Where are all of the black women in STEM?


Meghan Krein

The absence of black women in STEM is not unique to South Africa. The U.S. and U.K. face the same challenge but, Yeukai Angela Mlambo, postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College says, “In South Africa it’s particularly curious given black women are the majority of the population, hold more engineering graduate degrees than white women and the country is more than 20 years post-apartheid.”

This made Mlambo wonder: If black women are qualified to pursue engineering academic careers, why are they not choosing them? And, how can we encourage young black women to pursue academic careers if they don’t see people who look like them in those positions?

Mlambo, who was awarded the 2018 dissertation award from the Comparative and International Educational Society’s Higher Education Special Interest Group for her piece entitled, “Why Not Academia? – The Streamlined Career Choice Process of Black African Women Engineers: A Grounded Theory Study” wanted to share black women’s stories, while also creating a theory explaining their lives more appropriately than existing mainstream theories that were not created with these women in mind. She was able to do both.

Uncovering hidden figures

Yeukai Mlambo

Born from an interest in and enthusiasm for women succeeding in male-dominated spaces, such as engineering, Mlambo’s dissertation used a constructivist grounded theory approach to trace the career trajectories of black African women engineers in South Africa.

Mlambo says in South Africa, despite representing over 90 percent of the female population, black women collectively are absent in engineering academic careers. “This absence is often attributed to black women’s limited competency or disinterest,” says Mlambo, adding, “So, I wanted to provide an empirically-based counter-story to shed light on the various contextual and organizational mechanisms that not only discourage and withhold information about higher education but also streamline black African women toward careers in the industry.”

Career pathways are complex and Mlambo says she wanted to give these women a voice to tell their own stories. “If faculty diversity is to be achieved, understanding how marginalized populations make their choices and are often tracked out of higher education is important as it informs recruitment and retention efforts.”

Mlambo’s dissertation offers an alternative explanation for black women’s underrepresentation in higher education showing how it’s systemic social and institutional factors — not individual incompetency — that lead black women away from academic careers. Her work also raises important questions about the uncritical use and transferability of mainstream Western theories in international and comparative research to explain phenomena in different geopolitical spaces, particularly when those theories were not created with those populations in mind.

A commitment to improve and serve

In her role at CASGE, Mlambo leads the monitoring, evaluation and learning component of three Mastercard Foundation grants which ASU was awarded. She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology and research psychology, respectively, from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Mlambo then returned to the U.S. and earned her doctoral degree in higher, adult and lifelong education from Michigan State University.

Mlambo was born in the U.S. and is an American citizen, but identifies as Zimbabwean. “That is my family heritage and where I was raised before my family moved to South Africa 14 years ago,” she says. Mlambo returned to the states in 2012 to pursue a doctoral degree and was later drawn to ASU, she says, “because of its commitment to international education and because it’s one of the best places for individuals working on international education topics.”

Recently, Mlambo collaborated with ASU Professors Aryn Baxter, Molly Ott and Jeongeun Kim to launch the Higher Education Internationalization Learning Community, which brings together faculty, students and staff from across ASU in an effort to advance interdisciplinary scholarship, share knowledge among scholars and practitioners, and enhance ASU’s practice of higher education internationalization.

Professor and CASGE Director Iveta Silova, says this initiative is a part of the larger internationalization strategy of the college. “Yeukai’s contributions to this university-wide initiative is a phenomenal illustration of her commitment to bridging the theory-practice dichotomy in higher education. Her work does not stop with research and publications. As soon as Yeukai arrived at ASU, she rolled up her sleeves and jumped in to help us understand the changing landscape of higher education and engage in internationalization initiatives in more effective and meaningful ways.”

Asked what is her biggest career achievement, Mlambo says winning this award is — by far. “The Comparative and International Educational Society is such a large education space, and to receive this award is an acknowledgment that my work is important and valued. It motivates me to keep working to improve higher education and the experiences and outcomes of the people in these spaces who we serve and who serve us.”

Next on Mlambo’s to-do list? Turning her dissertation into a book.