Gender equity program brings women of color into STEM fields

STEM education can start at the youngest grade levels with programmable, robotic Legos. (File photo by Madison Conner/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – For years, white males have made up the majority of the STEM field.

Less than one in ten scientists and engineers who were employed in 2006 were women of color, according to the National Science Foundation.

Laila Sarah, the assistant director for the Center of Gender Equity in Science and Technology, wants to increase those numbers.

“We have the power to utilize the education system as an advocate for students,” Sarah said.

Sarah said many people of color do not receive STEM opportunities early in their education like their white peers do.

The center started CompuGirls, where girls in grades 8-12 attend programs to learn about the latest technology. Women who have found success in STEM fields mentor the girls who attend the programs.

“It’s really important for young people to see themselves reflected, and their future selves reflected,” Sarah said. “Students sometimes think that because of their own story, there’s going to be barriers to college, or certain careers, or achieving their goals because of who they are or where they come from.”

Sarah said that part of the reason the STEM field lacks diversity is due to the “cultural nuances” that young women often get from their families and in the classroom.

“For example, there might be certain expectations of girls that they don’t become doctors, that boys become doctors,” Sarah said. “There’s the idea that being a doctor is a man’s job or becoming an engineer is a man’s job.”

Mitzi Vilchis, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Arizona State University, said she thought she would never go to college.

“My dad only finished middle school and my sister only finished high school because she was a teen mom,” Vilchis said. “I figured I would just get a job and help out my family.”

Vilchis said she was not exposed to STEM in grade school and she believes that was due to her school being in a low-income area.

“If I had known about STEM opportunities earlier, I probably would have thought about going to college,” Vilchis said.

Then, in 2011, one of her high school teachers encouraged Vilchis to attend CompuGirls. Her attitude about college began to change.

“With our CompuGirls program, there’s really a place for girls to recognize and own what their abilities are, and what their knowledge is,” Sarah said.

She said that another reason minorities are underrepresented in the STEM field is because their parents are sometimes hesitant about their children going to college.

She said the center developed programs to educate parents about how to make college attainable for their kids.

“We do believe that parents want the best for their students,” Sarah said. She also said that with education, parents become more aware of “barriers they don’t know or understand.”

Vilchis said the programs helped convince her parents she could go to college.

“My dad was hesitant about the money part of it,” Vilchis said.

Sarah said it is important that STEM activities are oriented around topics that intrigue women and people of color. “Teaching young women of color how to advocate for themselves is as important as teaching technology,” Sarah said.

“We teach the girls that if you feel you are being treated unfairly, you can speak up,” she said. “I think that is the game changer. Things won’t change until we speak up.”

CompuGirls spurred Vilchis to help other women of color by becoming a teacher, she added.

“I’m going to give back and be a mentor in the classroom by encouraging my students and making sure they know about the STEM opportunities available to them,” Vilchis said.

In 2016, Vilchis received a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Mexico. She will return this year and lead others who are coming to the country to teach English.

“Anyone can work to promote diversity in the STEM field,” Sarah said. “People need to become aware of attitudes and practices that discourage diversity and their role in them.”

“Until you’re really aware or conscious of it, you might not even recognize it,” Sarah said. “You might think there are all these girls who code, or there are all these programs for young women, so what’s the problem? But it’s something that’s going to take a while and we have to continue to encourage them.”