Today’s technology is constantly being created and innovated, and it does not look like that will slow down anytime soon. Engineers are one of the main driving forces when it comes to making these new and innovative technologies, however, it is majorly dominated by men. Even more so, the industry has a lack of minorities in general and has been that way for a long time. This brings the question of why there is a lack of minorities and women, specifically Black women, in the field of engineering.
Within the past 100 years in American history, women and Black people have barely overcome adversities that denied them basic rights that White men have benefitted from forever.
Even with this progress, Black women have still faced discrimination and have been left behind and discouraged. Systematic oppression affects Black female engineers and we must understand how this happens in order to find solutions to this roadblock. It almost goes without saying that race and gender plays the primary factors in this disparage, with the thoughts of Black inferiority and lack of support for women to do engineering.
The support from collegiate faculty and administration from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) also plays a part in women continuing Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) degrees.
If you visit a college campus, go to any engineering class, on any given day, and there is no doubt that the room will be full of mostly men. Being one of the biggest stereotypes about engineering, there are not very many women that pursue a degree in this field and graduate.
So why is it that women do not graduate with, or more so continue pursuing, a degree in engineering? Why is it that the men to women ratio of engineers in the United States has a large gap? A study was conducted by the National Center for Engineering and Technology Education that investigated factors that affect women in engineering such as support they receive to make it through the degree (Duncan & Zeng, 2005). The study focused on topics such as career goals, gender, and alienation and how it plays a part in women pursuing an engineering degree.
The study was constructed to find differences between women who remained in the program past the second year, completed the program, and remained in the engineering field for at least two years and those who did not. Interviews were done with 14 persisters, those who stayed, and 5 switchers, those who changed majors, to determine what themes were prominent to make or break the decision to stay.
The major themes that were found are formal support programs, job opportunities, motivation, peer-support, personal interests in engineering, self-confidence, and stress coping skills.
Being the most positive experience, formal support programs was major source to both persisters and switchers. Women only organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, Women in Engineering, and Alpha Epsilon Omega helped to be supportive because of opportunities interacting with women who are engineers, professional development, and networking.
As with a lot of people that chose engineering, both switchers and persisters chose the discipline due to career being well paid. This is something that kept the persisters going strong to stay with the major, however, switchers did not believe the financial outcome was not worth the struggle they faced.
Motivation. With the industry constantly growing, jobs are too, so having a stable job was a big motivation that helped persisters. Although, even with a promising stable career field, switchers were not motivated by this to continue. Having an interest in engineering can also be a killer in motivation for switchers.
Restraining Forces. While there were many themes that mainly kept women in engineering, there were also themes that ultimately caused women to switch. One of the main discouraging factors would be conceptual difficulty as some women were not able to understand the material well enough. Students also did not interact with each other as much causing feelings of isolation on the troubles faced. The stereotype of there being few women in engineering intimidated switchers due to there being only one other women in their classes. The courses being rigorous caused pressure for those being concerned on staying on track for a timely graduation and risk of being kicked out of their programs for failing to pass. The most discouraging factor in pursuing the degree would be weed-out courses, which both persisters and switchers agreed upon.
Despite the success of organizations geared towards women and positive themes, there is still a lack of female engineers. The good quality themes can drive success in support of women, and bad quality themes can harm success, hence a variety of factors play part in the success of women. Nonetheless, colleges and universities should keep and continue to grow programs that are in support of women as they are still a good place to work from.
It is no surprise that Black Americans have been historically looked down upon and intentionally left behind in many aspects. When it comes to there being a lack of Blacks in engineering careers compared to White people, it is not that much of a surprise in the ratio difference. In analyzing why this is the case, it is important to look at the history of Black scientists and inventors, along with programs created to help more Blacks to pursue degrees in engineering.
An interesting fact most people are unaware of is the number of Black scientists, engineers, and inventors that have made scientific and technological advancements as far back as the mid-1860’s! Unsurprisingly, these pioneers did not receive credit for their work until after slavery. In 1984 Blacks accounted for 90,500 out of 3,995,000 employed scientists and engineers (Johnson & Watson, 2005). If Blacks have contributed to various technological advancements, why is there such a low number of scientist and engineers?
