Black Representation in STEM

A report commissioned by the Royal Society earlier this year outlines alarming figures on the number of Black academic staff in STEM-related fields. This development is part of an ongoing discussion regarding the lack of ethnic diversity in STEM within the UK at all stages of career progression. Using diversity statistics from the years spanning 2007/08 to 2018/19, the report found just 3.5% of Black STEM academic staff held a professor post compared to 6.6% of Asian staff and 11.9% of white staff. Additionally, although 7.1% of postgraduate entrants identified as Black, only 1.7% progressed into becoming STEM academic staff, proving the existence of career stagnating barriers. 

The low numbers bleed into previous education stages, with Black STEM students showing higher non-completion rates within their degree programmes in comparison to white and Asian peers. The large variations between Black people and other ethnic minorities with regards to representation in these fields point toward specific issues affecting specific demographics, which is to say, the addressing of diversity in STEM cannot be solved by lumping all non-white persons into the Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) banner. The reasons behind the overwhelmingly invisible presence of Black people within STEM are largely systemic, with elements of bias and racism factoring into their underrepresentation. This may come as a hard pill to swallow for a field operating under the elimination of bias to provide accurate science, however, it is time to acknowledge STEM, particularly in the UK, has been a contributor to racial inequality since the colonial era. 

Sir Ronald Ross, a British medical doctor awarded the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1902 for his work on malarial research commented, “in the coming century, the success of imperialism will depend largely upon success with the microscope”. Despite the disease affecting those living in tropical regions, the research was tailored toward preserving the safety of British troops in order to preserve the British Empire. This is just one example of how the researchers and science we historically have looked towards for guidance and education are impacted by bias within the context of a colonial framework. Research today operates on a similar basis, with the standard for scientific academia largely set by the Global West, despite a large amount of data collection occurring in other nations poorly represented in terms of academic representation. This then reflects in what students are taught, who they are taught about, and ergo where they see elements of their identity represented. In simple terms, when the science created for the people does not reflect the people, groups within society become isolated and engagement with STEM-related education and careers drops. Decolonisation, deconstructing the way we teach and speak about science through inclusion and acknowledging the impacts of colonialism and racism, is just one way science educators can begin to help Black students interested in STEM reach equitable levels of representation. Addressing and overcoming barriers such as accessibility, and institutional racism and bias, through direct funding are ongoing tasks the Royal Society has undertaken to provide opportunities for Black academics. As we often say, the numbers don’t lie. The data collected confirms it is time for the STEM community to step up. 

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Mariam Jallow

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May 2022
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