Peer Review

If Not Now, When? The Promise of STEM Intersectionality in the Twenty-First Century

Nearly forty years ago, a small group of highly accomplished women of color working in STEM fields gathered together to share their stories about how the “double bind” of race and gender had set them “apart at every turn,” required difficult personal choices, and rendered the price of a career in science—particularly in higher education—far too high. Their resulting collective sense of mission produced the first recorded blueprint for change specifically designed to alter the forces that had kept them small in number, relatively invisible, and excluded from mainstream science (Malcom et al. 1976). Yet, after decades of work and sacrifice to open the doors for women of color in STEM fields, differential participation persists, disparities in level of achievement continue, and a career in science still exacts a heavy personal and professional toll. And so we ask, what new approach can we bring to bear on this issue in order to make the most compelling case for change as we face the challenges of the twenty-first century?

STEM and Social Justice

There are many good and fair reasons to invest in increasing the number of women of color in STEM and not least among these is the social justice argument that the opportunity to pursue personal and professional success is a fundamental right for all of our citizens. But, faced with new labor market projections that indicate students of color will account for 45 percent of the nation’s public high school graduates by 2020 (Prescott and Bransberger 2012), we cannot continue to merely implore institutions of higher education to “do the right thing.” Moreover, the majority of students in this pool of students are female. Among African Americans, for example, approximately 64 percent of all college enrollees are female. Nor can we continue to allow a slow pace of change that focuses solely on the necessary, but insufficient, effort to add one, two, or three more women of color to a physics lab or computer engineering department.

We argue that this is not a matter of eschewing the social justice case; it is simply a matter of unpacking that case within our current economic context. Our nation is facing a STEM pipeline crisis in a world where both our workforce needs and the growth of our international competition are growing at an ever accelerating pace. Students who live at the intersection of race, gender, ethnicity, and class are disproportionately absent from the STEM enterprise, and yet they constitute the fastest growing college-aged population in the United States (National Science Board 2010). In view of the current and future racial and gender demographics of the US college population, the United States cannot continue its global leadership in STEM without an acceleration in its production of women in general and women of color in particular for the STEM workforce. Thus, the scientific questions we need to address, the scientific talent we need to develop, and the deeply entrenched conditions that continue to foreclose the possibility of inclusive excellence, are now situated in more complex ways.

Using an Intersectional Lens

As this issue of Peer Review aptly demonstrates, continued reliance on narrowly construed arguments for diversity—with singular and mutually independent categories of race and gender—can never adequately address this challenge. Clearly, if we are really going to meet the demands of the twenty-first century through the pursuit of full participation in STEM, we must remake the academy in a way that fundamentally values what intersectional groups bring to the table (Sturm 2006). Intersectionality is a well-established contextual framework for understanding how multiple categories of difference work together to determine social experience, patterns of knowledge production, and systems of subordination (Cho et al 2013). The intersectional lens pushes us to ask new questions about the conditions under which talent can thrive. It expands and deepens our scientific understanding of lived experience and our predictive models in arenas as far-ranging as health and nutrition, environmental sustainability, and the nuances of the digital and cultural divides of our world.

To truly understand what needs to be done we have to address these issues with nuanced perspectives that cannot be captured through broadly drawn dimensions of gender or race. We must recognize that our students don’t want to be captured that way. In their lived experience, dimensions of race and gender might be secondary to their immigrant, first-generation experience or completely confounded by class-bound conditions in particular geographic locations. If we are to fully tap the talent in underrepresented populations, this effort will require us to think about under-examined contexts like large urban centers, where these trends are particularly acute. It also requires that we target the richest environments for change, including our urban campuses, HBCUs, and other minority-serving institutions, which have been historically marginalized and underresourced but are best positioned to teach and conduct research from culturally diverse perspectives (Taylor and Carter 2006).

