Collaboration between Georgia Tech, Spelman, and Albany State will track 45 women through their college careers
Felicia Benton-Johnson presents at a Tech 411 event for Georgia Tech transfer students. Benton-Johnson is co-leading a National Science Foundation-funded project to better understand the interruptions that can stymie Black women pursuing STEM degrees. (Photo: Candler Hobbs)
Roughly a third of Black women pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math fields don’t finish those programs. Some change disciplines, as others leave college altogether. But the reasons aren’t well-documented, which means it’s hard to know how to help Black women persevere and earn their degrees.
With a $4.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers from Georgia Tech, Spelman College, and Albany State University will begin to look for causes and solutions. They’ll recruit 45 women for a five-year study to investigate the relationship between systems of oppression and Black women’s intent to persist in STEM studies.
“We’re positing that the lack of progression is based upon continual and progressively more damaging interruptions,” said Tamara Pearson, former director of the Center of Excellence for Minority Women in STEM at Spelman College. “Although interruptions are daily occurrences in the lives of all people, Black women are interrupted more frequently than others as a matter of their sheer existence. Each occurrence results in losses of focus, momentum, and confidence, and requires time to rebound. I'm excited for what this work will mean for Black women in STEM.”
Pearson will co-lead the initiative with Felicia Benton-Johnson at Georgia Tech, Kathaleena Edward Monds at Albany State, and PLR Consulting’s Pamela Leggett-Robinson — all Black women who pursued STEM education.
The project will bring together students from three higher education institutions with different characteristics: urban and rural, public and private, historical Black and predominantly white, plus a college serving mostly women. Each university will recruit 15 students and follow them from their first semester to the end of their journey in a STEM program, whether that means graduating or not.
“Few partnerships take into consideration the geography of opportunity, which was paramount in forming this team,” said Monds, professor of management information systems and director of the Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State. “Having a diverse group of students across these three campuses will strengthen the framework we will develop.”
Students will record daily audio diaries, write reflective journals, and participate in interviews and focus groups. The team wants to capture the kinds of barriers students encounter, whether those are microaggressions from other people, institutionalized systems of oppression, or other challenges. They also want to see how students adapt, although the program isn’t designed to intervene in any way.
“I'm interested to see what comes out of our work. We know this study is going to validate some things that we already knew, but also there will be things that we didn't think about, even though we all work in this space,” said Benton-Johnson, assistant dean in the Georgia Tech College of Engineering and director of the Center for Engineering Education and Diversity. “We're practitioners, and so we have anecdotal stories from students who send us a card or come back to talk to us after they graduate. We don’t have a true study that lays out the barriers for women in STEM along with the things that help students persist.”
“We're practitioners, and so we have anecdotal stories from students who send us a card or come back to talk to us after they graduate. We don’t have a true study that lays out the barriers for women in STEM along with the things that help students persist.”
Director, Georgia Tech Center for Engineering Education and Diversity
The project is grounded in the framework of Black feminist theory, intersectionality, and the collective experiences of all Black women in the United States. The idea is to examine the students’ experiences not just in the context of race or gender but in those overlapping identities together. The goal isn’t to understand just how the women adapt. It will also look at the ways the structure and systems of higher education lead to oppression for Black women and hamper their progression.
“As Black women, we often spend a lot of time in our heads, turning stuff around and around and figuring out ways to blame ourselves for situations we encounter in STEM,” said Leggett-Robinson, founder and executive director of PLR Consulting. “I want Black women to understand that these interruptions that happen to them actually have a name. Then they can recognize them and make decisions that best fit who they are and what they want to accomplish, in STEM or not.”