Daring to Lead: Bringing Full Diversity to Academic Science and Engineering

Academic science and engineering education in the United States has become more open and diverse, but science policy officials and higher education leaders should not spend too much time on self-congratulation. The chief result of diversity and inclusiveness efforts, surely a vitally important one, is that there are now substantially more middle-class white women, Asians, and the foreign born among the scientific ranks. However, progress for members of other underrepresented minority groups, including blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, remains modest. Furthermore, the outcomes for recruitment of poor and working-class people into science and engineering can best be described as pitiable.

For people who fall in both camps—underrepresented minorities who are also poor, working poor, or working class—the picture is bleaker still. Importantly, these “dually disadvantaged” collectively comprise the largest group left out of the expanding roster of people working in or training for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields. Although confronted with many of the same historical, social, and cultural barriers faced by more successful groups, such as women, the dually disadvantaged often face obstacles not common among more affluent persons, including more affluent minorities. These barriers have been widely documented, including poorer quality schools, lack of educational role models, oftentimes family and cultural traditions not emphasizing educational attainment, and the lack of financial wherewithal to obtain a quality higher education. Given that women’s progress in the sciences and engineering has come only after the expenditure of much time, political effort, and financial resources, the mind boggles when contemplating the steps required to afford equal career opportunities to the nation’s poor children of any race or ethnicity. Considering that income inequality in the United States continues to grow, as does the percentage of the population belonging to a minority group, then one must ponder whether the nation is up to the challenge.

Indeed, we are not confident of the prospects for the dually disadvantaged. We are convinced that the continued success of U.S. academic science and engineering depends on the nation’s ability to make strides rapidly in remedying their exclusion. Developing and using the scientific and technical potential of the more than 50% of U.S. citizens under age 25 who are poor, working poor, and working class will take vastly greater resources and commitment than has thus far been devoted to “diversity.” As our overview of the structural barriers operating in U.S. higher education suggests, the journey will prove long and arduous. We think there are some steps that policymakers and educators can take to set the nation on a promising path.

Overcoming structural barriers

During the first half of the 20th century, the principle of numerus clausus—in essence, quotas—governed admission policies at the nation’s universities. Initially, such policies were motivated by the desire to limit the number of Jewish men admitted. Later quota policies targeted women, blacks, and members of other minority groups.

By the 1960s, however, things had begun to change in higher education through court intervention, though sometimes preceded by social violence. In some cases, elimination of structural barriers came quickly. By the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which granted enforceable federal civil rights to people irrespective of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin,” all of the flagship institutions of the South had officially desegregated. Similarly, the last university to remove its religious quota was Yale, in 1966. Further, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated restrictions on non-European immigration to the United States, establishing opportunities for immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America—with explicit preferences for the highly educated and skilled.

By contrast, throughout the 1960s, universities continued to limit or refuse women admission and academic employment. It was not until 1972 that federal law specified through Title IX of the Education Act that publicly supported universities had to admit women. Still, Columbia University admitted its first woman undergraduate students only in 1983, and it was 1996 when the last state-supported military academy admitted a female cadet. In brief, it took decades for regulations and implementation to work their way through the entirety of the science system. Overall, major institutions of higher education had by the late 1990s eliminated policies restricting or severely limiting the enrollment of women and members of racial and ethnic minority groups.


With the doors opened, people came. Jewish scientists were fully incorporated into the science system, and Jews now constitute a greater percentage of the professoriate than their population representation of 2% would predict. Similarly, Asians—particularly those foreign born—represent a percentage of the professoriate much greater than their representation in the general population. The foreign born constitute 30% of doctoral-trained scientists and engineers in the United States. Women (at least white women) have been incorporated into the scientific system at a steadily improving rate since the 1970s, though they still remain underrepresented in most fields. This is partly due to some continuing structural barriers. For example, many universities lack clear policies related to maternity leave, which disadvantages women professors relative to their male colleagues. The steady upward trends in representation for women, Asians, and the foreign born among full-time faculty in STEM fields at U.S. universities are illustrated in Figure 1. The statistics also reveal, however, the continuing problems among members of underrepresented minority groups (URM). The decision by the National Science Foundation to stop disaggregating by Hispanic, Native, and black and to combine them into one URM category does not change the trend.


Lest critics argue that recent interventions are solving the problem by attracting more members of underrepresented groups into the educational pipeline supplying STEM fields and keeping them engaged, we offer Figure 2. Note that women and temporary residents have rapidly increased in the proportion of STEM doctoral recipients. Asians who are citizens or permanent residents are represented roughly proportional to their representation in the U.S. population. By contrast, the representation of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans has remained flat, despite the fact that by 2012, black people comprised 14% and Hispanics comprised 21% of all citizens aged 18-24.

