“I made it in engineering without help. They will too.” There is a problem, and They do need help!

“I made it in engineering without help. If these young women are meant to be engineers, they will too,” explained a female High School Engineering teacher. I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard this woman utter these words after I asked how she recruited and retained young women into her classes.  Assuming she ignored the shock and horror on my face, she quickly followed up with, “Nobody helped me, so why should I help them?” At this point I felt like the classroom floor would open up and swallow me whole. This woman was the antithesis of my mission. She was the reason I work so hard to educate, encourage, and empower young women and minorities to see engineering as a career option… but with educators with this attitude, does my effort just cancel out?

Amy Slaton provides a historical account of “Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering,” in her book by the same name. The book describes the history of the staunch racial divide and overt efforts to keep specifically African Americans (and some mention of females) out of engineering, all the way into the 21st century. The 21st century! As a white American, it is common that we (as in me and other white Americans) don’t like to think about race and the depths of the divides that still exist and cripple forward progress. Our world is happier when we keep our rose colored glasses on and think everything is just fine now, and no-one needs “help,” like the teacher believed in the story above. I contend, as does Amy Slaton, that we are not “there” yet. Engineering is not accessible to all, and is certainly not yet equitable for all, when it should be in this modern day and age.

Diversity & the Pipeline

“We need to increase the pipeline of students interested in STEM fields, but there is a leak in the pipeline, and there in lies our diversity problem!” Originating in the civil rights era, the concept of a pipeline supported the theory that elementary and secondary, more than postsecondary, education required address if America wished a more equitable occupational profile [pg 82].  How many ways have we heard or used this metaphor? Why does the  diversity in STEM, specifically engineering, matter? In looking specifically at racial diversity, three types of justifications have commonly appeared over the last 50 years: legal, economic, and social arguments [pp 6-7]. State and federal policies have provided for desegregation, urban renewal, affirmative action policies, and legal contests between institutions and excluded students.  Where social arguments are more for moral rather than strictly practical reasons, the most common argument is that of economics. We need an enlarged technical labor pool, and increasing the participation of all is key.

In looking at historical emphasis on diversity, blacks were assumed to fill one set of occupational roles, whites another. “That the former jobs were almost universally lower than the latter in pay, prestige, and intellectual challenge both justified and generated discriminatory racial ideologies [pg 21].” This was the work of white industrialists and politicians hoping to confine black citizens to the lowest echelons of economic participation. And it worked  – throughout the majority of the 20th century, and we still see the effects of this today.

Thus when we talk about diversity, according to Stanton, “more often, diversity is associated with an increased labor pool or access to a variety of problem-solving approaches, somehow embodied in women or people of color as groups thought likely to enhance America’s global technical performance [pg 204].” The author poses a big question in her conclusion: “How is it that industry, while eager for a diverse workforce, has not managed more effectively to empower the academy to provide that workforce? [pg 213];” however, “merely pointing to the economic benefits of a diverse workforce will not reveal the cultural root-system that maintains inequitable opportunities for black citizens [pg 214.” Thus the author’s goal was to instead point to the “cultural root-system” that enables an education system that continues to make engineering less accessible to black citizens, and provide recommendations for “helping” these students enter into and succeed in the field of engineering.

Through reading about the history of engineering education in Slaton’s book, I was introduced to the concept of qualified vs. qualifable and the tension between the two in higher engineering education admissions. Strict prerequisites in engineering schools have historically been the filter that excludes students, particularly black students, who did not possess the necessary prerequisites in coursework or test scores [pg 109]. This introduces a tremendous bias in and of itself. This qualified perspective assumes that all students have had access to the same quality of education, which introduces issues of class into the mix of racial ideologies. The qualified strategy, based on meritocracy, denied that race still functioned as a determinant of student’s life experiences [pg 171]. One  2002 study that Slaton highlighted, declared: “researchers find that African American, Hispanic, and American Indian students and women of all races/ethnicities are less likely than white or Asian males to be exposed to experiences and opportunities that are the precursors to membership in a scientific community [pg 180].” The qualified perspective considers the diversity of experience not as a measure of intelligence and ability, and allows for remediation, coaching, and groups that enable community not otherwise found in a typically all-white-male environment. University STEM programs currently select for students with a narrow set of educational experiences, and because education and economic background are so closely linked in the United States, true diversity in those sets of characteristics is lost [pg 213].

Despite three decades of efforts, participation of black students in engineering degrees is still very low (women too!). According to the latest NSF Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities report, in 2011, women earned only 12.9% of ALL engineering degrees (undergraduate and graduate) when women represent over 50% of the U.S. population, and Black students only 3.1% if ALL engineering degrees, when Blacks represent 13.1% of the U.S. population. (Population statistics from 2011 census data) While Slaton’s book focuses on participation of Black students in engineering, I find the lack of participation of women equally as shocking and find it strange that she practically dismisses women’s engineering participation as an issue in the opening chapter based on NACME data. Thus the pipeline metaphor can still be useful (along with a multitude of others) to exemplify that indeed elementary and secondary education are instrumental in preparing students for higher education, but just because a student doesn’t exit the pipeline at the right place, doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from additional support. The qualifiable perspective is the most inclusive approach that will be useful in meeting economic needs.

