The intersection of race and gender in students’ sense of belonging
First, we report student responses for sense of belonging in their STEM major by gender, race, and representation of demographic group in their STEM major. Students frequently gave multiple reasons for belonging or not belonging. Therefore, students’ overall belonging status was coded as follows: (1) belongs in STEM (positive belonging status, only reported feelings of belonging), or (2) does not belong in STEM (negative belonging status, only reported feelings of not belonging), or (3) mixed (reported both feelings of belonging and not belonging). This scheme permitted us to code all students uniquely into one of the three categories. All statistical results were determined using a test of proportions described above.
Not all students who reported their belonging status gave explanations for their sense of belonging while some gave multiple reasons. Because of this pattern, there is a discrepancy between the total number reported for belonging statuses and number of belonging explanations.
Effects of gender on belonging: women report less belonging
We began our analyses by examining differences in belonging based on gender of participants. Results for both majors and leavers are reported in Fig. 2.
We have analyzable responses from 51 men and 80 women who were majors. We found that female majors were significantly less likely than male majors to report they felt they belonged in STEM (Z = 2.41, p ≤ 0.01), as can be seen in Fig. 2. We have responses from 22 men and 40 women who were leavers. We found similar results between male and female leavers. Not surprisingly, leavers were more likely to report they did not feel they belonged in the STEM field they left.
Effects of race on belonging: students of color report less belonging
Next, we analyzed responses by the race of participants. Results for both majors and leavers are shown in Fig. 3. As mentioned above, there was a need to consolidate racial categories due to small numbers when dividing among many different groups. Here we report three racial groups: white students, Asian students, and underrepresented minorities (URMs). We report Asian students separately because while they are an ethnic minority, like the URMs, they are generally represented in STEM in proportion to their share of the population, as are white students (National Science Foundation and National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics 2017).
Among majors, we have responses from 70 white students, 11 Asian students, and 50 URMs. As shown in Fig. 3, we found that students of color who major in STEM are significantly less likely to report a sense of belonging than white majors (Z = 2.23, p ≤ 0.01). We have responses from 24 white students, 5 Asian students, and 35 URMs who were leavers. A large fraction of leavers from all demographic groups reported they did not have a sense of belonging in their STEM major.
Race and gender intersections
We next look at the relationships of belonging, race, and gender among majors, as presented in Fig. 4. Due to the smaller number of leavers and large frequency of a negative sense of belonging among those respondents, we focus only on majors in this section. Not surprisingly, with women reporting a lower sense of belonging than men, and students of color reporting a lower sense of belonging than white students, we find that women of color reported were the least likely to report a sense of belonging when compared to all other students (Z = 3.62, p ≤ 0.01), while white men were the most likely to report a sense of belonging when compared to all other students (Z = 2.37, p ≤ 0.01).
These results reflect the importance of simultaneously considering the intersections of gender and race in any analysis such as this study. While most majors feel they belong, when we consider both gender and race together, we see that most of the STEM majors who report perceptions of not belonging are men and women of color. Notably, they persisted in their STEM majors despite not feeling as if they belonged there.
Asian students and belonging
While the size of our racial subsamples are small, we note that the patterns for Asian students match those of URMs’ more closely than those of white students. This result suggests that although Asian students may be represented in STEM, their experiences may not align with those of the other ethnic group that is well-represented, white students. For the remainder of the paper, we collapse racial groups into only two categories: white students and students of color. We combine Asian students with other students of color because their responses (shown in Figs. 3 and 4) match closer to those of URM students than white students, and the number of Asian students in our self-selected sample is quite low.
Sense of belonging and representation of one’s demographic in the major
We examined sense of belonging within STEM fields by gender and race. We distinguish between biological science majors (biological) and the physical sciences (pSTEM). We do so because the representation of women varies between fields of study in STEM. In pSTEM, women are highly underrepresented, but in biological sciences, representation of women is close to or above parity at the undergraduate level. We present data for men without disaggregating STEM majors, as men are generally highly represented in all STEM fields. Figure 5 presents perceived belonging by women’s major. We find that women of color in pSTEM, where they are highly underrepresented, report belonging significantly less frequently than white men (Z = 2.17, p ≤ 0.05).
Due to small n, comparisons between groups should be made with caution. However, we note that there is a general tendency for feelings of belonging to follow patterns of representation. As a student’s demographic group becomes less represented, the less likely a person is to report a sense of belonging. We also note that lower sense of belonging was most commonly reported by people of color, suggesting that race significantly impacts belonging, perhaps even more than gender.
