Why scientists and future engineers need to actively practice anti-racism to harness the full potential of STEM

By Stephanie Kirichu

There are several published articles and journals that underline the importance of diversity in STEM. This is my take, highlighting my personal experience in light of the recent injustices that surfaced in the United States.

The past few weeks have evoked a lot of emotions and pushed me to reflect on how the Black Lives Matter movement translates to my personal experience as a black woman studying engineering. During my first year in undergrad, I have had the pleasure to study alongside students from all over the world, sharing our common love for science and innovation. The drive to solve technical problems creates a collaborative environment that doesn’t allow much room for overt racism, creating a bubble that somewhat protects me from the discrimination that many black students face in higher education institutions. However, turning our back to racism is the worst thing that we can do as future engineers. Colorblindness leads us to ignore the fact that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) women account for only 11.3 % of bachelor’s degrees across STEM, where 2.9 % are black women.

Lack of diversity in engineering is like hitting a brick wall

To tackle a problem, engineering requires a cohort of students with diverse ways of thinking. Trains of thought are dictated by our life experiences, shaped by our socio-economic background, and the way the world perceives and treats us. Diversity in engineering also brings to light problems that the predominantly male and non-people of color enrollment may have never had to face. A good example of this is Zubaida Bai who is the founder and CEO of ayzh (pronounced “eyes”), a company that designs healthcare products for women and girls in underdeveloped countries. A lack of diversity results in problems that are not solved; due to her personal experiences, she identified a problem and used her technical background to design a product that responds to the needs of a part of a population that is usually neglected.

Turning our back to racism is the worst thing that we as future engineers, and any STEM majors in general can do. We are limiting ourselves from potential ideas, creations, and the progress of science.

How can student groups help to increase and retain diversity in the STEM workplace? 

Unfortunately, like any bubble, the protective environment that engineering has provided me so far will burst once I enter the workplace where black women are victim to relentless microaggression and blatant discrimination, forcing us to switch jobs or even completely leave the STEM field. How can student groups help to increase and retain diversity in the STEM workplace? I am surrounded by brilliant people who will undoubtedly be the CEOs, team leaders, managers, innovators, and entrepreneurs of the future. Therefore, I believe it is up to student groups to educate and lead by example to practice and develop anti-racist habits. This includes dismantling the unconscious biases we may or may not already have and making sure we don’t carry them into the workplace. Having grown up in predominantly white spaces, I am no stranger to pushing to have my voice heard and taking up space whenever possible. However, it would be naive for me to think that I can maintain the somewhat harmful image of a strong black woman. Therefore, it is also crucial to uplift the voices of the minorities that are part of your student body, making sure that they feel like their ideas are important and valid. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to have these uncomfortable conversations with your friends, family, and colleagues as discomfort leads to growth.

Obviously, systemic racism stems deeper than the workplace. However, amidst the negative and disheartening news that put to light the tip of the iceberg of injustices that black people face, I felt a strong surge of hope. As I am seeing my peers stepping up to show their support and take concrete actions against racism, I am looking forward to seeing a cultural shift in STEM that will hopefully take place in the upcoming years and will lead to a new and fresh push of innovation.