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Incorporating Feminist Theory and Community-Centered Methods in a Study on Gender in Engineering Education: Protocol Design and Preliminary Themes

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2021 CoNECD


Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day

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January 24, 2021

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January 24, 2021

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January 28, 2021

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CoNECD Session : Day 3 Slot 4 Technical Session 1

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Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

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Andrea Haverkamp Oregon State University Orcid 16x16

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Andrea Haverkamp is a PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering with a Queer Studies PhD minor at Oregon State University. Her dissertation research explores the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education. She holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Kansas and an M.Eng in Environmental Engineering from Oregon State University.

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Michelle Kay Bothwell Oregon State University Orcid 16x16

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Michelle Bothwell is a Professor of Bioengineering at Oregon State University. Her teaching and research bridge ethics, social justice and engineering with the aim of cultivating an inclusive and socially just engineering profession.

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Devlin Montfort Oregon State University

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Dr. Montfort is an Assistant Professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University

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Qwo-Li Driskill Oregon State University

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Qwo-Li Driskill is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. They hold a PhD in Rhetoric & Writing from Michigan State University.

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The study of gender in engineering continues to be highly relevant due to the persistence of the field’s domination by men and masculinity. Mainstream discourse on gender in STEM, however, has been kept in a “black box” for decades according to Allison Phipps [1]. She states that the reliance on a simplistic gender binary unaccompanied by racial, cultural, or sexual identity nuances undermines engineering’s own political aims of gender equity. One large gap in our existing body of gender research and discourse is how the highly gendered landscape of engineering education is experienced transgender or gender nonconforming (TGNC) people.

We are opening the “black box” on gender in our research project “Invisibilized Gendered Experiences: Transgender and Gender-nonconforming Experiences in Engineering Education.” The research project contains three key objectives: 1) To infuse queer studies and feminist research methodologies into engineering education research practice 2). To record, examine, and share the wide range of experiences from TGNC engineering students to our research community, and 3). To collaborate with the student community to inform the research products for engineering educators and researchers.

This presentation will first introduce the audience to conceptualizations of gender informed by contemporary queer theory, which defines gender as a fluid and dynamic social system beyond biological binaries. Next, we will use our own research project as an example of how we can transform our approach to the study of gender through feminist research methodologies that place the subject community as the experts on their lived experiences. We end by sharing prominent themes from the 300 national participants in our initial community outreach questionnaire. This final portion provides ideas offered by the undergraduate TGNC population on how to build a more supportive and inclusive environment for their success. Altogether, this presentation provides a comprehensive look at our project on gender resiliency by TGNC students in engineering education.

1. Gender Conceptualization

Gender is not a letter on a birth certificate or drivers’ license, nor is it simply an internal “identity.” Gender is a shifting ever-changing tapestry over all of our lives. It is co-created and replicated daily through countless socio-cultural interactions, consisting of what Judith Butler calls “performance” and the social feedback loop of recognition and validation by others [2,3]. Gender is a shifting phenomenon across era and region, intersecting with race, ethnicity, religion, age, and other identities. This is important as no single chromosomal, hormonal, or psychological factor has been found to be a direct determinant in one’s gender identity or expression. Psychological research finds that humans have conceptualizations and expressions of gender which are fluid and unmappable to fixed biological binary, even for cisgender (non-transgender) subjects [4,5]. Instead, the “human brain mosaic” represents fluidity and multiplicity across all humans. Investigating gender in engineering should reflect this nuanced complexity. Studying gender becomes almost academically dishonest when it is reduced to a binary variable which overlooks the identity of nonbinary genders and complexities for trans individuals.

Transgender and gender nonconforming individuals in the United States live under significant political, cultural, societal, economic, legal, and educational marginalization as described in the 2015 US National Trans Survey [6]. This landmark study found systemic marginalization across nearly every institution including higher education. We can hypothesize that this extends into engineering undergraduates’ lives. By studying the way that those with sharp experiences of invisibility or marginalization succeed in engineering we can uncover fundamental insight into how gender shapes culture and climate for all of us.

2. Research Approach

We draw from a number of methodologies that are infrequently applied within engineering education research. These include feminist theories of knowing, community-centered research design, and operating from a framework of resiliency over deficit. We discuss each below, followed by a brief overview of our TGNC project structure.

Feminist Theory

Our research strives to recognize the complex ways that power and oppression operate in each individual’s lives. Recognition of difference is a critical component of investigating personal experiences. It is not possible to create a universal narrative for women in engineering, due to the intersections of sexuality, class, race, and disability for example. These are but a few of the many identities which form our “complex personhood” [7]. There may be dominant commonalities of shared experience, but we will not be able to find a uniform and essentialized trans experience just as there is no uniform and essentialized experience of any identity.

We recognize the challenges to positivist notions of scientific objectivity when investigating identity and the inherently affective experiences of belonging, safety, and success. One aspect of implementing this awareness into the research process is understanding ourselves through subjective lenses. Recognizing the positionality of our identity, experience, and power in the academy can shed light on implicit biases. This helps form “reflexivity” in the research process, an iterative cycle of self-analysis and change in approach as results begin to be recorded [8]. Feminist standpoint theory has been applied in prior engineering education research to demonstrate that the experiences to be studied are best understood by the participants themselves [9]. Standpoint theory places the research participant as the subject matter expert on their own lives. For reflexive research that recognizes the subjective researchers’ positionality, we then need to bring the research participant to the research table as part of the analysis and iterative changes to the study design.

Community Centered Research

Involving the research subjects as part of the research team is integral to participatory and community collaborative research methodologies, such as those used by Z. Nicolazzo in their research with undergraduate trans-identified students [10]. These methods involve the subject community as much as possible at every phase of the research, from data collection, collaborative analysis, authorship, and informing mutually beneficial end products. Research Justice as an academic movement inspired us to ensure that our participants obtained fair and just compensation for their time and effort at every part of their interaction with the research [11].

Resiliency frameworks

Resiliency framing inspired our study design as opposed to the more mainstream deficit model. Deficit framings of underrepresented groups explore, ask about, and identify negative experiences or supposed shortcomings of subordinated groups. Eve Tuck calls this trend “Damage Centered Research” which results in further defining historically marginalized groups by hurt and pain, not by their desires or accomplishments [12]. A resiliency framework seeks to investigate strategies of support, success, and daily acts of navigating campus life. The idea is that when you know what helps students succeed and navigate towards success you can institutionally and culturally center and strengthen the programs or structures identified.

TGNC Research Project Structure

Our research project integrated the theories and methods described above to formulate an interdisciplinary approach to studying the experiences of TGNC students. Three research phases were designed to start with large sample size and drill down to individual experiences. The online questionnaire ( n>100) would provide limited depth big picture of information. Subsequent phases “zoom in” with smaller sample sizes (n=20 interviews and n=5 ethnographic site visits). These data points will record more detailed experiences and depth of understanding. The first phase is an initial outreach questionnaire that contained open box responses to a series of questions regarding support, skill, success, and resiliency. This instrument also solicited ideas for educators and researchers to better support their community. We place higher importance on the answers to the open box questions compared to our Likert scale questions to recognize complex personhood, center individual narratives over pre-supposed researcher questions, and offer free identification regarding gender, race, and disability. Our initial outreach questionnaire contained 7 open ended questions along with 15 Likert scale questions which were all framed from a standpoint of resiliency, support, and success.

We distributed the outreach questionnaire nationally to department chairs and deans at ABET-accredited engineering programs and engineering LGBTQ organizations. After cleaning the data for incomplete or erroneous responses there were 300 responses. These 300 respondents have genders that range from man, woman, trans man, trans woman, demi-girl, demi-boy, agender, nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid and a few that were still questioning or cisgender and gender nonconforming. The responses came from across the US, and respondents were diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and disability status.

The themes that emerged from the outreach questionnaire informed the design of the follow-up personal interview schedules, which represents our reflexive research approach. A subset of students who responded to the questionnaire will be interviewed with demographics providing an “overrepresentation” of students of color and students with disabilities to counter higher education researchers’ tendency to focus on narratives from white able-bodied students. Alongside these demographics will be a gender representation that is 1/3 man-identified, 1/3 woman-identified, and 1/3 nonbinary or other gender identified. This will give unique insight into complex personhood in TGNC experiences. The interview questions will be reviewed and assessed by the student beforehand. This gives the student the ability to think and reflect on the questions beforehand. The students will be given the choice of how long the interview will be and the questions they will be asked. This additionally gives the student time to reflect and prepare a response, rather than being surprised “on the spot” during an interview on their deeply personal experiences. This approach increases collaboration and subject agency while minimizing the totality of control that researchers often carry.

