Historically, ethnic minorities have been excluded from participation in many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and ethnic disparities in participation continue into the present day (e.g., Smith and White 2011; OECD 2006). In the U.S., STEM fields are dominated by White men and African Americans, Hispanics/Latino/a Americans, and Native Americans are recognized as underrepresented minorities (URMs) because people from these groups obtain advanced degrees in STEM fields at rates lower than their representation in the U.S. population (National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, NSF, NCSES 2017). Systemic barriers affect the participation of URMs in STEM fields (e.g., Clotfelter et al. 2005; Riegle-Crumb and Grodsky 2010a; Young 2005). Although African Americans, Latinos/as, and Native Americans are underrepresented in STEM as a whole, there is tremendous variability across STEM fields in the representation of ethnic minoritiesFootnote 1 (e.g., Leslie et al. 2015; NSF, NCSES 2015).
African Americans in particular are severely underrepresented in graduate programs and as faculty in departments specializing in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB), commonly federated subdisciplines of biology dealing with how organisms interact with each other and their environment. In 2014, African Americans earned less than 1.8% of the Ph.D.’s awarded in EEB-related subfields (Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, Botany, Entomology, Marine Biology, Wildlife Biology, Zoology, NSF, NCSES 2015). During that same year, African Americans earned 5.1% of Ph.Ds. awarded in non-EEB related subfields of biology, and 6.4% of all Ph.Ds. awarded. Given that African Americans constitute 13% of the US population, they are clearly underrepresented among all Ph.D. recipients—but, the problem is particularly severe in EEB.Footnote 2
The goal of the present research is to shed light on factors that may contribute to the underrepresentation of African Americans and other ethnic minorities in EEB graduate education. We focus on interest in graduate education among college undergraduates because graduate school is a critical juncture in the higher education pipeline where students make important decisions about their disciplinary specialization and becoming academic professionals. The vitality of the EEB profession, as in any field of study, is a reflection of the diversity, professional development, interests, and worldview of the people posing questions and formulating hypotheses within the field (Armstrong et al. 2007). Evolutionary biologists and ecologists contribute to understanding and responding to some of the most serious problems threatening human and other inhabitants of Earth, including climate change, emerging disease, invasive species, and consequences of loss of biological diversity. The very low rate of completion of Ph.D.’s in EEB by African Americans and other minorities has downstream consequences for the diversity of applicant pools for postdoctoral researcher and faculty positions in EEB-focused academic departments at universities, and researcher positions at federal agencies and non-governmental organizations specializing in EEB, with a concomitant effect on diversity in the EEB profession as a whole. Using a social psychological approach, we examine potential challenges to inclusion in EEB, focusing on the central role of sense of belonging in EEB and the question of whether a reduced sense of belonging in EEB is associated with lower interest in pursuing graduate education in EEB.
Patterns of participation in STEM and EEB
Despite having generally positive attitudes towards STEM and relatively strong intentions to major in STEM fields, URM students are less likely to complete undergraduate STEM degree requirements than White students (Riegle-Crumb and King 2010b; O’Brien et al. 2015; Young 2005; Zhang et al. 2004). Systemic differences in teacher quality, school funding, and course-taking at the high school level can leave URM students less prepared than White students for rigorous college STEM majors. African American and Latino/a students are more likely to be enrolled in high schools with lower teacher quality and less school funding compared to White students (Clotfelter et al. 2005; Ingersoll 2002). In addition, compared to White students, African American students tend to take fewer math and science courses in high school, are less likely to take AP math and science courses (which are less likely to be offered at under resourced schools), and are less likely to take costly AP math and science exams (O’Sullivan and Grigg 2001; Riegle-Crumb and King 2010b; College Board 2014). In response, many scholars have advocated for increasing institutional accountability for inequitable outcomes between URM students and White students (Bauman et al. 2005; Dowd and Bensimon 2015).