Explanations for sense of belonging
We continue the analysis by looking at common factors cited for belonging and lack of belonging. We look at factors cited by majors for their reported sense of belonging (n = 70) and for a lack of a sense of belonging (n = 55). We also present factors cited by leavers for their low sense of belonging (n = 37). We omit explanation for leavers who felt they belonged in STEM because very few leavers reported a positive sense of belonging in STEM majors. Due to low numbers for majors and leavers, we present results based on race and gender, but not the intersections of those groups. It is noteworthy that not all interviewed students gave explanations for their belonging status while some gave multiple reasons.
Four broad themes emerged during the coding of answers regarding belonging, which we labeled as interpersonal relationships, science identity, personal interest, and competence. Students either had or lacked the aspects encompassed by the codes. For example, students can attribute their positive sense of belonging to having interpersonal relationships or attribute their negative sense of belonging to a lack of interpersonal relationships. It is worth noting that some students’ responses were labeled with more than one theme. Table 1 presents all belonging explanation codes.
Interpersonal relationships and belonging
In his theory of undergraduate socialization, Weidman defines interpersonal interaction as one of the three processes of socialization. This includes relationships with peers or faculty as well as the frequency of interactions and intensity of those relationships (Weidman 1989). In this study, the code interpersonal relationships (IRs) encompasses any personal relationships that students have with other members of their associated STEM department. Having IRs means that a participant feels socially connected or similar to those around them in their STEM major. For example, one student coded as having IRs explained,
I can really relate to the other biology majors. Most of my friends are biology majors. I feel like it’s where I belong. – White female biology major
Another interviewee related IRs and belonging to knowing people in the major, as can be seen in his response to the question about feeling out of place:
At first I was just starting to get used to everything because I didn’t know everyone but now I just fall right in.
– White male information technology major
These students were both coded as having IRs in STEM that contributed to their positive sense of belonging in their major.
On the other hand, a lack of IRs indicates a lack of social connection or similarity to those around them. Responses for a lack of IRs included differing hobbies from peers and social isolation, among other things. For example, one student coded as not belonging due to “lacks interpersonal relationships” said that, though he enjoyed the course work associated with his STEM degree, the social environment made him uncomfortable:
I enjoyed the classes. I just did not enjoy the atmosphere. When I looked around, I saw all these people, all these people that I didn’t fit in with, and I didn’t feel comfortable there. – White male exercise science leaver
An Asian female leaver described how sometimes the lack of belonging was related to her demographic status:
[I felt out of place] especially because I was like 1 of 2 girls at the time that was a Physics major. Even that other girl that was a Physics major with me, I think she changed to a math major. – Asian female physics leaver
Science identity and belonging
In contrast to connections developed through interpersonal relationships, science identity is more focused on the individual student. Science identity as defined in this study is related to one’s personal connection to their field, meaning science is closely connected to their sense of self. Our definition overlaps in part with Carlone and Johnson’s definition of research scientist identity, which relates to excitement for uncovering the natural world and scientific knowledge (Carlone and Johnson 2007; Espinosa 2011). In short, science identity in our study encompasses one’s feeling of being a “science person.” Participants who expressed belonging based on having a positive science identity describe their major as an integral part of their life and who they are. When asked about whether he felt he belonged in his field, one student responded
Absolutely. I feel like this is exactly where I belong, and this is the type of work that I want to do, and I feel like everybody in my major kind of sees eye to eye on the same issues in technology that I do.
– White male engineering technology major
Here, this student expresses that engineering technology is “exactly” where he belongs and what he wants to do, conveying that it is an integral part of his life. Students with a science identity, like the major quoted below, expressed feelings of their major being a part of who they are:
[I feel like I belong in engineering because] it’s what I do and it’s kind of becoming who I am. So it’s kind of like… taking your major and becoming what it is. – Black female systems engineering major
This major expresses a personal connection to her major in stating she is “becoming what [her major] is.” Similarly, a biology major equated her life with her major:
As much as I complain about my major I couldn’t see myself learning anything else. My life is biology. – Black female biology major
These responses exemplify “science identity” because the interviewees are connecting their major to their sense of self.
