Why Role Models are so Important for Black Women in STEM

New research has shown that black women are more likely to feel like they belong in STEM if they have access to black female role models.

BAME Women, and especially black women are still vastly underrepresented in the UK STEM workforce and in STEM education. According to BBSTEM, just 6.2% of UK domicile students enrolled onto STEM-related subjects at UK universities are black (4.8% Black African, 1.2% Black Caribbean, 0.2% Black Other). Within the top tech firms in the UK, over 70% of boards and senior executive teams do not have a BAME member; in fact, women of BAME backgrounds only make up around 2% of boards and senior executive teams.

Many have argued that one of the key reasons why black women are not choosing to enter into STEM fields is due to a lack of role models, which leads to them feeling like they do not belong in these industries. The phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ comes up time and time again, with evidence showing that there is a grain of truth to this cliché. If the colleagues and people in positions of influence and power in STEM are mostly middle-class white men, it’s easy to see why black women may feel like they don’t belong in these spheres or find it difficult to picture themselves in these positions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that black women don’t follow these career paths, but it can lead to a sense of disillusionment.

New research has now proven that role models can make a huge difference to the aspirations of young black women, which is a big step forward to us working towards a more inclusive and balanced STEM workforce.

The research was conducted by Indiana University, written by India Johnson, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Elon University and Eva Pietri, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at IUPUI and published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly journal. It reveals that black students who identify as female were more likely to feel like they belonged in STEM, and therefore were more likely to work in their chosen field, if they had access to black women as role models.

The researchers highlighted that having women of colour to look up to at university when studying STEM subjects, greatly boosted their feelings of belonging. Pietri stated: “Women who feel like they belong are more likely to enter and stay in STEM, so lack of belonging may be one reason for women of colour’s lack of representation.”

For the research, Johnson and Pietri conducted two experiments. They firstly presented black female students with imaginary schools of science and technology. Students were then shown one of four professor profiles, which were made up of fictional scientists, comprising, one black woman and one black man, one white woman and one white man.  The results showed that the students expected to feel more of a sense of belonging and trust at the universities with black female or male scientists. Many also felt especially comfortable having a black female scientist on the staff.

The second experiment saw the researchers recruit black women with degrees from two different universities, one was a predominately white university and the other was a women-only historically black university. They asked the women about any role models they had, the women from the black university said they had around two or three black female role models in STEM, while the women at the white majority white university had zero or one.

In addition to black female role models, the researchers also found that black female students’ sense of belonging was also increased by having supportive allies, who were not necessarily the same race as them. “We found that having role models, who were not black women, but who the STEM majors believed were allies related to higher belonging in STEM,” said Johnson.

Pietri continued: “Allies can play a really big role in increasing belonging among women of colour, but they have to really clearly signal their allyship through actions and behaviours.”

At STEM Women, we host networking and career events that help young women start their careers in STEM industries. Our events help young women to ‘see themselves’ in these career paths by having the chance to listen to inspiring talks from real women working in STEM, chat to representatives from top employers and learn more about the industry. During our events, we have a range of speaker sessions and panel sessions which feature a diverse range of women, who give inspiring advice and tips to attendees.

Panel session at the STEM Women South West and South Coast England and South Wales Event 2020

Panel session at the STEM Women Midlands Event 2020

We believe that by increasing the exposure young women have to strong role models in STEM, it will help them to have the confidence to pursue careers in this exciting industry.

One past event attendee highlighted how inspired she was following a STEM Women panel session:

“It was inspiring to see women succeeding in their field, especially seeing women of colour. It made it feel more possible for me to succeed.”

Another stated that our events opened up more opportunities for her:

“Hearing the experiences of other women in similar situations as me gave me the confidence to apply for jobs that I otherwise might not have applied for.”

For more information on our events, visit stemwomenevents.com. and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.