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Double Standard: How Women of Color Must Navigate in the Engineering Environment

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 3

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Kaitlyn Anne Thomas University of Nevada, Reno

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Ms. Thomas is a doctoral student and research assistant at University of Nevada, Reno in Engineering Education. Her background is in structural engineering. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from Southern Methodist University.

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Whitney Gaskins University of Cincinnati

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Dr. Gaskins is the Assistant Dean of Inclusive Excellence and Community Engagement in the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science, the only African-American female currently teaching in the faculty of the College of Engineering. Whitney earned her Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering, her Masters of Business Administration in Quantitative Analysis and her Doctorate of Philosophy in Biomedical Engineering/Engineering Education. In her role as Assistant Dean, Dr. Gaskins has revamped the summer bridge program to increase student support and retention as well as developed and strengthened partnerships in with local area school districts to aid in the high school to college pathway.
In 2009, she founded The Gaskins Foundation, a non-profit organization, whose mission is to educate and empower the African American community. Her foundation recently launched the Cincinnati STEMulates year round K-12 program, which is a free of charge program that will introduce more students to Math and Science. She was named the 2017 K12 Champion by the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates (NAMEPA).

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Kelly J. Cross University of Nevada, Reno

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Dr. Cross is currently an Assistant Professor in the Chemical and Materials Engineering Department at the University Nevada Reno. After completing her PhD in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech in 2015, Dr. Cross worked as a post-doctoral researcher with the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education and in the Department of Bioengineering with the Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) grant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Cross' scholarship investigated student teams in engineering, faculty communities of practice, and the intersectionality of multiple identity dimensions. Her research interests include diversity and inclusion in STEM, intersectionality, teamwork and communication skills, assessment, and identity construction. Her teaching philosophy focuses on student centered approaches such as culturally relevant pedagogy. Dr. Cross' complimentary professional activities promote inclusive excellence through collaboration.

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This paper explores the double bind of race and gender and its role in negative experiences and internalized oppression of six women of color (WOC). The dominance of whiteness and masculinity serves as a default in engineering, which is perceived as unwelcoming to traditionally underrepresented student (TUS) populations. WOC in engineering experience a double bind in this culture, which is the intersectionality of two marginalized identities, race and gender, that has a multiplying effect on the struggles to participate in STEM. This study employs the intersectionality theoretical framework to understand the double bind. Intersectionality theory focuses on how multiple individual identities can show up and are influenced by societal systems that support oppression and privilege. We utilize this framework to answer the research question, “How do WOC navigate the engineering culture that promotes a double standard that marginalizes and oppresses them?” We used a thematic analysis approach to understand the experiences of six women of color at a large Midwestern university through semi-structured interviews. The interview protocol included questions like, “In the context of your engineering education, has your race impacted your experience?” We used an open coding method to capture and organize emergent themes. One main theme that emerged included coping with unidentified microaggressions. Sandra (pseudonym) revealed a physical manifestation of this coping process when she was asked about the emotional effects of her educational experience. “… I feel like I have been anxious but it definitely amplified in this setting where I feel hyper-aware of everything because I do stand out quite a bit. Just managing that emotional state of being just scared when I don't need to be scared, or I pray that I don't need to be scared in most of those settings. Just having that emotional intensity to dial it back a little bit, and being able to control that is definitely a result of being here, a woman of color. A lot more emotional intensity, especially on the scale of being nervous and scared and over-aware.” Sandra described increased anxiety and awareness to cope with microaggressions and internalize oppression due to the double bind of race and gender. Sandra’s anxiety and hyper-vigilance indicate signs that the environment does not provide comfort or safety in engineering. Further, other participants expressed some form of coping with microaggressions or other negative treatment throughout their engineering experiences. In this paper, we will further describe how these six WOC experience their engineering education based on their own words. While engineering education continues work on broadening participation of TUS populations, this study demonstrates that substantial work must be done to support WOC who enroll in engineering programs. Research that explores how majority students interact with WOC can help alleviate negative experiences like microaggressions for WOC in engineering. More research on WOC experiences in engineering can lower attrition rates and increase perseverance in engineering.

Thomas, K. A., & Gaskins, W., & Cross, K. J. (2021, July), Double Standard: How Women of Color Must Navigate in the Engineering Environment Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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