Study Shows Men Who Are Straight, White, and Able-Bodied Find Privilege in STEM Fields

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A new study by University of Michigan sociology professor Erin Cech has found that men who are straight, White, and able-bodied receive better treatment in STEM fields, which could have an impact on the ability to recruit and retain diverse professionals. The privileges afforded to this group include better pay, more career opportunities, social inclusion, and general respect, according to the study report, titled “The Intersectional Privilege of White Able-Bodied Heterosexual Men [WAHM] in STEM.”

“These results have important theoretical and empirical implications for STEM inequality scholarship,” the report states. “They show that the benefits in workplace inclusion, respect, and rewards that WAHM enjoy cannot be fully (or even mostly) accounted for by differences in education level, sector, field, job characteristics, or work effort. Thus, these privileges cannot be dismissed as merely meritocratic rewards for more training, greater work devotion, or divergent employment circumstances among WAHM compared with their peers.”

The study examines 32 demographic characteristic combinations of 25,000 full-time STEM professionals in the U.S. and how they factor into the following six categories: 

  • Average annual salary 
  • Career advancement opportunities 
  • Experience of harassment at work
  • Experience of professional respect at work
  • Persistence intentions
  • Social inclusion in the workplace 

WAHM ranked highest in each category, while LGBTQ+ Black women scored lowest in almost all of them. Latinx and Native American women who are LGBTQ+ ranked lowest in average annual salaries. 

STEM organizations and institutions should use the findings to re-examine their diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies, according to the report. When evaluating their policies, these employers should not look at disadvantaged workers in a vacuum but rather from the position that one group’s overwhelming privilege leads to negative outcomes for every other demographic.

“From a policy perspective, efforts to address STEM inequality must tackle mechanisms of privilege as well as disadvantage,” Cech writes. “Most organizational and institutional efforts to reduce inequality seek to address disadvantages faced by marginalized and minoritized persons in STEM as though they were variants from a neutral baseline, without explicitly attending to the cultural, structural, and institutional systems that may unfairly advantage WAHM over all others.”

This article was published in our September 2022 issue.