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“There Was Something Missing”: How Latinas Construct Compartmentalized Identities in STEM

[W]hen you are a minority, especially pre-med, and as you go up higher in the classes, you see less of yourself, and you already know there is competition ahead of you. It is nothing new, it is just ingrained in me. I have to compete against myself and know there are less people like me, and I know some people might say things—like a classic thing some people might say is she got this position [because] she is Hispanic. [. . .] People might not say it, but they think about it.

—-Juana, health and biological sciences major

Despite significant gains in Latinas’ access to postsecondary education, gaps remain for Latinas pursuing degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In 2017, Latinas received one in five of all undergraduate engineering degrees awarded to Latinxs in the United States (National Science Board, 2018). Most STEM jobs require some form of postsecondary education (e.g., certificate, degree); consequently, it is not surprising that Latinas comprise less than 2% of the nations science and engineering workforce (National Science Foundation, 2015). Subsequently, Latinas’ limited access to STEM credentials has significant consequences for our nation’s STEM labor pool.

Several researchers have investigated Latina underrepresentation in the STEM pipeline (Banda & Flowers, 2018; Leyva, 2016; Rincon & Lane, 2017; Rodriguez, Doran, Sissel, & Estes, 2019; Villa & Gonzalez, 2014). Latinas, like other Women of Color, experience STEM contexts through multiple markers of marginalization due to their gender and racial/ethnic identities. Scholars describe living at the intersection of multiple minor- itized statuses as experiencing a “double bind” (Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011). As for women of color, these experiences are often marked by a series of risk factors within the context of STEM, including experiencing isolation (Brown, 2008), alienation, and covert and overt forms of racism and sexism (Garriott et al., 2019). In the epigraph that begins this chapter, Juana describes how this marginalization is ubiquitous and further intensifies as Latinas make progress towards upper-division STEM course- work and beyond.

The emotional and psychological consequences for Latinas and other women of color, who constantly negotiate instances of racism and sexism in STEM environments, are well documented (Banda & Flowers, 2018; Gibson & Espino, 2016). Women employ a variety of coping strategies in response to these risk factors, including exercising agency (Ко, Kachchaf, Hodari, & Ong, 2014), self-isolation (Ко et al., 2014), and censoring or distancing themselves from their marginalized identities (Banda & Flowers, 2018; Gibson & Espino, 2016; Leyva, 2016). In fact, women construct a wide range of identities to navigate STEM environments: multidimensional, compartmentalized, and isolated identities. Women with multidimensional identities describe their identities as complex and intersectional (Cegile, 2011; Rodriguez, Friedensen, Marron, & Bartlett, 2019; Verdin & Godwin, 2018). Other women recount living fragmented lives where they compartmentalize aspects of their identities depending on the context (Gibson & Espino, 2016). Still others (mainly Latinas) construct isolated identities where their most salient identity is foregrounded (Banda & Flowers, 2018; Verdin & Godwin, 2018). Flow Latinas and other women of color make meaning of their identities has important implications for their persistence and success in STEM.

Resilience and Identity

While the extant literature focuses on how the social markers of Latinas and other women of color present unique “risk factors” in STEM that need to be overcome, more recently scholars have highlighted the ways in which social group membership may provide culturally specific forms of support and resources that minimize the risks that students encounter in STEM contexts (McGee & Spencer, 2012). In this way, students exhibit resilience when they draw on “protective processes (resources, competencies, talents, and skills) that sit within the individual” (Olsson, Bond, Burns, Vella-Brodrick, & Sawyer, 2003, p. 3). For example, McGee and Spencer (2012) describe how racial group membership (or racial identity') embodies the protective factors of family, group solidarity, and cultural knowledge. Similarly, Esteban-Guitart and Moll (2014) argue that identity reflects the culturally developed “funds of knowledge” that one accumulates through their lived experience. These funds of knowledge encompass all the “people, skills, knowledge, practices, and resources that people have acquired and now use through their involvement in various activities” (Esteban-Guitart & Moll, 2014, p. 37). In this way, we understand students’ social identities as a protective factor that facilitates resilience and leads to persistence in STEM.


The current study is informed by data gathered from a large, multi-year, complementarity sequential mixed-methods study (Greene, Caracelli, & Graham, 1989) funded by the National Science Foundation. The mixed- methods design for the larger study uses both quantitative and qualitative data to examine facets of the college experience and career decision-making processes for Students of Color in STEM fields (Greene et al., 1989). While the larger study aims to longitudinally investigate how Students of Color pursue STEM degrees, this sub-study aims to understand how Latinas pursuing STEM degrees understand and utilize their identities to persist in STEM. We specifically examine the following research questions: How do Latinos pursuing STEM degrees describe their identities? How do Latinas draw on their identities to persist in STEM?

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