Dr. India Johnson, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Butler University, wants more Black women to pursue careers in STEM. But in order to feel like they belong in these fields, Johnson says, college students need to have role models.

“In the world of psychology, role models are individuals you feel similar to,” she explains. “If you don’t feel similar to the person, they can’t necessarily do much to make you feel like you belong in that environment.”

While Black women make up about 6.5 percent of the United States population, they hold only 2 percent of STEM jobs, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). So, for the past three years, Johnson’s research has focused on learning more about which types of individuals serve as the most effective role models for encouraging Black women to join—and stay in—STEM professions.

In collaboration with Dr. Evava (Eva) Pietri, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Johnson previously conducted research based on the dual identities of Black women in STEM: As both women and people of color, they represent two different groups who are often underrepresented in science and technology fields. So, the researchers asked, which of those identities matters most when it comes to connecting with role models?

They found that Black women viewed Black people (either men or women) as role models more than they viewed white women as role models. Now, with the support of a grant for more than $68,000 from the NSF, they are trying to understand why. They also hope to learn more about which factors might contribute to non-Black individuals serving as effective role models for helping college-aged Black women feel a sense of belonging.

Starting last September, one of three studies through this grant has focused on gender, comparing STEM fields that have significant gender disparity with those that don’t.

“We expect that when Black female college students are in a major where there is not a lot of contact with other women overall, that might heighten the extent to which they feel similar to white women scientists in that field,” Johnson says. “In those cases, white women might then serve as more effective role models.”

Johnson’s previous research suggests that the stronger connection Black women tend to feel with other Black persons may be due in part to the perception that those individuals have experienced a similar type of race-based adversity. Based on that idea, a separate study will examine whether Black women might also identify with people from other non-white races.

“In this study, we will be varying to what extent a Latino male scientist actually looks phenotypically Black—so the extent to which they have features that align with those of Black persons,” Johnson says. “Then, we will study to what extent that leads Black women to feel similar to that role model in encouraging their belonging and interest in STEM.”

A final study will focus again on gender, but this time looking less at overall identity and more at the experience of various types of adversity. The researchers expect that if Black women perceive white women as having experienced adversity specifically based on sexism, they’ll be more likely to feel similar to that role model.

Johnson hopes the research findings will help non-Black individuals better understand how they can serve as relatable role models to help recruit and retain Black women within STEM professions.

Katie Tisdale

Katie Tisdale, a senior Psychology major and Johnson’s research assistant for this project, says this research has helped her understand how much race and gender identity can influence career choice.

“I am a Black woman, so this research focusing on Black women and what makes them feel like they belong—and what makes them feel valued in academic or organizational settings—is really interesting to me, just because of the personal nature of it,” says Tisdale, who hopes to pursue a career in counseling and work with underrepresented groups. “This experience has shown me that allyship actions, or just validating someone’s identity, is so crucial and important.”

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