The human race has given rise to incredible engineering accomplishments. Some examples include an Egyptian pyramid with 2.3 million perfectly placed limestone blocks, the Great Wall of China that traverses difficult terrain and can be seen from space, or the more recent example of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, sending a sports car floating through space with re-usable rockets landing back on Earth to use for a future mission. It’s no surprise that the engineering field attracts the best and brightest among us because they are innovators, problem solvers, and basically all white males. Wait – What?
During the celebration of the Falcon Heavy launch the SpaceX guys were shown jumping for joy at the technological milestones. The same way you cringe from an oncoming car with high beams is the same way many felt about the gender imbalance that was present in the 1970’s during the NASA days and continues to persists in one of the most innovative companies the world has ever seen. For example, the 2016 film Hidden Figures began to break that mold, detailing the story of female African-American mathematicians and engineers living in the south in the 1950’s who helped propel NASA to the moon, yet few knew or acknowledged their enormous role. Since their story remained in the shadows how could a young student believe ‘I too could be a female engineer’ if they believe it’s never been done before? One’s life expectations are shaped by what they see around them, and without role models that ‘look like me’ in positions of power, how can we expect for anything to change?
Our guest this evening is Andrea Haverkamp, a 2nd year PhD student in the College of Engineering, who is asking what it means to think of yourself as an engineer, and examining how the engineering culture has perpetuated the lack of diversity we see today. Of the currently active engineering professionals approximately 90% are men, university engineering programs are nearly 80% male dominated. Herein lies the paradox; girls get better grades than their male counterparts from kindergarten through high school, girls have a similar level of STEM interest as their male counterparts early in their schooling career and within the last decade women outnumber men among college graduates. Unfortunately, women significantly lag behind men in college STEM degrees and only 1 out of 6 engineering degrees are received by women.
Andrea’s research seeks to answer what happens in the engineering workplace that continues to be unwelcoming to women; but gender cannot be taken in isolation because there is a confluence of race, socioeconomic class, and potential disabilities that color our thought process that we cannot avoid. Her work also focuses on LGBT students and a broader, more expansive, theory of gender than has been used in prior engineering research. Furthermore she is using novel approach that breaks traditional boundaries in the social sciences field that she hopes to encourage her interviewees to become an active participant and empower them to become co-authors on future research papers. This method, Community Collaborative Research, was made popular by a researcher who lived in a prison to better relate to those people in his work. How can you expect to have female engineers rise through the ranks, if there are hardly any female engineers to look up to; can you see yourself become a superhero if you’re from an underrepresented minority? A recent pop-culture example is the release of the Marvel’s Black Panther; the first film with an all black cast, predominately black writers, and directors that celebrates black culture. Here is how one fan reacted from just seeing the poster [displaying the all black cast] “This is what white people get to feel all the time? Since the beginning of cinema, you get to feel empowered like this and represented? If this is what you get to feel like all the time I would love this country too!”
There is no silver bullet that will be an overnight fix for the gender imbalance in the workplace or the salary disparity between men and women in the same job. But there are some positive examples; such as some companies are taking concrete actions to get women into leadership roles, or how the Indian Space Agency (with a recent boom in women engineers) sent a rocket to Mars that was less expensive than the making of “The Martian! Through Andrea’s research we can at least begin to systematically answer the questions of how to develop a more inclusive culture for aspiring women engineers and workplaces alike. As Jorja Smith sings in the Black Panther soundtrack, “I know that we have asked for change. Don’t be scared to put the fears to shame…”
You can listen to the show at 7PM Sunday March 4th on 88.7FM or stream the show live online!
If you want to hear more from Andrea, she also hosts her own KBVR radio show called LaborWave every other Friday at 2PM. If you want to read more about Andrea’s field, she’s on the Editorial Board for the International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace.