November 16, 2021
Written by Merrit Stueven, MPP ’22
Edited by Anisha Asundi, WAPPP Research Fellow, and
Moira Notarstefano, WAPPP Communications Manager

How allyship cues can foster Black women’s sense of belonging in STEM

Dr. India Johnson’s seminar, the most recent in WAPPP’s Intersectional Approaches to Gender Equity series, explored Black women’s reaction to allyship cues in STEM settings. Her work, conducted in collaboration with Dr. Evava Pietri and supported by students in the Stereotyping and Prejudice Lab, aims to understand how Black women, who have historically been excluded from STEM environments, can achieve a higher sense of belonging and trust in these settings.

Dr. Johnson underscored that historic exclusion persists today, highlighting that while Black women make up 6.5% of the US population, they only make up 2% of individuals in STEM fields. This imbalance causes misconceptions that Black women are not interested in STEM, even though studies have shown that Black women’s interest in STEM is on par with that of white women. However, Black women experience greater systemic barriers, both entering STEM fields and succeeding in these fields. Evidence suggests that STEM fields are biased in favor of white men, that Black women feel they need to work harder to succeed in these unwelcoming environments, and that they question their belonging in STEM at higher rates.

Black women, who hold overlapping marginalized identities through their race and gender, are more likely to feel social identity threat, which is the “concern that one’s identity is undervalued in a particular setting.” This is central to Dr. Johnson’s research because an increased sense of belonging, meaning lower social identity threat, leads to increased interest and persistence in one’s chosen field of study or work—a pathway to closing the gap for Black women in STEM.

How can we reduce social identity threat and thus increase a sense of belonging for Black women in STEM? Signaling identity-safety (cues in an environment that let individuals know their identities are valued in that space) is one way we can reduce this phenomenon. For example, women entering STEM fields may feel a greater sense of belonging when they see other women already in that environment. However, much of this past work has not tackled intersectionality. For Black women, who constitute the ingroup, is it important to see people of their gender or race already in the environment they enter? Or is the most effective ingroup at that intersection—meaning that seeing other Black women in a space is the most meaningful safety signal?

Dr. Johnson’s previous work has shown that the answer depends on individual Black women’s stigma consciousness—the “extent to which they anticipate experiencing discrimination because of their identity.” Black women with low to average stigma consciousness see the presence of both Black men and Black women in STEM environments as signals of identity-safety. However, the presence of white women in a STEM environment did not signal safety to Black women regardless of their stigma consciousness. This prompted Dr. Johnson to investigate signals of allyship—under what condition could the presence of white women help promote Black women’s sense of belonging in STEM environments?

In the resulting study, Dr. Johnson asked participating Black women to imagine how they would feel working at an imaginary STEM company. In addition to a description of the company, the women were shown one of four profiles of a successful employee:

  • a Black woman scientist,

  • a white woman scientist,

  • a white woman scientist who expressed allyship with Black women,

  • and a profile of a white woman scientist accompanied by an additional profile of a Black woman working with her, who expressed that the white woman demonstrated allyship.

Importantly, expressing allyship in this context means that the profiles articulated the white women’s acknowledgment that their experiences in STEM are different from those of Black women and outlined the work they do to actively recruit Black women into their labs.

The impact of these treatments again varied based on the stigma consciousness of the Black women reading the profiles. While there were only small differences between the different profiles for those with low stigma consciousness, the level of trust and belonging felt towards the imaginary company varied much more for those with high stigma consciousness. For those study participants, both types of allyship cues, a white woman self-identifying as an ally and a Black woman endorsing a white colleague as an ally, were more effective than not having any allyship cue. However, the endorsement of an ally by a Black woman was significantly more effective.

Through a second experiment, Dr. Johnson explored this impact of endorsed allyship further by comparing only a profile of a White woman employee with no allyship cues to a profile where a Black woman who was a community partner, but not directly employed by the same company, endorsed a white woman employee. The experiment showed significant gaps in the perceived allyship of the white employee and resulting feelings of trust and belonging among the Black women study participants for the two profiles, indicating that allyship cues, and especially endorsements of allyship, are critical for Black women to see white women in STEM fields as identity-safety signals.

Through future work, Dr. Johnson aims to dig deeper into the importance of signaling allyship, especially in addressing the importance of authenticity in this allyship, including not just acknowledgment of racism and sexism but action to alleviate it. In addition to building our understanding of these underlying mechanisms that shape trust and belonging and long-term success for Black women in STEM, Dr. Johnson is working to apply her research to organizational contexts. Through interventions such as allyship training for STEM instructors, the current iteration of which is focused on anti-racism, she hopes to help more Black women feel supported in STEM classrooms and in pursuing STEM careers.