Strategies to Increase Diversity in STEM Fields

by Su Jin Gatlin Jez

Executive Director


Topics: Bachelor's Degrees, Degree Attainment, Employment, Race and Ethnicity, Ed Equity, Workforce


When California Competes facilitated a focus group with the California Business Roundtable and some of the organization’s members, it became clear that despite an increased focus on recruiting a more diverse talent pool into STEM fields, there’s still a great need for policy reforms—both in higher education and the workforce. During the meeting, employers reported they struggled to find enough women and individuals from underrepresented groups in science and engineering to hire.

This resonated with me, as I remember often being one of just a few women or people of color in my undergraduate statistics major. There has been significant emphasis on increasing diversity in STEM fields, so California Competes dug into the data to see what progress has been made. Data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) tell a story of mixed outcomes when evaluating diversity in STEM fields over time.

  • For example, women received more than half of the bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences in 2016. However, the number of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, mathematics, and statistics is lower and has even decreased since the 1990s.
  • The share of bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics awarded to Black students has similarly declined over the past two decades. On the other hand, the share of bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences awarded to Black students has increased.
  • The share of science and engineering degrees awarded to Latinx graduates has increased across the board. However, this group continues to be underrepresented relative to their share of the overall population.

Building more diverse and inclusive STEM pathways must do more than just produce more women and minority STEM graduates. These pathways must do better to transition graduates into STEM careers, as women and underrepresented minority scientists and engineers are more likely to work in non-science and engineering occupations than white and Asian scientists and engineers.

Both employers and leaders in higher education have a critical opportunity to overcome pervasive disparities in STEM fields that have persisted and even worsened in the 21st century.

Many tech companies have pledged their commitment to increasing diversity. However, data from annual diversity reports reflect limited progress. In 2020, after promising to improve workforce representation years before, Google2 reported its largest increase in Black tech hiring since it began publishing the data in 2014. However, according to the 2020 diversity report, Black employees make up only 3.7 percent of Google’s workforce, and attrition among Black employees increased from 2018 to 2019. Together, white and Asian workers make up 93.6 percent of the company’s workforce. If you look only at leadership roles, that number jumps to 95.5 percent. These disparities demonstrate the difficulty of meeting diversity goals, particularly as institutional systems and structures make even the best intentions minimally effective.

The lack of diversity in STEM is a systemic problem that leaders must address on a number of fronts.

Because California is too large a state to depend on policy research and advocacy groups to elevate, analyze, and remedy this issue, California Competes recommends three statewide policy strategies to support more Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Californians to and through postsecondary STEM programs.

  1. Improve higher education and workforce alignment. When higher education and workforce align, better-trained workers get higher-paying jobs, employers get more qualified candidates, and our state builds a strong, inclusive, and sustainable economy fueled by a skilled, diverse workforce. California can drive more inclusive economic recovery—and future resiliency—by strengthening the state's education-to-employment pipeline. Without this intentional alignment, students of color and first-generation students will struggle to transition to good jobs. While many education-employer partnerships already exist, they should be revitalized to better leverage employers throughout the curriculum. Students need to know from the outset that their education will lead them to stable, well-paying jobs, and this alignment would help ensure that.
    Examples of successful partnerships include the University of California, Riverside’scollaboration with community partners and employers3 to develop the “Bridging the Gap from Education to Employment” program to help students gain career experience without having to take an unpaid internship.

  2. Use statewide longitudinal data to evaluate strengths and weaknesses in California’s STEM education-to-employment pipeline. A comprehensive Cradle-to-Career Data System will give our state a strong grasp not only of students’ experiences in higher education but also of their experiences with the systems that precede and follow. The data system should specifically include variables that allow for analysis of pathways from K–12 to postsecondary STEM majors to high-wage jobs— and the ability to disaggregate by race and ethnicity. Transparency in public education is critical to making sound decisions, and in this case it could clarify where STEM education and stronger connections to employers can better serve underrepresented students. California Competes unequivocally supports continued funding for the development of the data system.

  3. Create a statewide coordinating entity to help the University of California, the California State University, and the California Community Colleges leverage cross-segment initiatives to diversify the supply of STEM graduates entering the workforce. Though California’s public higher education system ranks among the best in the country, its various segments operate separately from each other in most areas—including diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Further, California is one of just two states lacking a central organizing body to guide higher education. Without coordination, each segment has to find its own way through rather than building off shared successes, and students lose out. Not only are their options diminished, but the impact upon the state’s economy is profound as workforce demographics fail to reflect the diversity of the state’s residents. As ECMC Foundation President and CSU Trustee Peter J. Taylor discussed during California Competes’s Postsecondary to Prosperity Webinar, if California had an agency to coordinate a broader effort to diversify the pipeline, “Maybe we could do it together as opposed to everyone going off and doing their own thing.’”

    As California works to build an inclusive economic recovery, addressing inequities in STEM education and employment will be critical. As a Black, Asian, and woman STEM major and as an experienced policy researcher, I know too well that these are large and very complicated problems to solve. With its richly diverse communities and lion’s share of technology jobs, our state has every reason to meet the challenge.

    1. National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2019. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019. Special Report NSF 19-304. Alexandria, VA. Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd

    2. Google Diversity Annual Report 2020 (Rep.). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://kstatic.googleusercontent.com/files/25badfc6b6d1b33f3b87372ff7545d79261520d821e6ee9a82c4ab2de42a01216be2156bc5a60ae3337ffe7176d90b8b2b3000891ac6e516a650ecebf0e3f866

    3. Ghori, I. (2020, August 12). UCR Career Center creates new internship opportunities. Inside UCR. Retrieved from https://insideucr.ucr.edu/stories/2020/08/12/ucr-career-center-creates-new-internship-opportunities