The researchers also conducted tests to examine those students’ subconscious beliefs about STEM fields and gender. Regardless of their major or the university they attended, black women and men were less likely than white women and men to associate STEM fields with masculine words like boy, father, or man.

The study’s lead author, Laurie O’Brien of Tulane University, said the discrepency between black women’s interest in STEM fields and their completion of a STEM degree suggests that race-based stereotypes might play a role.

“These stereotypes may have more of a negative effect on black women than gender-based stereotype and should be studied further,” she said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.