Obstacles to black female engineers


Recent federal mandates surrounding Affirmative Action and US President Joe Biden’s plans for student debt relief have brought higher education to the forefront of many people in the US.

During these discussions, there are often heated debates about race, professional prestige, and who deserves support. Missing from these debates are discussions about how structural conditions limit opportunities for particular populations. For example, engineering remains a highly inaccessible field for black students, especially black women.

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

While valuable research is being conducted across the country on this topic, key stakeholders may not always have the opportunity to engage with this work. We argue that an Emerging 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’ve called our model “Blooming Pathways,” which consists of five parts that describe:

• Well-equipped and high-performing students;
• under-resourced and high-performing students;
• students with an unconventional path to engineering;
• Students with competing non-engineering assignments; and
• Underfunded and undersupported students.

In summary, our model is all about increasing the visibility of publicly available research and showing the diverse stories of black women in engineering.

Blooming Pathways provides an accessible and concise summary of research for higher education stakeholders. Faculty, counselors, and department administrators can refer to the model when designing support programs for Black women in this area.

We found similar research and intervention models in Ethiopia’s iCog “Everyone Can Code”, Kenya’s Nia Project and the Rwandan Association for Women in Science and Technology.

Research like this is important because we need diversity in the workforce. A diverse workforce meets the different needs of companies and society in these constantly changing times.

In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic and movements like Black Lives Matter have prompted many companies to evolve their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies. It is no longer enough to have a mere blueprint or theoretical promise regarding race. More than 70 major companies including Airbnb, Bank of America, Bloomberg and Coca-Cola have set gender diversity goals.

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

make research accessible

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

Critical scholarly literature is often paid for readers not affiliated with university libraries. While Open Access journals such as PLUS ONEhelp solve this problem, the vast majority of articles are not accessible.

We address this issue by publishing our key research findings on a public-facing portfolio website. In addition, traditional academic scholarship is often filled with technical jargon and terminology. Aware of this, we collaborated with talented artist Naily Nevarez to feature our work in a floral motif that is a nod to the desert landscape where our institution, Arizona State University, is located.

Tell stories

Finally, we must acknowledge different stories of black women. As there are more visible stories within the minority student population, we need to be aware of cherry picking. Blooming Pathways tackles this problem head-on.

Based on interviews with 45 black female undergraduate engineers, we found so many colorful stories. There were relatively privileged students who benefited from taking Advanced Placement courses and went straight to college. Some had far fewer resources but used strategies to survive through micro-aggression and discrimination in the technical field.

Others took unconventional routes to engineering, such as going from high school to community college and university. Students with competing academic commitments, family care responsibilities, and financial constraints had to work in non-academic jobs to meet their bills.

Certainly some may argue that our Pathway model is not just. Critics of our work might want us to focus on meritocracy instead. However, a race-avoidant approach, one of the basic assumptions of meritocracy, obscures the structural oppressions that are inevitable for marginalized students in this country.

Moreover, merit is an abstract concept. A recent study found that business leaders tend to look at merit based on their past experiences as employees prior to their promotion. Due to the fact that it is not perceived in the same way by everyone, it actually has the potential to hinder talent acquisition.

We know Black women are underrepresented in the workforce, making up only 27% of STEM workers. Given the intersectionality of the challenges Black women face in gender-biased and race-biased engineering majors and careers, it is clear that Black female students need structural support.

making progress

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

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

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

Minji Kim is currently a graduate student at Arizona State University whose research focuses on the globalization of higher education and online education systems. dr Meseret Hailu is an Assistant Professor of Higher and Post-Secondary Education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation, Arizona State University. Atota Halkiyo is a PhD student studying educational policy and evaluation at Arizona State University, USA.