Until the ’60s, after the United States Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, students of color had no choice but to attend poorly funded schools and were unable to pursue higher education. Today, most marginalized students still attend schools that have historically received less funding and resources. These students often have less access to advanced math and science classes that students may need in order to pursue higher education in a STEM field.
According to the American Society for Engineering Education, of the engineering bachelor degree recipients in 2017, only 11.1% were Latinx and 4.1% were Black, despite making up around 18% and 13% of the population respectively. Due to gender stereotypes, women are also underrepresented, with only 21.9% of engineering bachelor degree recipients being women.
“Engineering and computing are some of the most white, male, heterosexual fields,” Dara Naphan-Kingery, social psychologist and postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University, said. “It’s an exclusive environment that can be chilly and unwelcoming for anybody who’s not a white male, heterosexual, [or] middle class.”
The lasting effect of segregated schools perpetuates the idea that Latinx students and Black students don’t belong in the field of engineering. Alongside many other factors, such as possibly coming from a low-income family, being a first generation college student, or being a woman in STEM, students coming from underrepresented backgrounds pursuing engineering higher education contend with microaggressions and identity struggles.
“Microaggressions build up over time,” Naphan-Kingery said. “Even though they may seem insignificant in the moment, over time they can accumulate and [become] really damaging.”
“Microaggressions build up over time. Even though they may seem insignificant in the moment, over time they can accumulate and [become] really damaging.”
— Dara Naphan-Kingery, social psychologist and researcher
Microaggressions are indirect comments, behaviors, or conditions that show prejudice toward someone from a marginalized group. In a study on the effect of microaggressions for Black students in engineering doctoral programs, the students questioned their belonging and identity as a result of prejudice from being underrepresented in their program or in their field.
“Just looking around and not seeing other people who look like you, whether it’s your peers or your teachers, can be very psychologically damaging,” Naphan-Kingery, who also authored this study, explained. “In a sense it can make you feel like, ‘Wait, do I even belong here? Am I cut out for this?’”
A fairly common practice for BIPOC students is to count how many other students in their class they identify with, which can often make them feel isolated or like they don’t belong due to a lack of representation. Some even feel an exceptional pressure to succeed as a result.
Underrepresented students also grapple with the prejudiced behaviors and comments from their peers.
“It gets harder if you’re a woman of color too,” Dena Sahba, a Middle Eastern undergraduate student studying Human Centered Design & Engineering, said. “I’ve had friends who’ve been in positions where it’s like ‘Oh, you only got into this thing because you’re a Latina’ [even though I am not].”
These behavioral microaggressions can also include marginalized students being chosen last for group projects, or other students being surprised when they receive a good grade. They may lead students from underrepresented communities to feel they have to prove their intellectual abilities more so than their other fellow students. It can also lead to feelings of discomfort surrounding unintentionally standing out. As a result of this discomfort, students may struggle with their identities.
“A lot of times, the students feel like they might have to split up their identity in a way … where they’re prioritizing their STEM or science identity over their racial identity or their gender identity in order to feel like they fit into that space,” Naphan-Kingery said.
One big difference is that students of color are more likely to be interested in social justice issues compared to their fellow students.
“When I’m with my engineering friends, we don’t really talk about any social issues that are going on,” Elizabeth Murillo, an undergraduate studying Mechanical Engineering, said. “They take it either as a joke or just brush it off … so it’s very different from any other group of friends that I have.”
Sahba was grateful that her major incorporates social and ethical issues into the curriculum because she expected that she wouldn’t get to learn about those topics as an engineering student.
Integrating social justice topics into engineering education can show students how they can make a difference with their degree, which would better cater to intersectional interests, rather than strictly studying chemistry or physics. This could prevent marginalized students from dropping out of engineering, especially when questioning whether they belong, as this form of STEM education recognizes the experiences of BIPOC. In addition, teaching engineers about topics like microaggressions and critical race theory can help marginalized students identify their experiences, Naphan-Kingery explained.
In addition, teaching engineers about topics like microaggressions and critical race theory can help marginalized students identify their experiences.
Besides integrating more social justice issues into engineering curriculum, mentorship programs have also been useful for underrepresented students because mentors can validate a student’s racial, gender, or cultural identity with their academic identity, as well as provide them with academic and professional support.
It’s important to address underrepresentation in engineering because repeated microaggressions continue the cycle of students feeling unwelcome in these academic spaces. With the way engineering and technology permeate our lives today and often perpetuate historical inequities, marginalized communities should also hold power in these spaces, and this starts within the education system.
Last updated 9/30/20
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