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Girls and Women of Color In STEM: Navigating the Double Bind in K-12 Education

reviewed by Catherine Martin-Dunlop - April 29, 2021

coverTitle: Girls and Women of Color In STEM: Navigating the Double Bind in K-12 Education
Author(s): Barbara Polnick, Julia Ballenger, Beverly Irby, & Nahed Abdelrahman
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1648020976, Pages: 282, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

This book is a new volume in the Research on Women and Education series by Information Age Publishing, and is edited by Barbara Polnick, Beverly Irby, Julia Ballenger, and Nahed Abdelrahman. Its intent is to provide a collection of studies and program reports describing how K–12 environments can nurture girls and young women of color so that they experience personal enjoyment and academic success in STEM. With so many positive stories in this book as well as in many of the preceding volumes in the series, I cannot ignore the looming question in my mind: why, then, is “the STEM workforce [is] no more diverse now than in 2001,” as Foster references from Bidwell’s (2015) article in the Foreword (p. xi)? This book offers plenty of ideas on how to chip away at racial/ethnic-gender barriers. But more importantly, we need to know why these walls still exist. In this review, I summarize the scope of the book, highlight chapters that describe studies with particularly significant findings, point out some weaknesses, offer a recommendation on how readers can use the book, and, finally, circle back to the question asked above.

The book’s Foreword starts with a well-chosen quote by Oprah Winfrey from her 2018 Golden Globe Awards speech. Foster selected this quote because it connects the ‘Me Too’ movement and the ‘Silence Breakers’ collective force that originated in the entertainment industry with its obvious huge power inequity. Actresses, women writers and directors of color, as well as women STEM professionals must navigate around power inequities during their entire careers. A woman of color, whether a movie director or engineer, faces the same double bind that began for her in K–12 institutions. The Introduction that follows is not nearly as thought-provoking, but it does a satisfactory job of providing an overview of the 13 chapters.  

The book is then divided into two parts, with three chapters devoted to “building capacity outside the school walls” and ten to “building capacity inside the school walls.” There is considerable overlap between the two sections of the book, and I frequently wondered why a chapter was placed in a particular section. The editors state the first part deals with studies focusing on partnerships and professional development outside the school walls. However, Chapter 9, “African American Middle School Girls in a Community-Based Informal Program,” and Chapter 11, “Participation in the Advancing Out-of-School Learning in Mathematics and Engineering Project,” could have been included in Part I. With an imbalance in the number of chapters in each section, a fuzzy line between outside and inside school walls, and chapters perhaps in the incorrect section, I would have forgone designating two parts for the book in the first place.  

In an edited volume, the first chapter needs to be strong and showcase what is to come. I think the editors should have chosen either chapters 6 or 7 to set the stage for the remainder of the book. Chapter 6 is a well-written theoretical article titled “Black Women and Girls, Science Achievement, and Education Policy,” by Berry and Roby, focused on critical race feminism. Chapter 7 by Young and Young, titled “African American Female Achievement in STEM: AP Courses Provide a Different Story?” involves a secondary analysis of the College Board’s AP results for 97,745 African American high school girls. Their analysis uncovered some surprising results, one being that “The Physics C exam [electricity/magnetism] was one of the least attempted exams by the African American students…yet it was the exam with the highest mean score” (p. 113) compared to the other science AP exams such as biology.

A strength of this book is the inclusion of studies involving parents of color and other women who are key stakeholders and influencers in K–12 STEM education. Chapter 10, “Latina Parental Involvement” by Brkich et al., included one of the most significant statements in the entire book by saying “parental engagement with learning which happens outside of school and in everyday life may be even more important than traditional methods” (as cited in Baquedano-López et al., 2013) such as attending in-school parent–teacher meetings. The authors further indicate that “it is engagement with learning—not involvement in schooling—which stands most to benefit the child” (Brkich et al., 2020, p. 162). Chapter 1, by Larke et al., describes a summer conference that brought together parents, teachers, and administrators to share information about the academic achievement of Hispanic/Latina and African American girls in Texas in Grades 3, 4, and 5. Achievement results came from state standardized assessments for reading, mathematics, and science. Inclusion of the state’s achievement results were intended to complement the conference objectives. However, an excessive amount of confusing data from the assessments was presented in the beginning of the chapter that did not support the second half of the chapter describing the conference. Chapter 12, by West-Olatunji et al., describes how three high school counselors—one African American and two Caucasians—interact and advise low-income African American girls in science and mathematics. The authors point out that prior research involving counselors demonstrates their bias towards diverse students and lack of empowerment within their own school to positively influence girls of color. Because counselors are often critically important in helping students further their STEM education and make a successful transition from high school to college or university, I would have expected the sample size to be much larger.

Overall, this book will be a worthwhile addition to a college or university library, or to one’s personal collection. Potential readers should feel free to jump around the book and select chapters that seem most relevant to their interests. As with most edited volumes, each chapter stands alone, and therefore it is not necessary to read the book from beginning to end. Edited books just end. This is why I appreciate when editors write a concluding chapter that interweaves the common roots of the chapters. Editors’ reflections and insights can make connections, recommendations for future studies, and create a more satisfying closure to the book.

This book provides many excellent examples of programs and studies on how to tackle the double bind in K–12 education. But, as I asked at the beginning of this review, why do gender and racial/ethnic barriers still exist after decades of such programs? Maybe we need to drastically rethink and change strategies and government policies related to K–12 education. Politics continue to play an unwelcome role in the experiences of girls and young women of color in K–12 STEM education. As with the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Silence Breakers’ movements, we need to hear from courageous voices (e.g., Berry & Roby from Chapter 6) who are not afraid to get political and step on some toes in order to dismantle the wall.


Baquedano-López, P., Alexander, R., & Hernandez, S. (2013). Equity issues in parental and community involvement in schools: What teachers need to know. Review of Research in Education, 37(1), 149-182.


Bidwell, A. (2015, February 24). STEM workforce no more diverse than 14 years ago. U.S. News.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 29, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23685, Date Accessed: 5/14/2021 8:30:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Catherine Martin-Dunlop
    Morgan State University
    E-mail Author
    CATHERINE MARTIN-DUNLOP, Ph.D., is an associate professor of science education and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Her areas of research interest include the assessment and evaluation of STEM and bioenvironmental science learning environments, issues related to underrepresented women in STEM, and teaching improvement for faculty at colleges and universities. Recent publications include: “Uncovering stories of resilience among successful African American women in STEM” in Cultural Studies of Science Education with Ferguson (2020), and, “Linking phrases for concept mapping in introductory college biology” in the Journal of College Biology Teaching with Javonillo (2019). Martin-Dunlop is currently developing innovative courses for faculty so that they can measure a ‘continuous improvement’ process in their online teaching.
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