Finally, there will be a site visit phase for recording ethnographic data and deep interpersonal collaboration on identifying the support structures encountered by and resiliency tactics engaged by TGNC undergraduates. We aim to work together with students for five days to observe and discuss their experiences in engineering and obtain deep, rich, and useful information on what support structures best foster their success. We will offer article co-authorship to students who express interest in this deep level of collaboration.

Alongside the interviews will be the forming of an online community where students can discuss topics of their choice, as well as review emerging products from this research project to help foster reflexive and iterative changes in our project. There is a potential for dozens of students to be able to help shape the narrative and ensure validity in relaying thoughts, suggestions, and experiences. The function of this online community will be driven by student participation and ownership of the space.

3. Preliminary Results

While the outreach questionnaire covers several topics, for this presentation we will focus on one prompt: “How can engineering students better support one another within their major and their program?” The responses are rich with ideas on how these students best know how their own experiences could be improved. The suggestions, which arose from the TGNC community, are a critical early glimpse into the ways researchers and educators can improve our programs. The most prevalent themes were cultivating friendliness, respect, open-mindedness, replacing competition with collaboration, and developing healthy interpersonal communication. Many noted that engineers were not equipped with education or a culture that fostered awareness of trans identities or LGBTQ issues, corresponding to response themes for educators to create social awareness through education, to create safer and more inclusive physical spaces, and to have their peers educated on pronouns and trans identities. A number of responses described negative experiences or a sense that engineering and computer science undergraduate student culture needs a dramatic change. Respondents frequently noted that they had to argue the validity of trans peoples’ existence or heard “jokes” which diminished LGBTQ+ people. The students’ other identities such as disability and race were mentioned alongside gender as they wrote about experiences of ableism, classism, and racism. Several students wrote that they wished their peers would perform bystander intervention when misgendering and discrimination was occurring. A few went further to specifically describe a culture of toxic masculinity which hurt all gender minorities.

[1] A. Phipps. (2007). Re-inscribing gender binaries: Deconstructing the dominant discourse around women’s equality in science, engineering, and technology, The Sociological Review, vol. 55, no. 4, pp. 768-787, 2007.

[2] Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

[3] Langer, S.J. (2016). Trans Bodies and the Failure of Mirrors. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol. 17(4), pp. 306-316

[4] Joel, D., Tarrasch, R., Berman, Z., Mukamel, M., Ziv, M. (2014). Queering Gender: studying gender on gender-normative individuals, Psychology & Sexuality, vol. 5, no. 4, pp. 291-321.

[5] Joel, D., Berman, Z., Tavor, I., et. al. (2015). Sex beyond the genitalia: The human brain mosaic. PNAS, 112(50), pp. 15468-15473.

[6] James, S., Herman, J., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., and Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, National Center for Transgender Equality, Washington D.C. Report.

[7] Guishard, M. (2009). “The false paths, the endless labors, the turns now this way and now that”: Participatory action research, mutual vulnerability, and the politics of inquiry. Urban Review, 41(1), 85–105.

[8] Borrego, M., Douglas, E., Amelink, C. (2009). Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Research Methods in Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 98(1), 53-66.

[9] A. Pawley, A. (2013). Learning from small numbers” of underrepresented students’ stories: Discussing a method to learn about institutional structure through narrative,” 120th American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition, Paper ID# 6639..

[10] Nicolazzo, Z. (2017). Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

[11] Jolivette, A. (2015). Research Justice: Methodologies for Social Change. Policy Press, University of Bristol.

[12] Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities. Harvard Educational Review, vol. 79(3), pp. 409-427.

Haverkamp, A., & Bothwell, M. K., & Montfort, D., & Driskill, Q. (2021, January), Incorporating Feminist Theory and Community-Centered Methods in a Study on Gender in Engineering Education: Protocol Design and Preliminary Themes Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day .

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