STEM by the Numbers

In this lesson, students use data to analyze the participation of white, black, Asian and Hispanic men and women in STEM careers as compared with their participation in the general workforce. They then discuss the possible reasons identity groups are unequally represented in STEM careers.
Grade Level

  • Students will display statistics in a variety of forms.
  • Students will analyze data.
  • Students will look at the representation of identity groups in STEM careers.
  • Enduring Understandings: Women and people of color are—and historically have been—underrepresented in STEM fields.
Essential Questions
  • Why are women and people of color underrepresented in STEM fields?


percent [per-sent]   (noun) a number that compares something to a hundred (example: “Twenty-two percent of the people who go to my school have pets,” means that for every 100 people, 22 have pets. If 400 people go to the school, 88 have pets.)

represent [rep-ri-zent]   (verb) to stand for or in place of (example: “Akeelah will represent our class at the school spelling bee.”)

statistics [stuh-tis-tiks]  (noun) a collection of numbers, often used to answer a question or solve a problem  

underrepresented [uhn-der rep-ri-zent-ed] (adjective) to be represented in low numbers (example: “Women are underrepresented as managers in that company.”)

workforce [wurk-fohrs] (noun) the total numbers of workers



Who Has a Piece of the Pie?

  1. Hand out copies of the “Scientists and Engineers Working in Science and Engineering Occupations pie chart and display the image for all to see. Explain that the National Science Foundation has gathered statistics to discover who’s working in STEM careers. Show students the banner at the bottom of the chart so they know where the numbers came from.

  2. Explain that the pie chart compares the percentage of people working in STEM careers by gender (men and women) and race and ethnicity (white, Asian, black, Hispanic and other). The number of people working in these careers can be compared in two ways: by looking at the percentages shown and by comparing the size of the “slices” in the chart. You may wish to review the idea of percentages with younger students.

  3. Help students make comparisons by asking the following questions:
    • Which group (defined by gender and race or ethnicity) makes up the greatest number of people working in science and engineering?
    • What’s the second biggest group?
    • How does the number of white men compare with the number of white women? What is your hypothesis for why these numbers are different? 
    • Compare the number of Asian men in science and engineering with the number of Asian women. What do you notice?

If it does not come up organically, point out that white and Asian individuals hold the largest percentage of jobs in science and engineering and that men far outnumber women in both of these groups.

  • What groups make up the smallest number of people in science and engineering careers? Why might this be true?

If students suggest that a particular group is “not good” at math and science, say something like “I can certainly see how you might think that, based on these numbers. Let’s dig a little deeper.”


Who’s Underrepresented in STEM?

  1. Hand out copies of the “Who’s Underrepresented in STEM? worksheet and display the image for all to see. Explain that, to get a better understanding of how equally each group is represented in science and engineering, you need to know what you might expect to happen based on how many people are in each group. For example, if there are 10 girls and 10 boys in your class, you might expect that the total number of students pursuing science and engineering careers to be made up of half girls and half boys. If there were many more boys than girls, you would expect more boys in these careers. If there were many more girls than boys, you would expect more girls in these careers.

    The class can get a better idea of who’s underrepresented in science and engineering by looking at the percentage of each group in the overall workforce. For each group, this percentage is shown as a blue bar on the graph.
  2. Help students compare the percentage of each group in the workforce with the percentage of each group in science and engineering, as follows.
    • Ask students to look at the blue bar showing what percentage of the workforce is women. (47 percent.) Are there more women than men in the workforce, more men than women, or about the same? (About the same; 47 percent out of 100 percent is close to half.)
    • Ask students how to figure out the percentage of women in STEM careers. (Add up the percentage of women from each racial or ethnic group from the pie chart: 20 percent white women, 5 percent Asian women, 2 percent black women, 2 percent Hispanic women, and 1 percent women from another race. Total: 30 percent of people in science and engineering are women.)
    • Have students use a colored pencil to draw a second bar representing women as 30 percent of the people in science and engineering. Explain that comparing the blue bar and the second bar shows the percentage of women who might be expected to be in science and engineering (47 percent) in relation to those who actually are (only 30 percent). This illustrates that women are underrepresented in STEM careers.
    • Make the same comparison for black individuals in science and engineering as compared with their presence in the overall workforce. (Add the percentage of black men and black women in the pie chart together to get 5 percent, compared with 11 percent in the workforce. Black individuals are also underrepresented in STEM careers).
    • Make the same comparison for Hispanic individuals in science and engineering as compared with their presence in the overall workforce. (Add the percentage of Hispanic men and women in the pie chart together to get 6 percent, compared with 16 percent in the workforce. Hispanic individuals are also underrepresented in STEM careers.)

