Stories that inform: Obstacles to black female engineers

Recent federal mandates around affirmative action and United States President Joe Biden’s plans for student debt cancellation have put higher education at the forefront of many people’s minds in the US.

During these discussions, there is often heated debate about race, occupational prestige and who deserves support. Absent in these debates are discussions about how structural conditions limit opportunities for certain populations. For instance, engineering remains a highly inaccessible field for black students, especially black women.

Research shows that less than 1% of all bachelor degrees in engineering are awarded to black women.

While valuable research is being conducted about this topic across the country, key stakeholders may not always have the opportunity to dive into this work. We argue that an emergent pathways model can bridge the gap between important academic research and the decision-makers who can support specific student groups.

A five-part model

We have titled our model “Blooming Pathways” which has five parts describing:

• Well-resourced and high-performing students;
• Under-resourced and high-performing students;
• Students with an unconventional route to engineering;
• Students with competing responsibilities outside of engineering; and
• Under-resourced and under-supported students.

In summary, our model is mainly about increasing the visibility of publicly accessible research and highlighting the different stories of black women in engineering.

Blooming Pathways offers an accessible and succinct summary of research for higher education stakeholders. Faculty, advisors and department administrators can reference the model when designing support programmes for black women in the field.

We have found similar research and intervention models in Ethiopia’s iCog Anyone Can Code, Kenya’s Nia Project and the Rwandan Association for Women in Science and Engineering.

Research like this is important because we need diversity in the workforce. A diverse workforce will serve the different needs of companies and society in this ever-changing time.

In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic and movements such as Black Lives Matter have pushed many companies to evolve their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies. It is no longer enough to have a mere plan or theoretical promise regarding race. More than 70 big companies like Airbnb, Bank of America, Bloomberg and Coca-Cola have set gender diversity targets.

DEI is especially important for companies to attract and retain Generation Z, the soon-to-be most populous generation in history. Without diversity, our country cannot meet its growing workforce needs, especially in a relatively homogenous field like engineering.

Making research accessible

Written in plain language, using a creative analogy, and published in open-access platforms, research models such as Blooming Pathways help make academic research more accessible to a wider audience.

Critical academic literature is often paywalled to readers who are not affiliated with university libraries. While open-access journals, such as PLOS ONE, are helping to alleviate this issue, the vast majority of articles are not accessible.

We address this issue by publishing our major research findings on a publicly accessible portfolio website. Additionally, traditional academic scholarship is also often filled with jargon and technical terminology. Being cognisant of this, we have collaborated with a talented artist, Naily Nevarez, to show our work in a flower motif that is a nod to the desert landscape our institution, Arizona State University, is located in.

Telling stories

Finally, we need to acknowledge different stories of black women. As there are more visible stories within the minoritised student population, we have to be conscious of cherry-picking. Blooming Pathways addresses this problem directly.

Based on interviews with 45 undergraduate black women students in engineering, we have found so many colourful stories. There were relatively privileged students who benefitted from taking Advanced Placement classes and went straight to college. Some had much fewer resources but utilised strategies to persist through microaggressions and discrimination in the engineering field.

Others took unconventional routes to engineering, for example, by going from high school to community college and to university. Students with competing academic responsibilities, obligations for caring for family members and financial constraints, had to work in jobs outside academia to cover their bills.

To be sure, some might argue that our pathways model is not equitable. Critics of our work may want us to instead focus on meritocracy. However, a race-evasive approach, one of the basic assumptions of meritocracy, obscures the structural oppressions inevitable for marginalised students in this country.

Furthermore, merit is an abstract concept. A recent study has discovered that company managers tend to view merit based on their previous experiences as an employee before their promotion. Due to the fact that not everyone perceives it the same way, it actually has the potential to hinder talent acquisition.

We know that black women are underrepresented in the workforce, making up only 27% of STEM workers. Considering the intersectionality of the challenges black women navigate in gendered and raced engineering majors and professions, it is clear that structural support is needed for black women students.

Making progress

On a positive note, we have seen a number of universities supporting these and similar students. Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice helps meet the material needs (food, housing and transportation) for students in need. Through the HBCU Cybersecurity Industry Initiative, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are helping minoritised students in engineering gain digital skills for the workforce.

Meanwhile, Barnard College also runs the Science Pathways Scholars Program for underrepresented students, which provide faculty mentorship, summer research opportunities and networking activities.

These universities are watering the plants so that all black women students, along with other underrepresented groups of students, have the resources and support they need to bloom in engineering. We hope that our work contributes to these efforts.

Minji Kim is currently a PhD student at Arizona State University, whose research focuses on the globalisation of higher education and online education systems. Dr Meseret Hailu is an assistant professor of higher and postsecondary education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation, Arizona State University. Atota Halkiyo is a doctoral candidate studying education policy and evaluation at Arizona State University, United States.