Similarly, an intersectional analysis forces us to examine the specificity of institutional transformation in order to create the fertile intellectual environments that will attract underrepresented talent and enable it to thrive. It drives us to seriously and systematically mentor the next generation of scientists in ways that empower them to persist in a profession in which federal funding cuts threaten the ability of faculty to conduct scientific research with broad impact at all but the most elite institutions. It compels us to reconsider today’s system of tenure and promotion that often exacts a high price from the underrepresented faculty we wish to attract and the communities they wish to engage, partner with, and impact (Alston and Cantor 2014). Surely, such institutional transformation will benefit all engaged faculty, but arguably this is most pivotal, in light of our national needs right now, for otherwise underrepresented faculty in the STEM talent pool.

Grooming the Next Generation of STEM Women Faculty and Emerging Leaders of Color

The intersectional analysis also propels us to address both the cultural competence and the race/gender composition of our STEM faculties—and our academic leaders. Rarely have we attended to these issues in our efforts to increase the enrollment of women of color in science and engineering, especially at the leadership level. The impact of same race, same gender faculty, mentors, and leaders on the enrollment, retention, and graduation of women students of color has been reported in the literature (Bettinger and Long 2005). The NSF-funded OURS program (Opportunities for Underrepresented Scholars) at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology is an example of an intensive professional development experience designed to groom the next generation of STEM women faculty and emerging leaders of color for leadership roles in academia. Such efforts underscore the essential, and now threatened, contributions the social and behavioral sciences provide in the areas of cultural competency and inclusive excellence in STEM (Leibow 2013).

Finally, we are convinced that an intersectional approach offers a powerful means of producing new knowledge and the more fully human social and institutional practices that will be essential for improving the quality of life for both majority and minority populations in the twenty-first century. What is the probability of producing good science if you leave vast pools of talent and sources of innovation behind? Science often works by comparative analysis and contrast; an understanding, for example, of cardiovascular structure and function in women yields new insights into cardiac physiology as a biomedical subdiscipline, and improves health outcomes not only for women, but also children and men. When we look at the intersections of race, gender, class, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, geographic location, and more, we enter into a deeper and inescapably necessary understanding of science and the human experience.

It is frequently said that truth is often the perception of truth viewed through the lens of culture. If the same can be said of scientific truths, then the advancement of inclusive excellence is our greatest potential resource not only for gender equity and global competitiveness, but for better science. Indeed it is the only thing that can single-handedly and simultaneously create space for multiple cultures to be embraced, diverse research questions to be asked, different research methodologies to be considered, and multifold interpretations of data to be explored.


Alston, K., and N. Cantor. Forthcoming. “Valuing the World; Valuing Diversity.” In The Truly Diverse Faculty: New Dialogues in American Higher Education, edited by S.A. Fryberg,. and E.J. Martinez. New York, NY: Palgrave McMillan Press.

Bettinger, E. P., and B. T. Long. 2005. Addressing the Needs of Under-prepared Students in Higher Education: Does College Remediation Work? Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Cho, S., K. W. Crenshaw, and L. McCall. 2013. “Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications and Practice.” Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38 (4): 785-1060.

Leibow, E. 2013. “Don’t Rob the Social Sciences of Peer Review and Public Dollars.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 31.

Malcom, S. M., P. Q. Hall, and J. W. Brown. 1976. The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

National Science Board. 2010. “Higher Education in Science and Engineering.” In Science and Engineering Indicators 2010. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Prescott, B. T., and P. Bransberger. 2012. Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates, 8th edition. Boulder, CO: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Sturm, S. P. 2006. “The Architecture of Inclusion: Interdisciplinary Insights on Pursuing Institutional Citizenship,” Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, 30: 248–334.

Taylor, O. L., and T. P. Carter. 2006. “Future Faculty for the Nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” In How Black Colleges Empower Black Students: Lessons for Higher Education, F.W. Hale (Ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Nancy Cantor is the chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark and an AAC&U senior scholar; Kelly M. Mack is the vice president for undergraduate STEM education at AAC&U and the executive director of Project Kaleidoscope; Patrice McDermott is the vice provost for faculty affairs at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and an AAC&U senior scholar; Orlando L. Taylor is the vice president for strategic initiatives and research at Fielding Graduate University; the director of the OURS Program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology; and an AAC&U senior scholar.

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