In contrast, many who lacked a science identity expressed feeling like there was no connection between the major and who they are as a person. When asked if he felt he belonged in his previous STEM major, one leaver answered “no” and explained:
I didn’t feel like I was the type of person. Again, I’m not a nerdy guy. Not all scientific people are nerds, obviously, but I’m just a person who questions things just to understand, and that’s why I think I’m a lot better as a journalist because [what] you need to [do is] ask questions, and they weren’t people who answered questions well. – White male physics leaver
Another leaver, in direct response to a question about belonging in her previous major, commented that she felt out of place due to her lack of passion:
I definitely kind of felt a little weird because everyone that was around me was so much more excited about what we were doing than I was. And I kind of felt like that was a problem because if it was something that I really loved then I should be just as excited. – White female biology leaver
Personal interest and belonging
While science identity is closely tied to students’ sense of self, personal interest relates to one’s interest in major-related material or the major in general. Typical responses coded in this category were “I enjoy it” and “the major fits my interest.” This differs from science identity because it lacks a connection to passion and sense of self. Responses categorized as personal interest focus on interest in the field, independent of how they view themselves as a person. Someone who was coded as having a science identity made a personal connection between themselves and the field, whereas someone coded as having personal interest expressed interest in a way that was not connected to who they are as a person. For example, as a direct response to the question about belonging, one participant said she belongs when she is interested in the material and does not feel she belongs when she is not interested:
When I was in the classes I care about I feel like I belonged but when I’m classes that’s like, we’re talking about plants, vertebrate zoology, and stuff I feel like I don’t belong there. – Black female biology major
Here, she doesn’t express having or lacking passion, but instead a lack of interest in a particular subfield that diminishes her sense of belonging. Both majors and leavers expressed a lack of personal interest as a factor contributing to their lack of belonging. A lack of personal interest expressed by majors was often attributed to an emphasis in the degree program that differed from what they were interested in. For example, a biology major cited a lack of personal interest because the degree program focuses on anatomy and genetics while her personal biology interests lean more towards marine biology. One student expressed a similar perspective when asked if she felt she belonged:
To be quite honest, not really… I have learned a lot of math but realizing that I am more applied math, the math department at [my school] on the whole is not an applied math department. It is much more theory-based.
– White female math major
Here, this major encountered a discrepancy between the content she is interested in and the content she encountered; she lacked personal interest in the content emphasized in her department, which contributed to her perception of not belonging in the major.
Competence and belonging
In addition to interest in the subject matter, feelings of belonging or lack of belonging were also influenced by students’ perceived competence in the subject matter. Competence in this study refers to people’s perception of their performance and understanding. This definition aligns with Carlone and Johnson, who defined competence as one’s perceived grasp of scientific concepts and material (Carlone and Johnson 2007; Espinosa 2011). Competence is captured by grades, conceptual understanding, and ability to communicate understanding to others. Participants frequently cited competence as a reason why they belonged. For example, when asked if she felt she belonged in biology one major replied,
I do now. (laughs) Because I know that I can have a good understanding of everything I’ve been learning and it’s like I know that because I can teach others. I can help others understand. – Black female biology major
Numerous students cited their struggle to understand concepts as a reason why they did not feel they belonged. When asked if she ever felt out of place, one woman said she sometimes felt out of place or uncomfortable and gave the explanation:
[My classmates had] a lot of practical knowledge and ... I didn’t have all that knowledge and I was trying to learn it... I think that was a struggle for me.
– Hispanic female computer engineering leaver
This leaver felt that her understanding of the material did not measure up to that of her peers; her feeling out of place was due to a lack of competence. Another student’s explanation for his lack of sense of belonging echoes the previous student’s explanation:
I feel out of place because I think some of [the other majors] know more than I do and I wonder how because we have taken the same classes.
– Black male information technology major
Another student described mixed feelings of belonging that varied depending upon his self-perceived competence at the moment:
Sometimes I do feel out of place, for example, with that group project… I didn’t really know that much, but with another group project… I felt like I belonged because I had good ideas and contributed to the group and people listened to me… It kind of varies. – Black male information technology major
It should be noted that students’ responses about poor grades may not align with common expectations of what a poor grade is. For example, several female STEM leavers we interviewed considered receiving any grade less than an A in a class as a bad grade. Thus, a high-achieving student may report low competence despite getting high grades in their STEM courses and would be coded as lacking competence. Our coding of competence is based on students’ perception of their own understanding and performance; we did not have access to information regarding students’ actual grades or course performance.
Frequency of themes
In order to gauge the frequency with which these themes appeared in the interviews, appearance of each code was counted for majors and leavers. Figure 6 shows common responses for positive sense of belonging among STEM majors. Students could offer several reasons for belonging. Interpersonal relationships were the largest factor cited for each demographic group, aligning with the literature (Strayhorn 2012). Competence was the second most commonly cited factor for majors’ positive sense of belonging and was cited at similar frequencies for all demographic groups. Personal interest was the next most frequently cited by majors. Science identity was cited by only a small percent of interviewees. There were no significant differences between responses of men and women or white students and students of color.
Figure 7 shows common responses among majors and leavers who reported a lack of a sense of belonging in STEM. The most frequently cited factor contributing to a lack of belonging among majors was the absence of interpersonal relationships. This was true for all demographic groups. Lack of competence was the second most frequently cited explanation for all majors. No majors cited a lack of science identity as an explanation for their negative belonging status. Absence of interpersonal relationships was the most commonly reported factor contributing to leavers’ negative belonging status. Leavers rarely cited lack of personal interest for their sense of not belonging in their STEM major.