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In this presentation we document a narrative exploration of how three women in engineering, with marginalized identities, view aspects of the workplace culture affecting the extent to which they can authentically be themselves. Furthermore, we assess how these engineers describe prejudice and oppression within their workplaces. The data presented within this paper were collected as part of a larger NSF-funded study qualitatively assessing the manifestation of racism within the technology industry. Although significant effort has been made to change the demographics of the engineering workforce, diversity is still lacking. White men remain the demographic majority and ultimately define the culture of the profession. The culture is often described as unwelcoming for marginalized people and characterized as “bro” culture, creating sexist and gendered environments. Those who do not fit the dominant racial and gender norms often hide aspects of their identity in order to blend into the dominant workplace culture.
Three frameworks were used for this analysis of in/authentic experiences of marginalized women in engineering. We used Faulkner’s (2009) concept of in/authenticity, which describes how women in engineering may have experiences that are either authentic or inauthentic to their personal identities. We broadened this lens to encompass marginalized identities in addition to gendered experiences. The second framework utilized was derived from Kendi’s (2016) history of racist ideas in the U.S. Specifically, we used Kendi’s structural analysis of racism within the workplace and expanded it to include other forms of discrimination such as sexism and homophobia. Another concept derived from Kendi’s work was the explication of moments of advantage and disadvantage taken by individuals. Lastly, we used Crenshaw’s (1990) intersectionality to understand the relationships between dimensions of society and subject formations, specifically focused on social oppression and power as experienced by Black women.
To understand the experiences of the engineers, our methodology followed steps outlined by narrative analysis approaches. Data were collected through two semi-structured interviews with each participant. The first interview involved gaining insight into what led them to pursue engineering. The second interview explored their engineering workplace experiences. Interviews were professionally transcribed and then verified for accuracy. The data were analyzed using a process that included multiple readings using the aforementioned frameworks as lenses. After the interviews were analyzed, storied narratives were written for each participant.
Three self-identified women with intersecting marginalized identities participated within the larger study. Pseudonyms were assigned to each participant in order to protect their identity. The participants were one Black woman (Leanne), one White transgender woman (Heather) and one White Middle Eastern woman (Hana). Drawing from their narratives, we have emphasized how their identities played a unique role in their workplace experiences in comparison to individuals without marginalized identities. We looked at the multiplicities beyond gender identities, contrary to previous literature.
Findings demonstrated that all three participants experienced disadvantages, feelings of isolation, and inauthenticity due to their gender minority status. Each participant noticed a lack of diversity in their workplaces, and they described the workplaces as mostly older White men. In terms of authenticity, the three participants described authentic experiences when the workplace culture allowed it, meaning when they were comfortable with who they were around. They each explained that they could be authentic when they were surrounded by people of similar backgrounds and interests. Each participant described instances where their marginalized identities were masked or toned down depending on the situation that they were in.
For Leanne, the intersection of race and gender identities caused both disadvantages and inauthenticity. Leanne felt that she was authentic because she didn’t separate her personal life from work, but she continued to describe instances of code switching, or inauthenticity, stating “the thing you have to separate is when you’re around a room of white people and you’ve got to turn on that switch.” She described various disadvantages due to her intersectionality, such as a lack of a network to get jobs, communication problems, sexual harassment and the need to be the one to speak out on racism/sexism.
Heather’s transgender identity initially created disadvantages and inauthenticity in the workplace. Heather began her career in a company that prided themselves on being a “boys club.” This was prior to her transition, causing an internal battle of inauthenticity. There were instances of sexual harassment and battery which made her uncomfortable within this workplace. She described it, saying “everyone I worked with in the beginning was a bully.” She didn’t stand up to discrimination because she was young and afraid of losing her position. Eventually she was able to transition into herself, and she left her first workplace. Now that she is more senior within her career, she calls discrimination out. Within her new company Heather hides her transgender identity since “it is scary because you don’t know what people think.” Although she is comfortable inside and outside of the workplace, she keeps these two experiences separated.
Hana grew up in a war zone in the Middle East until her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was in high school. Being raised in her home country was advantageous to Hana because she was not taught U.S. gender normativity or that she could not do things because she was a woman. Initially within the workplace, she experienced disadvantages because it was all older White men, which was “intimidating” and “difficult.” She described being talked over by others. She also described that she was submissive and chose her words carefully when she spoke. Even though she is now one of the most senior people in her workplace, she still described how women get talked over or go unheard, but she now speaks up about injustice. She described her current coworkers, saying “they have big egos, lots of big egos.” She continued to describe how the company made strides “to be open and transparent.” Unfortunately, they “don’t always succeed at doing that. There’s a culture of the loudest person in the room wins.” Hana also described inauthentic experiences, with an example being how she “had to change quite a bit to fit into the environment.” This change was because she let her passions show which led to emotion, making her be perceived as “too emotional.”
Although each participant has unique experiences within their workplaces, all of the workplaces were described as having a White male culture, leading to some level of inauthenticity for the women. This is consistent with previous literature which stated that engineering workplace cultures are defined by White males, leading to inauthenticity for women (Faulkner, 2009). With this work, we intend to highlight the importance of bringing more awareness to diversity and inclusion issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia that were experienced through each of the participants’ intersectional identities.
References Crenshaw, K. (1990). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43, 1241. Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing gender in engineering workplace cultures. II. Gender in/authenticity and the in/visibility paradox. Engineering Studies, 1(3), 169–189. https://doi.org/10.1080/19378620903225059 Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. Nation Books.
Dietz, G. A., & Douglas, E. P., & McCray, E. D. (2021, January), Marginalization and the In/authentic Workplace Experiences of Engineers Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day . https://peer.asee.org/36108
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