While factors such as teacher quality, school funding, and course-taking in high school provide explanations for the underrepresentation of African Americans relative to Whites among STEM majors more generally, they are unlikely to explain the variation in representation of African Americans within different STEM disciplines such as biology. For example, it is unlikely that teacher quality can fully account for the relatively lower levels of representation among African Americans obtaining Ph.D.’s in EEB (1.8%) compared to non-EEB (5.1%) subfields of biology. Thus, in addition to differences in preparation that result from unequal access to resources, there are likely to be other factors that influence the representation of African Americans and other minorities in EEB. STEM fields can vary tremendously in the cultures found within their field and these culture differences may affect the participation of URMs (Leslie et al. 2015). STEM fields with cultures that view success as a result of brilliance tend to have fewer minorities than STEM fields with cultures that view success as a result of hard work. In other words, STEM cultures that promote fixed theories of intelligence appear to be less welcoming to URMs than STEM cultures that promote malleable theories of intelligence (e.g., see also Murphy and Dweck 2010; Rattan et al. 2018). Mismatches between the cultural background of students and institutional culture can have far reaching negative consequences for students (Edman and Brazil 2009; Smith et al. 2014; Stephens et al. 2012a, b). Thus, in addition to group differences in access to resources, features of the organizational culture present in STEM fields are another factor that can promote or hinder the participation of different groups in STEM.
The pattern of participation among underrepresented groups in EEB differs from the pattern in many other STEM fields. First, STEM fields with low representation of African Americans are generally fields with low representation of women (Leslie et al. 2015). Whereas African Americans have extremely low representation in EEB, women now outnumber men among PhD recipients and new tenure-track hires (Fox 2018; NSF, NCSES 2015). In 2014, women constituted 52.3% of PhDs awarded in EEB (NSF, NCSES 2015). Second, in addition to African Americans, Latinas/os (6.6%), Native Americans (0.2%), and Asians (3.7%) are all underrepresented among EEB Ph.D. recipients relative to their presence in the U.S. population. The underrepresentation of Asians in EEB is particularly surprising given their relatively high rates of participation (12.6%) in non-EEB related subfields of biology. The pattern of representation in EEB—low representation of ethnic minorities, but relatively high representation of women—departs from many other STEM fields.
The role of sense of belonging
In the present research, we adopted a social psychological approach to studying the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in EEB. We theorized that group differences in access to resources and mismatches between students and the institutional culture present in EEB leave African American students, and potentially other URM students, vulnerable to feeling a lower sense of belonging in EEB contexts compared to White students. A person’s sense of belonging in a particular academic domain refers to that person’s feelings of membership and acceptance in the domain (Gilbert et al. 2015; O’Brien et al. 2017; Good et al. 2012; Rattan et al. 2018; Walton and Cohen 2007). African Americans can be vulnerable to feeling uncertain about their belonging in predominantly White college-level academic environments because of their underrepresentation and experiences of exclusion at these institutions (Walton and Cohen 2007, 2011). Moreover, STEM contexts may be especially likely to undermine feelings of belonging among historically underrepresented groups (Rattan et al. 2018).
A reduced sense of belonging can have a host of negative outcomes including reduced interest, motivation, achievement, and even negative health outcomes (e.g., Cheryan et al. 2009; Good et al. 2012; Rattan et al. 2018; Walton and Carr 2012; Walton and Cohen 2007; Walton and Cohen 2011). For example, when environmental cues present in STEM contexts undermine the belonging of underrepresented groups, they can experience lower STEM course grades, less interest in STEM courses, and less interest in pursuing STEM majors. The sense of belonging is critically important to achievement and interest in STEM courses for all students including ethnic minorities, White women, and White men. However, features of the STEM environment are much more likely to have a negative impact on sense of belonging among members of underrepresented groups (Rattan et al. 2018; Cheryan et al. 2009). Thus, sense of belonging is an important social psychological mechanism through which features of institutional environments may lead to inequitable STEM outcomes including underrepresentation.
In the present study, we examined the role of sense of belonging in EEB contexts in predicting interest in pursuing a graduate education in EEB among an ethnically diverse sample of college students. The primary focus was on identifying factors that promote the underrepresentation of African Americans in EEB, the most extremely underrepresented group in EEB. We also included students from the other three largest ethnic groups in the U.S.: Whites, Latinos/as, and Asians.Footnote 3 We hypothesized that African Americans and other ethnic minority students would be more likely than White students to experience potential challenges to inclusion resulting from factors such as inequitable access to resources (e.g., Young 2005) and a mismatch between their culture and the culture present in university EEB environments (see also Smith et al. 2014; Stephens et al. 2012a, b). In turn, potential challenges to inclusion may reduce feelings of belonging in STEM contexts. Finally, a reduced sense of belonging in EEB contexts may lower an individual’s interest in pursuing a graduate education in EEB. See Fig. 1.
