A Growing Consensus?

STEM Voices: The Experiences of Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Occupationsi is the most recent of the many sponsored research reports exploring the reasons for the lack of diversity in STEM occupations. What is particularly notable about this report is its sponsor: the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), best known as an influential right-of-center think tank with strong links to neoconservativism. Perhaps the appearance of this report is evidence that some opinion-makers associated with conservative political groups are beginning to acknowledge that the lack of diversity in STEM is a problem and that business, government, and educational institutions need to collaborate to remove the obstacles that impede diversity.

STEM Voices follows up on a 2020 AEI surveyii of a large sample of STEM workers that found that women and minorities reported encountering far more obstacles in their STEM careers than their white male counterparts. The new study’s author, Anne Kim, J.D., indicates that she sought to put a different type of data in front of policymakers; in her view, STEM policymakers often lack a connection to the lived experience of STEM workers. With that goal in mind, she chose to conduct in-depth interviews with 25 current and former STEM professionals, 18 of whom were women, minority group members, or both.

Her respondents reported experiences that will be familiar to regular readers of social science research on STEM workers: “Many felt socially isolated working in offices dominated by White people or White men and excluded from valuable opportunities for mentorships, networking, and training. Others confronted subtle and not-so-subtle sexism and racism, including inappropriate comments, double standards on performance, the denial of promotions, and unequal pay. Several women indicated their fields were hostile to workers with family obligations, which also limited their opportunities for advancement. Others said they regretted career and educational decisions made without adequate pre-career guidance. While older workers were more likely to report having experienced blatant episodes of racism or sexism, younger workers also felt racial or gender prejudice was prevalent.” (16-17)

Significantly, STEM Voices emphasizes that continuing to focus policy primarily on increasing the supply of female and minority graduates will not be enough to increase diversity in STEM because so many women and minority group members leave STEM jobs. It also argues that flourishing in STEM fields is about relationships (with co-workers, networks, supervisors, and mentors), not just about skills and abilities. Kim insists that “policy change will ultimately prove ineffective…if there is consistent and persistent societal resistance to the ideals of diversity, equity, and inclusion — and if private-sector leadership works to maintain its preference for the status quo.” (62) Thus, ways must be found to “change the culture” in STEM workplaces so that women and minorities are more accepted and to provide more early-career support for women and minorities who enter the STEM workforce.

Unfortunately, the report does not provide strong suggestions about how to go about doing this. Some of its policy recommendations focus on the “supply side” (support historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs) or focus on support for employment sectors where diversity has been sponsored more successfully (e.g., the military, the public sector). The report does call on employers to do more to promote and support diversity, for example, by increasing mentorship and early work experience opportunities and initiating educational efforts to combat stereotypes. But, the author makes clear in her contribution to AEI’s podcast on the reportiii that it is difficult to change the culture and that efforts to do so can fuel resentment and backlash. She winds up arguing that change efforts may have to focus first on developing more resilient individuals who can thrive in the existing culture so that the critical mass of women and minorities needed to make culture change possible can be achieved.

Other comments in the report, and in the podcast that launched it, suggest that this approach is likely to have limited effect. Kim herself notes that the white men she interviewed generally rejected the view that there was systematic discrimination in STEM against female or minority workers and that this fact alone tends to perpetuate the lack of diversity in the field. One podcast participant, Lu Duong, who is principal director of the Fund II Foundation UNCF (United Negro College Fund) STEM Program, cites the success the mentoring program he oversees has had in fostering minority STEM graduates by providing the psychosocial supports they need to develop resiliency. But, he also notes that UNCF has found that many of the HBCU graduates recruited by large tech companies feel isolated after they are hired and fail to flourish, underlining the limits of focusing policy efforts on individual workers.

One of the participants in the podcast, Nicol Turner Lee, Ph.D., senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, raises a different question about the policy recommendations in the report. If “changing the culture” means only persuading white male workers and managers to accept women and minority colleagues as capable and equal, are we not simply striving to adapt women and minorities to an otherwise unchanged work culture that assumes that workers are white men (e.g., does this address issues of work/family balance or cultural difference?).

At the same time, however, Dr. Lee offers a more optimistic prognosis. She contends that as society (and markets) become more diverse, companies will be forced to recognize that changing their cultures and practices and becoming more diverse are essential to their ability to recruit future employees and market their products and services. Perhaps the fact that relatively conservative, business-oriented organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute have joined the discussion of the need for change will strengthen the “business case” for diversity in STEM Dr. Lee is outlining.


i Kim, A. (May 3, 2022). STEM Voices: The Experiences of Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Occupations. American Enterprise Institute.

ii Orrell, B. and Cox, D.A. (July 15, 2020). STEM Perspectives: Attitudes, Opportunities, and Barriers in America’s STEM Workforce. American Enterprise Institute.

iii Web event (May 3, 2022). STEM Voices: Women and Minorities in the STEM Workforce. American Enterprise Institute.