Study Finds Sexism in STEM Hits Women of Color the Hardest

By Kenrya Rankin Jun 09, 2015

A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that not only are women struggling to get ahead in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, but women of color are disproportionately impacted by bias and prejudice in the workplace. 

The study’s authors—Joan C. Williams, Kathrine W. Phillips and Erika V. Hall—worked with the Association of Women in Science to survey 557 female scientists and interview 60 of them to gain insight into how bias impacts them on a daily basis. Their findings support the growing theory that the low numbers of women working in STEM fields isn’t solely due to a lack of candidates in the pipeline or even women who choose other careers that they feel will allow for better work-life balance. The results made it quite clear that there are five distinct issues that push women out of the field: Having to constantly prove competence, needing to be “feminine enough,” having their commitment questioned when they have children, encountering manufactured competition between women, and being socially isolated. 

Key findings include: 

  • Two-thirds of the women reported that they have to prove their competence more often and with more vigor than their peers. A full 77 percent of black women have encountered this issue. 
  • Thirty-seven percent of Asian women say that their colleagues have suggested they step back from work after they had children. 
  • More than half the scientists surveyed said that they have been discouraged from displaying “masculine” behaviors such as being decisive or being direct when speaking their minds. 
  • More than 40 percent of Asian American women reported feeling pressured to play a stereotypically feminine role, such as the “office mother” or the “dutiful daughter.” 
  • Nearly half of black and Latina women surveyed said they have been mistaken for administrative or custodial staff. 
  • Forty-two percent of black women said that they worry that engaging with their colleagues on a social level could negatively impact their view of their competence. As one biologist said: “You don’t know who you can trust. This has been a very lonely life.”

The authors write that companies can increase the number of women working in STEM by developing objective metrics that root out bias and making cultural shifts to eliminate it.