Potential challenges to inclusion
In theorizing about potential challenges to inclusion that may affect feelings of belonging in EEB contexts, we deliberately cast a wide net. First, we sought to examine potential challenges to inclusion that stem from inequitable distribution of resources (e.g., Dowd and Bensimon 2015) as well those that stem from cultural mismatches between the cultural backgrounds of students compared to organizational culture present in EEB (e.g., Stephens et al. 2012a, b). Second, we drew from the social psychological, educational, and sociological literatures on the challenges to inclusion for minorities and women in STEM fields more generally that may also affect inclusion in EEB (e.g., Dasgupta 2011; Smith et al. 2014). Finally, we sought to extend the work of past researchers who had examined the challenges to inclusion faced by ethnic minorities in EEB, many of which are unique to the EEB context (Armstrong et al. 2007; Bailey et al. 2011; Graves 2019; Mead et al. 2015).
Knowledge and familiarity with EEB
At the high school level, African American and Latino/a students are more likely than Whites to be enrolled in schools where teachers do not hold a bachelor’s degree or minor in their subject area (Clotfelter et al. 2005; Ingersoll 2002). This differential access to quality teachers could potentially lead to group differences in knowledge and familiarity with EEB. There is some evidence that, compared to Whites, African Americans may have less knowledge and exposure to EEB (Mead et al. 2015). Mead et al. (2015) found that African Americans were more likely than Whites to have misconceptions about evolution; however, the finding is limited by an extremely small sample size. Moreover, the differences between Whites and other ethnic minority groups including Latinos/as, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans were all nonsignificant, which also could be an artifact of the small sample size. Thus, additional research is needed to determine whether there are ethnic group differences in knowledge and exposure to EEB and to what extent knowledge and exposure to EEB is related to a sense of belonging in EEB contexts.
Exposure to role-models
Because ethnic minorities are underrepresented among the professoriate in EEB, most ethnic minorities will have less exposure to same-race role models than Whites (see also, Graves 2019). Role models can have a big impact on young adults’ decisions to pursue a career in science (e.g., Dasgupta 2011). Most researchers have argued that ingroup role models (e.g., same-sex role models, same-race role models) are most effective for motivating student interest in STEM careers (e.g., Dasgupta 2011; Marx and Roman 2002; Marx and Goff 2005). In contrast, Drury et al. (2011) have suggested that role models do not need to be of the same gender as the student to have a positive impact. To date, the role model literature in STEM has primarily focused on women and thus less in known about the importance of same-race role models for the success of ethnic minorities (see Chemers et al. 2011; Syed et al. 2011 for exceptions). In the present research, we examined exposure to role models and the relationship between exposure to role models and a sense of belonging in EEB.
Access to outdoor recreation and comfort outdoors
Early life experiences with nature and outdoor environments may play a role in shaping interest in EEB professions. EEB often requires interaction with organisms in natural environments; consequently, college students who had outdoor exposure early in life might be more attracted to EEB relative to those students who were not afforded similar exposure. A case study of African American students participating in the Ecological Society of America’s Strategies for Ecology Education, Development, and Sustainability (SEEDS) program revealed that 92% reported exposure to the natural environment at a young age (Armstrong et al. 2007). African Americans are less likely than White and Latino/a Americans to have opportunities to spend time as children engaged in outdoor activities such as swimming, wildlife viewing, hiking, camping, and fishing (Larson et al. 2011). In addition, African Americans are less likely than Whites to visit national parks and forests for many reasons including ease of access and concerns about safety or discrimination (Cordell et al. 1990; Cordell et al. 2004; Floyd 1998; Krymkowski et al. 2014; Solop et al. 2003; Taylor et al. 2011). These group differences in outdoor recreation access could lead to group differences in comfort in outdoor environments which, in turn, could affect feelings of belonging in EEB.
Religious belief as a source of cultural mismatch
Religious beliefs may serve as a potential source of a cultural mismatch that can affect the sense of belonging in EEB contexts. While the majority of Americans believe in God (Gallup 2016; Gervais and Najle 2018; Pew 2018), the percentage of scientists who believe in God is much smaller (Pew 2009a). Moreover, with vocal religious critics like Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologists in particular may be perceived as hostile to religious belief (Dawkins 2006). African Americans are significantly more religious than many other American ethnic groups, overwhelmingly identifying as Protestant Christian (Pew 2009b). Thus, African Americans may be more likely than Whites to experience a real or perceived religious difference with their EEB faculty members that could affect their feelings of comfort in EEB contexts.