Education. In the nations early history there was a move to get more Blacks educated. This is prominent because this movement was before slaves were freed. By 1860 there were 32,629 Blacks in schools and some who moved on to higher education. Even in the South free and current slaves had the opportunity for education. This is not as great as it sounds, however, because White Southerners still considered Blacks inferior and that education was for the upper class. So separate, and unequal, schools were created to “keep Blacks as subservient” (Johnson & Watson, 2005). Another prevalent factor was funding education for Black schools, which was significantly less than what White schools received. This still is seen today with most predominantly White schools, which are normally in nicer neighborhoods, being more funded than predominantly Black schools.
Inventors. Slaves who invented devices to help with their work were not able to receive credit for their ideas because of their race. Black slaves who wanted their inventions to be successful did not disclose their race. On the other hand, free slaves could get patents such as Norbert Rillieux, who created a new way for sugar refinement. Other notable works by Blacks includes a machine to sew the top and bottom parts of shoes together (Jan Matzeliger), a telegraph to communicate between train stations (Granville T. Woods), and an automatic way to continuously lubricate moving machine parts (Elijah McCoy). Even with these inventions, and more not mentioned above, the lack of recognition and respect discouraged Black inventors and scientists.
Even with desegregated schools and more educational opportunities, Blacks still are not engaging in rigorous math and science courses and, even at times, discouraged away from taking them. Additional setbacks for Blacks in engineering includes lack of inclusion from social networks and knowledge about the scientific community. In studies on a program at the University of Maryland that was geared towards minorities going into STEM courses, it was shown that Black students were twice as likely to get a STEM degree (Stolle-McAlliste, 2011).
Programs like these, also known as summer bridge, are made to integrate students into the college life they will be experiencing in 1 to 2 years. Specifically, these summer bridge programs are important to Black students to get them accustomed to campus, the degree field, creating larger social circles and other networking opportunities. From participating in the University of Maryland summer bridge program students learned the rigor of courses to expect in college, skills to communicate with each other more effectively, and visited companies seeing what type of work they can expect. While programs like this does help greatly for Black STEM potentials, it is not an ultimate solution to increasing black engineers.
The failure on keeping Black female engineers oppressed goes beyond their color and gender. Faculty and administrators, primarily at HBCUs, play a large role in encouraging Black women and are crucial to guiding and inspiring students. A study was done to see if senior level administrators played a part in the success of Black women in STEM (Gasman, Lockett, & Nguyen, 2018). Women earn 30 percent of undergraduate degrees in STEM, while Black women are the most disenfranchised of female minorities. Historical thoughts about Black women being weak still carry over to today, keeping them unintentionally in a stagnant state of no progress. However, attending HBCUs can be more encouraging for them to complete a STEM degree.
HBCUs offer a family like environment, interconnecting students, faculty, and administration with each ultimately helping the student towards their degree. It is essential for faculty and administration to provide a community for students, especially for Black women. They play a part in shaping the opportunities and success of their students, not just managing them. The study looked at how much help Black women STEM majors felt the administrators encouraged them, which was based off interviews with Black women and HBCU presidents.
Studies found that the students did notice when the administration encouraged them and were motivated. Students felt more welcome, were more comfortable with approaching the faculty, and felt success with their fields due to attentiveness to what they need. On the president’s end of things, they know their responsibility goes beyond the management level. The concern that needs to be address for further improvement would be other levels of administration needing to be more involved with the students, and not just for HBCUs, but all universities.
The factors that end up oppressing Black female engineers involve lack of representation and support for the intersectional areas of being a woman and being black. Another factor that continues the oppression is the lack of support and guidance from most faculty and administrative levels of colleges and universities. There are areas where Black women are being supported and receiving help to succeed in the colligate and professional world of engineering, but we are still a long way from them and other minority women, being on par with white women, and overall on par with male engineers. The best way to get to this point would be to continue programs to showcase STEM as an option for all students, and that it is not an impossible dream to achieve.