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Complicating Difference: Exploring and Exploding Three Myths of Gender and Race in Engineering Education

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Myths About Gender and Race

Tagged Divisions

Minorities in Engineering, Liberal Education/Engineering & Society, and Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.356.1 - 22.356.11



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Paper Authors


Donna M Riley Smith College

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Donna Riley is Associate Professor of Engineering at Smith College.

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Alice L. Pawley Purdue University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Alice L. Pawley is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education and an affiliate faculty member in the Women’s Studies Program and Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University. She has a B.Eng. in Chemical Engineering from McGill University, and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Industrial and Systems Engineering with a Ph.D. minor in Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Co-PI and Research Director of Purdue University’s ADVANCE program, and PI on the Assessing Sustainability Knowledge project. She runs the Research in Feminist Engineering (RIFE) group, whose projects are described at the group's website, She is interested in creating new models for thinking about gender and race in the context of engineering education. She was recently awarded a CAREER grant for the project, "Learning from Small Numbers: Using personal narratives by underrepresented undergraduate students to promote institutional change in engineering education."

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Complicating Difference: Exploring and Exploding Three Myths of Gender and Race in Engineering EducationThis paper examines three myths of gender and race that operate in engineering education, anduses a review of the literature as well as findings from the author’s research to address them.Myth 1: Gender Difference and Gender Essentialism. When engineering education researchersstudy gender or race, they often construct studies to look for difference. For example, commonquestions might be whether men and women differ in their motivations for studying engineering,or in their approaches to learning. When tests for statistical significance identify difference, the“take home” message is often reduced to categorical absolutes or inherent attributes, andimplemented in the form of stereotypes such as Barbie computers and Nerd Girls®. However,the more interesting story may lie in the overlap rather than the difference. This point will beillustrated using data drawn from the literature on the importance of social relevance as amotivator for men and women in engineering, and from new research employing semi-structuredinterviews with over 100 female students about their educational choices and life paths.Suggestions for interpreting and communicating difference data will also be discussed.Myth 2: Singular Identities vs. Intersectionality. Structurally, in both our research and in ourinstitutions, we often separate gender and race as discrete isolatable categories of analysis, whenin fact these identities (and others) intersect. Feminists of color pointed out 30 years ago that wepossess multiple identities that together influence our experiences of the world. Aligning one’sanalysis along only one of these lines masks the effects of other types of difference, includingidentities less studied in engineering such as class, sexuality, or ability. Examining a case studyof longitudinal interviews with a queer-identified Latina engineering minor will elucidate theimportance of considering intersecting identities as part of a holistic analysis. The purpose is notto look for difference, but instead to understand the individual’s experience through hernarrative. The point is not to generalize from the individual to the group(s) of which she is amember, but to consider the roles that race, gender, class and sexuality play in shaping herparticular experience.Myth 3: Assuming Gender means Women. Gender in engineering has often been framed as anissue of women’s underrepresentation, and the “fix” has focused on women. However, at least asmuch can be learned about gender in engineering by studying men and masculinities inengineering education and practice. A literature review draws on works in gender studies andengineering studies, in order to derive research approaches and topics for exploration withinengineering education. Reflections on previous work focusing exclusively on female populationswill further illustrate the importance of studying men and masculinities, not in contrast to womenand femininities, but on their own terms.

Riley, D. M., & Pawley, A. L. (2011, June), Complicating Difference: Exploring and Exploding Three Myths of Gender and Race in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17637

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