The missing construct: class

The success of members of religious minority groups, the triumph of the foreign born, and the incomplete but impressive success of women being integrated into the academic science system naturally raises this question: Why have similar rates of change not been observed among members of domestic racial and ethnic minority groups despite decades of Affirmative Action and special programs to increase racial and ethnic diversity in STEM? The answer, we argue, may relate to class dynamics. Compared with Europeans, the people of the United States have always been resistant to notions of class—and especially to the idea that class represents a structural barrier to success. The mythos is that any person can succeed if only he or she takes advantage of the abundance of opportunity in the United States and works hard. Our analysis suggests that this may need reconsideration.

Simply put, the reason is that race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are historically so strongly linked in the United States that significant progress in representation of members of minority groups in STEM education and careers cannot be made until structural socioeconomic barriers are addressed. This is not to suggest, of course, that there were not Jewish immigrants who were also poor. Rather, it is to say that once the religiously based policy barriers were eliminated, there were a great number of Jews who were already educationally, socially, culturally, and economically poised to take advantage of their new educational and occupational opportunities. Similarly, as structural barriers to women’s participation were dismantled, a large percentage of women were socially, culturally, and economically poised to take advantage of their new occupational opportunities. The same is true for recent immigrants and their children, who have been disproportionately selected by federal policy from the most educationally and economically advantaged of their sending nations.

By contrast, members of racial and ethnic minority groups continue to live at high levels of socioeconomic and educational disadvantage. The calculation of the poverty line has remained the same since 1963, and it is low; in 2013, a family of four with an annual household income less than $23,550 lived below the poverty line. Consider Figure 3, which depicts child poverty rates in the United States by race and ethnicity since 1959. In the first year, 27% of children lived in poverty. The Census Bureau began to disaggregate black children in 1965, when black child poverty stood at 66%, dropping to 51% in 1966 and to 47% in 1965. Note the drop in “all child” poverty over the same short period—the result of two major structural reforms in the United States: civil rights legislation, and the War on Poverty. By 1974, the Census Bureau was disaggregating children by white, black, and Hispanic. Note that black child poverty remained above 40% until 1996, while Hispanic (any race) poverty remained above 27% throughout the period. By contrast, fewer than 14% of non-Hispanic white children lived below the poverty line for the entire period, with the total often dropping below 10%. The Census Bureau began tracking Asian children in 1987. The poverty rate among this group was first measured at 23%, dropping to 9% in 2013, below white child poverty.

To summarize the situation in 2013, one in five children lived below the poverty line, but this level of deprivation varied by race and ethnicity. Fewer than 10% of white and Asian children lived below the poverty level. By contrast, 38% of black children and 30% of Hispanic children lived in poverty. To translate these percentages into numbers, there were 3.9 million poor white children in 2013, 4.2 million poor black children, 5.3 million poor Hispanic (any race) children, and half a million poor Asian children—for a total of over 14 million children living below the poverty line. Tens of millions more children were near poor, living below 200% of the poverty level.

Why does poverty in childhood matter? The research on the effects of child poverty is compelling. Poor children are more likely than their non-poor counterparts to be malnourished. They are less likely to live in a house that contains a book, less likely to have a parent who reads to them, and have significantly smaller vocabularies. They are more likely to live in substandard housing in dangerous neighborhoods. They are more likely to attend failing schools, where most of their peers are also poor. They are less likely to graduate from high school, to matriculate to college, or to complete a college degree. How, exactly, is the nation supposed to produce scientists from hungry children who cannot read when they get to school, and who then attend a failing school with other hungry children living in dangerous places?

The key socioeconomic barrier to equal high-quality education lies in the system of school financing that advantages the affluent (who are disproportionately white and well educated, a result of past structural advantage) while disadvantaging the poor (who are disproportionately members of ethnic and racial minority groups). Hence, a cycle of racially structured socioeconomic disadvantage repeats itself even through decades of Affirmative Action and special targeted programming for members of underrepresented groups. The bottom line is that students need to be academically engaged and prepared at the elementary and secondary levels to enjoy any hope of success in STEM education. Unfortunately, the nation’s collective willingness to deliver such education to all of its children is demonstrably lacking.

The primary failure of higher education policy is not a lack of integration at the university level. Rather, it is the failure of policymakers to take any kind of leadership role in insisting that the farm teams of higher education—the preschools, kindergartens, and elementary and secondary schools—perform at a high level, and that all of the nation’s “human capital” is adequately housed, fed, and safe. If other countries are out-performing the United States in their children’s scientific preparation and accomplishments, perhaps it is because they are also vanquishing child poverty and its attendant ills. Consider the child poverty levels—defined as living below 50% of median household income of two-parent families—recorded by the Luxembourg Income Study: Canada (10.6%), France (6.8%), the Netherlands (2.9%), the United Kingdom (11.6%), and the United States (15.2%). These are all countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and all are societies characterized by high levels of ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity, making the comparisons of childhood poverty levels especially telling.

