Social Justice, Law, and STEM: Bridging Traditional, Legal Pursuits with Science and Technology

By: Earvin Poon

Traditionally, law students who wish to pursue a career focused on social justice would restrict their legal specialization in areas such as criminal or constitutional law. Areas such as science and technology are viewed as too business-focused, but these traditionally overlooked areas are the forefront of today’s social justice issues. No one doubts the importance of science and technology, and because of their pervasiveness in society that one should not be surprised that social justice issues have also found their way into such areas.

First Amendment and Social Media

Digital fluency and social media, areas that one might associate exclusively with business, have become some of society’s most hotly debated topics with respect to First Amendment rights and free speech.

Without question, society is dependent on technology. Technology’s value is so great that the World Economic Forum considers digital fluency one of the core qualities necessary for a child to succeed in the future.[1] With digital fluency comes social media platforms, which the Supreme Court of the United States has touted as “one of the most important places to exchange views . . . .”[2] In other words, social media has become the modern-day, public forum. And as today’s public forum, private companies that own the social media platforms have become arbiters of free speech. Effectively, “these private actors are analogous to a governmental actor.”[3] Although the First Amendment does not extend to social media for various reasons,[4] the existence of such debate between First Amendment, freedom of speech, and technology highlights an overlooked reality. Social justice is not bound to criminal and constitutional law. Areas that social justice-minded attorneys tend to ignore may well be areas that need the greatest attention.

Bridging STEM and Social Justice

Although traditionally separated, social justice should be viewed as intertwined with STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math–such that to neglect STEM is to neglect social justice.

Between May 2009 and May 2015, employment in STEM occupations grew more than twice than that of non-STEM occupations.[5] Of STEM occupations in May 2015, computer occupations and engineers made up sixty-four percent of STEM employment.[6] Given that computer occupations and engineering depend on mathematical literacy, to be mathematically literate would give a child the best opportunity in today’s job market. But how does math relate to social justice? “The vast majority of students being filtered out of mathematics . . . are underprivileged, underserved and underrepresented youth.”[7] Therefore, math and its illiteracy are reflections of social and economic inequity.[8]

Besides closing social and economic stratification, the advancement of STEM would advance workplace diversity. How? A 2015 McKinsey & Company report indicated that diversity is linked to a company’s success.[9] According to the report’s data, “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity [are] 15 percent more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median, and the companies in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity [are] 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median . . . .”[10] Plainly stated, diversity is correlated with company performance.

Every company today wants to be a tech company,[11] and this creates a high demand for attorneys with STEM backgrounds.[12] By being a part of the tech and business world, such attorneys will indirectly encourage the growth of STEM as they add value to their companies. By growing businesses related to STEM, these attorneys will also promote social justice values since the growing technology market will increase the need for workers with math backgrounds which encourages support for the underprivileged; and, a strive for better business performance will likely lead to an increase in a company’s diversity.

By redefining how social justice can best be served, law students who wish to pursue a social justice career will find that alternative paths exist outside of criminal and constitutional law.

[1] Andrea Willige, How Do We Make Sure Our Children Are Fluent in Digital?, World Economic Forum (Jan. 04, 2017), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/ways-to-prepare-kids-for-jobs-of-future/.

[2] Packingham v. North Carolina, 137 S.Ct. 1730, 1732 (2017).

[3] David L. Hudson, Jr., In the Age of Social Media, Expand the Reach of the First Amendment, American Bar Association, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/the-ongoing-challenge-to-define-free-speech/in-the-age-of-socia-media-first-amendment/ (last visited Nov. 01, 2019).

[4] Benjamin F. Jackson, Censorship and Freedom of Expression in the Age of Facebook, 44 N.M.L. Rev. 121, 154 (2014).

[5] Stella Fayer et al., STEM Occupations: Past, Present, And Future 7 (2017).

[6] Id. at 2.

[7] Dr. Gina Cherkowski, Why Math and STEM Education Is a Social Justice Issue, Getting Smart (June 03, 2019), https://www.gettingsmart.com/2019/06/why-math-and-stem-education-is-a-social-justice-issue/; Laura Betancur et al., Socioeconomic Gaps in Science Achievement, Int’l J. STEM Educ., Oct. 2018, at 1, 1.

[8] Id.

[9] Vivian Hunt et al., Diversity Matters 3 (2015).

[10] Id.

[11] John D. Stoll, Every Company Wants to Become a Tech Company–Even if It Kills Them, The Wall Street Journal (Mar. 08, 2019, 10:00 am ET), https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-nail-or-fail-the-pivot-to-tech-11552057210.

[12] Mark A. Cohen, Wanted: STEM Graduates for the Legal Industry — And Some Reasons They’re Not Applying, Forbes (July 24, 2017, 7:16 am), https://www.forbes.com/sites/markcohen1/2017/07/24/wanted-stem-graduates-for-the-legal-industry-and-some-reasons-theyre-not-applying/#5ca87bc12b72.

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