Believability Gap: Influencing Choice

Dean of Engineering at Prairie View A&M in Texas (A Historically Black College or University – HBCU), in the mid 1960s, Austin Greaux, brought high school students into contact with practicing engineers and instructors, as an effort to close the “believability gap” that had long dissuaded young African Americans from perceiving engineering as an attainable profession [pg 153]. Why is it viewed this way? When you consider status quo opinions such as that reported in 1937 by the Maryland Commission on the Higher Education of Negroes to the governor, it was historically believed that “blacks would tend toward rural lifestyles given the choice [pg 45].” This is the racial ideology previously discussed that enforced this mentality, and subsequently cultural guideline. A 1970 report about women concluded that few women experienced “unjustifiable discrimination” when attempting to enter the profession, but instead employers excluded women from engineering on the basis of “economically justified” reasons, on the fact that women commonly married, left a region when a husband received a job transfer, or experienced breakdowns in childcare arrangements. Slaton notes that the continued growth of the technology sector actually appears to depend on the preservation of inequitable social structures, “again associating social change with technological regress and economic risk [pg 110].” “But it does seem likely that if disadvantaged students percieve a discipline to be socially exclusive and thereby resistant to diversification, and what is more uninterested in its own social profile and therefore averse to change, they will be unlikely to seek careers in that discipline [pg 115].” The rejection of a concerted social focus has embedded habits of racial and gender exclusion in American engineering.

Associated with believability is identification with engineering. One theme amongst Staton’s analysis of the history of engineering education, was the notion of professional and personal identity of  engineers, most often that of practicality irregardless of a sense of self and others in relation to race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality [pg 205]. She posits that “rather than continue a long tradition in educational policy of treating students as input (re: pipeline?) we can probe the conditions under which student identity is shaped and constrained after arrival at the university [pg 210, content in parentheses added].” In addition she suggests that “if occupational identity represents a form of trust among insiders, as sociologists tell us, those who are not trusted can never achieve occupational status [pg 216],” which does NOT contribute to our stated diversity objectives.

Today, some 50 years post Geaux’s efforts, we are still working to close the “believability gap.” I work with educators across the country to improve public understanding of engineering, and teach teachers, counselors, parents, and engineers how to talk to students – specifically those underrepresented in engineering – about the value of an education and career in an engineering field. If these embedded social structures and racial ideologies didn’t still exist, perhaps it wouldn’t be necessary and I would be out of a job, but the fact of the matter is: young women and students of color do not regularly and actively believe engineering is a career for them and we must “help” these students believe. If we want to increase the diversity in engineering, we must not adopt the attitude that “I made it in engineering without help; they will too.” Those that persisted despite the odds are the special cases, and we need more participation than the special cases!

Final Thoughts

As it turns out, the woman in my initial story does not stand alone in her opinion. Slaton writes about Texas A&M University at the turn of the century (yes – 12 years ago): “Not all engineering faculty at TAMU accepted the premise that increased attention to minority participation held benefits for the institution, the profession, or for society at large. As one administrator recalls, some faculty objected to the provision of special support for students deemed to be disadvantaged, since they themselves had “made it” in the profession without any such help [pg 180].” Not to be so dramatic, but this severe lack of empathy is utterly frustrating to me. As a Texan raised in the same corner of the state as TAMU, I am ashamed to be tangentially associated with such narrow-mindedness. (TAMU to this day has just barely more than 2% Black students out of the entire University population.)

Females and minorities DO need our help. They need our help to believe engineering is available to them. They need our help developing their identity as an engineer. They need our help to prepare themselves for a biased – however implicit or explicit – engineering industry that is not accustomed to their presence. They need our help to rebuke the embedded racial ideologies and socially exclusive nature of engineering. Females and minorities make great engineers, and I take it as my job (and I hope you do too) to provide access and equity for all!

“[Women and minorities] have the talent, it only needs to be engaged, encouraged, nurtured, and prepared.” Shirley Ann Jackson, Physicist and President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Reference: Slaton, A. E. (2010). Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in US Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line, Harvard University Press.

Readers Chime In

Do you think women and minorities need our help accessing engineering?
Update 11/1/12 – A comment from one of my professors, Alice Pawley, in pushing me to see the larger structure of privilege… She’s brilliant, and helping me to really understand race, gender and class theories.
In your ending, you attribute the attitude of “I made it without help” as an issue of lack of empathy.  I disagree – I think it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about privilege, about how structures function in raced ways without the awareness of privileged groups.  Those folks actually *did* get help – help they didn’t ask for, help they didn’t earn, help they got just the same by being in a privileged class.  And help they didn’t just get from “nice people” but from the systems of rules that we operate under in our communities and our country.  

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