As the job market rapidly changes, STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math – skills have become increasingly valuable. These careers are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying, yet Latinas only account for 3 percent of the industry.
Believing that lucrative STEM fields can pull low-income communities of color out of poverty and instill young girls and women with financial independence, groups across the nation have emerged to pique the interest, educate and mentor Latinas in STEM. In Miami, CODeLLA offers Latinas between the ages of 8 and 12 an eight-week tech entrepreneurship and coding immersion program. In Chicago, Latina Girls Code hosts workshops and hackathons that teach brown girls and teens technology languages and entrepreneurial skills. In Los Angeles, DIY Girls provides underserved female youth, 97 percent of them Latina, from fourth to eighth grade with after-school classes and summer programs where they build prototypes of products that can improve a problem in their community. Even Eva Longoria, whose master’s thesis from Cal State Northridge focused on Latinas in STEM careers, started TECHNOLOchicas, a nationwide campaign to increase visibility of brown women in these fields and educate Latino families of the opportunities STEM can provide their girls.
While STEM outreach programs are doing great and necessary work, the reality for women of color in tech or engineering isn’t as alluring as it’s made out to be. Women make up almost half of all STEM graduates, though just 3.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in STEM fields in 2010 went to Latinas, yet they account for less than a quarter of all graduates in the 20 highest-paying STEM jobs. In contrast, they make up the majority, two-thirds, of the 20 lowest-paying gigs. For those who manage to get fat paychecks, many face almost everyday instances of discrimination and microaggressions, from sexual harassment to painful double standards. The problem is twofold for women of color, who face gender and racial/ethnic biases. In fact, a study by UC Hastings College of Law published in 2015 found that 46.9 percent of Latina scientists reported that they had been mistaken for administrative or custodial staff.
Despite all the odds, there are several Latinas in STEM breaking glass ceilings, solving major scientific problems, creating innovative products that save lives, and creating programs for young Latinas that ensure the presence of women of color in science, technology, engineering and math isn’t as modest in the next generation. Here are 10 Latina engineers, physicists, techies, and STEM activists kicking ass in fields they’re widely underrepresented in.
1. Sabrina González Pasterski
The world’s “next Albert Einstein” is a cubana from Chicago – at least that’s how Harvard University describes Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski. At just 24 years old, the physicist has a résumé that even veterans of her field can’t match. Gonzalez Pasterski, who’s a doctoral student at the ivy league studying high energy physics, started showing signs that she’d break barriers in 2003, back when the then-10-year-old started taking flying lessons. Three years later, she started to build her first kit aircraft. By 2008, it was considered airworthy.
These days, Gonzalez Pasterski, who studies black holes and spacetime, particularly trying to explain gravity within the context of quantum mechanics, has been cited by the likes of Stephen Hawking and Andrew Strominger, been offered jobs by NASA and Blue Origin, an aerospace research and development company Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos also started. She’s also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to support her work.
2. Laura I. Gomez
Mexicana Laura I. Gomez is one of the leading ladies in tech. At 17, when the formerly undocumented immigrant first obtained a work permit, she took an internship with Hewlett-Packard. Seeing no one like her in the workplace, she instantly wanted out. However, she decided to stay in the field after her mother, who saw a lucrative career for Gomez in tech, encouraged her to stay. Gomez would go on to work as one of the only Latinas at Google and YouTube, and then she became a founding member of Twitter’s international team, where she led Twitter en Español.
Being underrepresented in the tech world and experiencing discrimination, Gomez decided to do something about it, founding (and acting as CEO of) Atipica in 2015. It’s a recruiting software start-up that uses artificial and human intelligence to help companies make bias-free decisions when hiring employees.
3. Nicole Hernandez Hammer
Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a sea-level researcher and environmental justice activist who educates and mobilizes the Latino community to understand and address the ways in which climate change negatively impacts them. The Guatemalan-Cuban advocate speaks from personal experience as well as academic knowledge. When Hernandez Hammer was four years old, she and her family moved from Guatemala to South Florida. There, she learned firsthand about the effect of rising sea levels.
During Hurricane Andrew, when she was 15 years old, her house – much like the homes of other Latino families near coastal shore lines – was destroyed. She felt “obligated” to learn more about the issue, and went on to study biology and the natural sciences. Hernandez Hammer was the assistant director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, authoring several papers on sea level rise projections, before moving into advocacy. She served as the Florida field manager for Moms Clean Air Force and is now a climate science and community advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In 2015, she was former first lady Michelle Obama’s guest at the State of the Union Address.
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