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Being a Latina in STEM is a catalyst for a volley of challenges foreign to other demographics, but it also comes with its advantages. The underrepresentation of Latinas in science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields is a growing concern within the Latin American community in the United States. With only three percent being represented in STEM fields, they remain a largely untapped pool of potential talent. 

Associate professor of information systems at NC State, Fay Cobb Payton, recently published a book titled Leveraging Intersectionality, on what could be done to make STEM more inclusive. In a short interview with Matt Shipman of The Abstract: NC State’s research blog, Payton described the effect of exclusion in the workforce and the importance of diversity.

“There is research that says exclusion is a competitive workforce issue for this country, and I believe that,” Payton said. “I also believe that the talents of the groups that are excluded and what they have to offer – in terms of problem-solving, approaches to a problem, adding to the creativity that spawns innovation – that’s dampened.”

Yaseline Muñoz, a junior studying industrial engineering, doesn’t believe she was exposed to enough female leaders in STEM in her hometown of Asheboro, North Carolina.

“You didn’t really see any women in leadership; you’d see more women in leadership in education or if they owned their own hair salon,” Muñoz said. “It wasn’t until I got here that I started seeing women in STEM who were also in leadership roles.” She also noted the demographics in engineering classes made an impact on her participation. 

“I have to say, sometimes you do feel a little uncomfortable with being the only female in a 

classroom,” Muñoz said. “I did discover recently that I am less likely to participate in my math and science classes than in other classes.” 

Furthermore, Latina engineering students are not being encouraged to continue with their course of studies, and those who are, are earning 55 cents to the dollar of their male non-Latino counterparts for the same job being performed after graduation, according to the Center for American Progress.

To the Latinas who decide to continue, the outcome is well worth the initial struggle, despite the inequalities that still exist in the workforce. For Jessica Perianza, a junior studying industrial engineering and president of NC State’s chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, being a first generation college student is important for her as she carves a path and leads her brother and cousins to hope for a brighter future.

 “Deciding to become an engineer is the best decision I’ve made for mine and my family’s future,” Perianza said. While she is very comfortable being one of the few Latinas in her major, she added, “I would definitely like to have more Latinas interested in STEM, and through my involvement in SHPE and local volunteering I’m hoping to work towards that.”

For other students, there still exists a level of personal internal conflicts when it comes to self-labeling and finding a multifaceted identity within a higher education community. Samantha Peart, a senior studying marine science, notes that her experiences add diversity in the classroom without singling her out. 

“As a Latina, we are below minorities,” Peart said. “I have a different experience than the other women in the room, but it hasn’t been terrible. I don’t feel singled out. I don’t feel like the only Latina student in the room. I just feel like a student.”