Note: Students may notice that Asian Americans are not included in the “Who’s Underrepresented in STEM?” worksheet. Help them understand that the purpose of this activity and lesson is to talk about some (not all) groups that are underrepresented in STEM (women of all races, and black and Hispanic men and women). Asian Americans are actually overrepresented in STEM (17 percent of scientists and engineers as compared with 5.4 percent of the general population), a fact that elicits a set of questions beyond the scope of this lesson. If your students ask or speculate about the overrepresentation of Asian students, be ready to debunk the “model minority” myth if it arises. For more context about the harm of the model minority myth, see “I Am Asian American” and “Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town.”



  1. Ask the class to summarize their findings: Women and black and Hispanic individuals do not become scientists and engineers at the rates we might expect. That leaves us with three big questions:
    • What accounts for the observed underrepresentation? 
    • What are the consequences of underrepresentation?
    • What can be done about it?

  2. Hand out the “Women’s Participation in Selected Occupations chart and display it for all to see. Explain that the chart shows—across a nearly 30-year time span—what percentage of the total number of people employed in each occupation are women. Note that the source of the information is the United States Department of Labor, and that some information is missing for certain careers and years.
  3. Guide students in interpreting the chart.
    • What color shows the percentage of women in various careers in 1985? (Green.) In 2000? (Light blue.) In 2012? (Dark blue.)
    • Ask students to look at the green line showing the percentage of women who were architects in 1985. What percentage is shown? (The green line is about halfway between 0 and 20 percent, so the answer is 10 percent.) Now look at the percentage of women who were architects in 2012. (More than 20 percent.)
    • Which other careers show a big increase in the percentage of women participating? Which of these are STEM careers? (Chemists and pharmacists.)
    • Why do you think there were more women in STEM careers in 2012 than in 1985? Point out that these changes challenge the idea that women, for example, “aren’t good” at math and science.

  4. Tell students that there are three good questions to ask when thinking about who’s represented and underrepresented in STEM careers.
    • Who has the power?
    • Who has the opportunity?
    • Who has the encouragement?


    If students don’t arrive at this conclusion themselves, explain that one reason women’s representation in STEM careers has grown over time is that—in the United States and many other parts of the world—ideas about women’s power in society have changed. One way to tell who held power is to look at who has had the right to vote since the United States was founded in 1776.

    Draw a timeline on the board, describing the following events as you add them.

    1776. The United States was founded. Who votes? White men, only if they own property. Most of the black population of the country is enslaved and not permitted to learn to read or write.

    1870. African-American men get the right to vote by law. But—in reality—white people find all kinds of ways to keep black citizens from voting. Women of any race are still not permitted to vote.

    1920. White women get the right to vote. African-American women and other women of color are still largely disenfranchised. African-American men continue to be prevented—through customs, laws and intimidation tactics—from voting.

    1965. The Voting Rights Act removes remaining barriers that prevent African Americans and other people of color from voting. More women than ever have full access to voting.


    Long after African Americans and women had the right to vote, they were still denied opportunities in education and in the workforce. In the 1950s, for example, most women weren’t expected to go to college or have a career. Many schools offered gendered electives: Girls were enrolled in home economics, while boys would take shop classes. These gendered expectations extended to computer courses once they became more popular in the 1980s, limiting the opportunities of girls and women.

    Today, inequities in access to education still exist. Black and Hispanic students may be steered away from advanced math courses or gifted and talented programs based on an educator’s racial bias. Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods often have fewer technology resources than schools in wealthier communities. These circumstances also limit opportunities for certain groups of students.


    If young people don’t see role models like themselves who are doctors or scientists, they might think those careers aren’t for them. If they hear messages “girls can’t do math” or “African Americans don’t do well in science,” they might think that those things are true. These messages can create internal barriers that prevent young people from pursuing or sticking with a subject when it gets difficult because—deep down—they think they don’t belong or can’t succeed.

    Ask students what they think the consequences might be if a STEM workplace doesn’t include the ideas of lots of different kinds of people? What happens if women or people of color are left out? Point out that lack of diversity is not only a loss to the individuals who don’t pursue these careers, but to society as a whole; jobs go unfilled, points of view are not recognized and populations may go underserved.


Do Something: Dear Young Person

Ask students what they might say to a young person who believes that a STEM career is not for her or him? Ask students to write a letter to that young person encouraging him or her to pursue a career in STEM. This letter could be written to an unnamed student in a lower grade, to any student in an underrepresented group or to the student him or herself. Review the “Dear Young Person” template with your students and discuss ideas for filling in each blank. You may prefer to have older students write the letter without using the template.


Alignment to Common Core State Standards/College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.1, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6

Lesson written by Kathy Kinsner.

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