Skip to main content

Fay Cobb Payton on Boosting the Visibility of Women of Color in STEMM

headshot of Fay Cobb Payton (bald woman in white blazer against white backdrop)
AAAS Member Fay Cobb Payton, Ph.D.

When AAAS tapped member Fay Cobb Payton, Ph.D., to create a panel discussion for its 2023 Annual Meeting in March, the industrial and systems engineer, entrepreneur, speaker and consultant, saw it as a chance to infuse humanity into the sciences. Payton, whose background is in industrial engineering and computing, has written more than 150 peer-viewed journal and conference publications, much of which focuses on health care information technology, AI/data bias and tech representation. She is also the author of “Leveraging Intersectionality: Seeing and Not Seeing.” 

Based on Payton’s experience as the former National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Computer Information Science and Engineering (CISE) program director, she knew exactly who she wanted on her panel and turned to the only other Black women to hold the same position that she did. Calling them her fellow sisters, Payton contacted Pamela McCauley, Ph.D., now professor and associate dean at North Carolina State University; Michelle Rogers, Ph.D., an associate professor at Drexel University; and Tonya Smith-Jackson, Ph.D., currently professor and provost of North Carolina A&T State University. Together, they hosted “Four Black Women Leaders in STEM: Who Gets to Lead, Innovate and Participate?” at the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting. The group discussed the boldness of bias, how women of color can reach senior leadership levels and use lived experiences as valid data in practice.

“This falls back to the question of who gets to innovate, and in our presentation, what we talked about was why there is a need for us to be there, respected and heard leaders,” Payton recaps. “And first, I want to say that we are scientists which is often forgotten; we also recognize the inclusion and equity piece that comes along with that. When we’re present, there’s just more attention to the needs of diversification in the portfolio.”

One of the things the panel zeroed in on was the notion of encouragement—taking an asset-based perspective in science versus one that’s deficit based. An asset-based mindset centers on strengths, opportunities or positive outcomes, while a deficit-based perspective focuses on needs, or perceived weaknesses in individuals or groups, making these individuals or groups the problem. Payton further emphasized scientists of color should never dwell on or wonder what they bring to the table. 

“You are not there to confirm the status quo, you are there to add a voice that may not be in the room, so use it,” Payton urged.

Payton now consults for a range of public and private practices, including Fortune 500 companies and smaller technology firms, and conducts research-related projects on new STEM initiatives. Currently, she’s working on a consensus study for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report centers on advancing anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion in STEMM organizations and will include antiracist recommendations that advance diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The idea is to include historical context of current STEMM organizations, having a place where we can use demographics and put them in one place from multiple sources, and exploring the lived experiences,” Payton explains. “It looks at gatekeeping, power and how it perpetuates racism, looking at diverse teams and what leaders can do.”

A presentation she gave about the project homed in on the importance of minority-serving institutions—Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and Tribal Colleges and Universities—and as national resources. She talked about how those institutions provide pathways to STEMM careers for people of color at higher percentages than predominantly white institutions, despite the lack of parity in funding.

This project is an extension of the research that Payton started in 2019 while she was a director at the NSF. “Transforming Trajectories for Women of Color in Tech,” a national study she commissioned, documented the continued longstanding underrepresentation of women of color in the tech ecosystem at all levels, despite years of diversity programs and other efforts. In some cases, the numbers of some groups actually declined. Payton says the research showed that there were structural and social barriers in education, the workforce and venture capitalism that disproportionately affected women of color.

“Wanting to do better is one thing, but having the will to do it, that comes down to an accountability issue,” Payton adds. “So, wanting might be great, but it takes more than wanting to have systemic change.”

Looking forward, Payton has no plans of slowing down: “I am proud of the former students that I have been able to help navigate the STEM experience. Many have earned doctoral degrees, completed medical and law school, become entrepreneurs, and/or lead in Fortune 500 tech or tech-enabled organizations. I continue to meet with them and know that I cultivated current and future innovators!”