Beginning list of fixes

The question, then, is what should these various observations mean in terms of rethinking public policy and improving STEM education in the United States? In answer, it may be useful to consider how policy and rhetoric for STEM human resources are now characterized.

The leitmotif focuses on impending, but never quite reached, dire shortages of scientists and engineers in this or that field crucial to the national interest and economic competitiveness. Less often, but importantly, “what about us?” themes occur, suggesting that the problem is not only one of fragile supply dynamics but also inclusion and diversity, typically defined in terms of the inability of well-qualified minorities to thrive. Recently, and appropriately, issues related to immigrant workforce contributions have received increasing scrutiny. Does the impact of class and its relationship to STEM opportunity come up? Rarely.

It is easy to see why people might choose to ignore the problems of the dually disadvantaged. First, and most unkindly, it is not about “people like us”—political, business, and higher education leaders. Members of these groups (and we are among them) may in theory feel quite beneficent toward the dually disadvantaged, but we typically do not choose to live near them, send our children to school with them, or work with them. For the most part, the dually disadvantaged do not populate even the first-year classes of universities. Universities tend to increase their “quality” by being more exclusive, moving up in the rankings as they enroll a higher percentage of the best and the brightest, defined in terms of higher standard scores, higher grades, more AP classes, more impressive active-learning internships, and, in general, the accomplishments based largely on assets not often available to the dually disadvantaged.

A second reason scarcity of the dually disadvantaged in the STEM pipeline has been largely ignored is that the problem overwhelms. Is it reasonable to address a middle-range social problem when it clearly has its roots in much more fundamental social and political issues? When the nation faces rampant income inequality, failing schools, and the incarceration of large swaths of young dually disadvantaged males, why give a moment’s thought to the (relatively) unimposing fact that the chances of the dually disadvantaged arriving at a STEM faculty position is roughly equivalent to their chances of being struck by lightning?

Here is one rationale. In the past, science and technology policy has succeeded in leading, not simply biding time until the planets travel into perfect alignment. In problems as diverse as national defense and security, energy shortages, and public health crises, STEM leaders developed and executed strategies, oftentimes from the bottom up rather than standing on the sidelines waiting for political leadership. One relatively recent example: in the early 1980’s, the science, technology, and higher education establishment had convinced policymakers of its crucial role in national economic progress, rationalizing continued high levels of federal funding. STEM leaders are the ones who helped frame the issues and helped fashion the policy agenda.

What if STEM leaders proved equally bold in addressing a new “competitiveness crisis,” the crisis of inequalities of income, opportunity, and education? How might one begin? One might start from two directions: first, by taking actions to increase the number of dually disadvantaged who not only enter but succeed in US universities; and second, by increasing at the same time the representation of the dually disadvantaged on science and engineering faculties. The bottom and top prescriptions are interdependent. Society has heard for years from the education establishment that “we would like to recruit more (Hispanics, blacks, women), but there are so few available.” Of course there are few available. They have never entered or dropped out of the STEM educational pipeline. They have taken their human capital to other places in the workforce, or, too often, to more sordid destinations, such as dead-end jobs with no living wage, public assistance for the jobless, or prison.

It will not be enough simply to admit the dually disadvantaged to academe, if institutions then stand by as students with low-quality educational preparation struggle or fail. Universities, including STEM leaders, have a role to play by offering compensatory education to dually disadvantaged students, and then ultimately by employing them. What if the thousands of STEM professors who have discretionary money to engage undergraduates in STEM research vastly increased their commitment to thinking of dually disadvantaged students as potentially the best and the brightest waiting to happen, but who require a little more nurturing and patience? What if the leadership of every major university contemplated the proposition that “diversity is not enough” and measured student progress by social mobility and social transformation? What if, once again, STEM leaders led rather than followed?

We suggest that after addressing a string of such “what ifs,” resolutely and for many years, not only would the STEM pipeline have higher quality flowing through it, but leaders would again have reason to take pride in academia’s prodigious effects on the well-being of the United States and its citizens.

Monica Gaughan ([email protected]) is associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and Barry Bozeman ([email protected]) is Arizona Centennial Professor of Public Management and Technology Policy and director of the Center of Organizational Research and Design at Arizona State University.

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Cite this Article

Bozeman, Barry, and Monica Gaughan. “Daring to Lead: Bringing Full Diversity to Academic Science and Engineering.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 2 (Winter 2015).

Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Winter 2015