(Hand with test tubes)

Despite progress, Latinas still underrepresented in science

Despite tremendous job growth in science and technology, minority women remain the most underrepresented individuals in those fields.Although positive strides have been made more than 35 years after a landmark report first described the lack of women in science, technology engineering and math (STEM) fields, Latinas continue to face serious hurdles that act as barriers to entry in these areas.

A new report released today at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) provides a snapshot of progress made over the last thirty-five years since the publication of that initial report reporting the low numbers of minority women in the sciences. Since the publication of “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science” in 1976, the number of minority women pursuing PhDs in science, technology engineering and math (STEM) has increased, but still remains exceedingly small. According to a National Science Foundation (NSF) study, the number of Hispanic women with doctorates rose from 34 in 1973 to 6,970 in 2006 and the total percentage of women in color with doctorates in STEM fields has risen from 0.12 percent to 2.4 percent.

“This isn’t news to me, given that more than ever, young girls aren’t showing an interest in science and math,” says Ludivina Avila, Ph.D. a chemistry instructor and assistant chair of the chemistry, physics and engineering department at South Texas College. “And even though I’ve seen the numbers of female enrolling in chemistry and physics rise over the years since I was an undergraduate, the recruitment and retention of STEM majors remains a problem because if we don’t keep females ins in our department as an undergrad, they won’t pursue a PhD.”

There a number of factors that affect Latina higher education enrollment and retention in STEM fields, including access to role models and  mentors, says Ingrid Montes, Ph.D. and a professor in the chemistry department at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.

“It’s really crucial for Latinas to have a mentor who can encourage them throughout their academic career because in no way is this path easy,” says Montes, who has taught at the university for 25 years and whose primary areas of research include organometallics and continuing education. Montes commends on-campus affiliation groups like American Chemical Association student chapter for its role in nurturing young Latinas pursuing chemistry. “Our chapter visits schools to do science demonstrations, travel to attend seminars and it’s a group that really offers peer support,” says Montes. “It’s a way for Latinas to discover value within society in a way that’s hard to find in the classroom.”

Montes, who credits her father’s work as a veterinarian as inspiration for her love of the sciences, says machismo remains a constant presence in the classroom – something she believes can be a very real detriment to Latinas pursuing jobs in STEM fields.

“It’s not easy to ignore what the machos in the workplace say when it comes to a Latina scientist asking for time off or for privileges as a new mom – it’s uncomfortable to try to overcome the boy’s club,” says the 53-year-old. “Even in my classroom now with a different generation, females may be expected to take leadership position and make decisions in lab groups and team projects, but share the credit with her male peers.”

Avila says that machismo also played a role in her educational experience. As the only Latina in her PhD program when she graduated in 2002, Avila says it was not only “tough,” but that her Bolivian academic advisor plainly told her that women didn’t belong in the lab and made her feel like she was an outsider.

“It was such a rough path,” says Avila, whose parents had studied business but encouraged their children to consider potentially less lucrative fields like the sciences. “I saw girls around me dropping around but there was no way I was ever going to quit. I was determined to show everyone they were wrong.”

It’s an experience which has lead Avila to spearhead an education program called the “Traveling Chemist.” Avila founded the group started in 2004 with the mandate to teach elementary and middle school students the fun, hands-on experience of chemistry. Ninety percent of the students in the McAllen, Texas area are Hispanic, making Avila’s work crucial within the community.

“Every Friday we go to a different school, trying to get little girls to enjoy science. Budget cuts, unmotivated teachers and less lab time in schools really makes this all the more important,” says Avila. “I want to change the girls think of science and math …and if they tell me at the end of the class, ‘now I want to be a scientist too,’ than I know I did something right.”

Both Avila and Montes agree that with a stronger focus on basic science and math education for young girls, extracurricular activities, internship experience and mentorship, the numbers of Latinas in STEM fields can continue to grow.

“The key to survive the journey is to love what you’re doing,” says Montes, whose two grown children have pursued careers in the sciences. “It’s difficult, but not impossible. Every day will be a learning experience and with that mentality, that’s the best way to overcome difficulties and be a successful Latina.”

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