There is some evidence that religiosity may function as a challenge to inclusion in EEB (Bailey et al. 2011; Mead et al. 2015). Religiosity is negatively associated with exposure to evolutionary theory, knowledge about evolution, and acceptance of evolution (Hawley et al. 2011; Rissler et al. 2014). In a sample of African American college students, Bailey et al. (2011) found that the more religious students were, the less knowledge they had of evolution (see also Mead et al. 2015). Moreover, religiosity is also associated with having moral objections to the theory of evolution (Hawley et al. 2011). Thus the cultural mismatch between the religious beliefs of students and those of EEB faculty who are not generally trained to navigate religious differences and moral objections to evolution may create a challenge for inclusion that leads to lower sense of belonging in EEB contexts.
Communal values as a source of cultural mismatch
Cultural mismatches between students’ values and the perceived goals afforded by a career in STEM may also be a challenge to inclusion in STEM (Brown et al. 2015; Diekman et al. 2017; Fuesting et al. 2017; Smith et al. 2014). Careers in STEM are frequently perceived by students as affording individualistic goals such as achievement and power, but not as affording communal goals such as helping others and serving the community. For students from a communally-oriented culture who endorse communal goals, this disconnect between their own goals and the perceived goal affordances of a career in STEM can reduce motivation to pursue a career in STEM (Smith et al. 2014; see also Diekman et al. 2017). For example, Native American college students with strong communal values who were pursuing STEM careers felt a reduced sense of belonging, reduced motivation, and reduced intentions to persist in STEM relative to Native American college students with weaker communal values (Smith et al. 2014). Although Native Americans also strongly endorsed individualistic goals, individualistic goals were unrelated to STEM outcomes among Native Americans.
One possible explanation for the low representation of ethnic minorities in EEB is that they tend to endorse communal goals and this focus may create a mismatch between the goals that students believe are afforded by a career in EEB and their personal goals. Although we are unaware of any direct test of this hypothesis in EEB, there is evidence that African Americans, Latinas/os, and Asians all tend to have strong communal values (e.g., Oyserman et al. 2002). In the present research, we examine whether a communal goal orientation can serve as a challenge to inclusion in EEB that lowers students’ sense of belonging.
We conducted an online survey of college undergraduates majoring in STEM disciplines in order to test several hypotheses about ethnic differences in experiencing potential challenges to inclusion in EEB, the relationship between potential challenges to inclusion in EEB and sense of belonging, and, finally, the relationship between a sense of belonging and interest in pursuing a graduate degree in EEB. We examined the role of challenges to inclusion that were relatively specific to EEB (e.g., comfort outdoors) and whether known STEM-inhibiting factors (e.g., exposure to role models) were also relevant in EEB. Although our primary focus was in identifying the factors that may promote the underrepresentation of African Americans in EEB, we included students from the four largest ethnic groups in the United States: Whites, African Americans, Latinos/as, and Asians. The inclusion of the four groups provided the ability to identify challenges that might be especially relevant or unique to African Americans. Of note, African Americans, Latinos/as, and Asians are all underrepresented among EEB Ph.D. recipients although to varying degrees.
Based on our theoretical framework and the available literature, we generated several hypotheses about group differences in the experiences of African Americans and Whites that may help to explain the underrepresentation of African Americans in EEB. The comparisons between other ethnic minorities and Whites were more exploratory. In addition, we also generated hypotheses about the relationship between challenges to inclusion and sense of belonging, and between sense of belonging and interest in graduate school that we expected to hold across all ethnic groups.
Relative to Whites, African Americans will be more likely to experience challenges to inclusion in EEB contexts. We examined several potential challenges to inclusion including knowledge of evolution, exposure to ecology, exposure to EEB role models, exposure to same-race EEB role models, comfort in the outdoors, religiosity, moral objections to evolution, and communal goals.
Relative to Whites, African Americans will feel a lower sense of belonging in EEB.
Regardless of an individual’s ethnic background, the potential challenges to inclusion in EEB will be related to sense of belonging in EEB. That is, knowledge of evolution, exposure to ecology, comfort in the outdoors, and exposure to role models (in general or of the same race) will be positively associated with a sense of belonging in EEB. In comparison, religiosity, moral objections to evolution, and communal goals will be negatively related to sense of belonging in EEB.
Relative to Whites, African Americans will report less interest in graduate school in EEB.
Regardless of an individual’s ethnic background, sense of belonging in EEB will predict interest in graduate school in EEB.