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Traditional Prejudice, Modern Discrimination: An Examination of Microaggressions Targeting Male and Female Latinx Engineering Undergraduates

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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

Critical Conversations on Being Valued

Tagged Divisions

Equity and Culture & Social Justice in Education

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Paper Authors


Kalynda Chivon Smith North Carolina A&T State University

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I earned a Ph.D. and an M.S. in Social Psychology from Howard University and a BA in Psychology and English from Truman State University. I am a social psychologist with expertise in STEM education and identity development research. I am currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Co-PI or Investigator on several interdisciplinary NSF-funded STEM education research projects.

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Cristina Poleacovschi Iowa State University of Science and Technology

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Dr. Poleacovschi is an Assistant Professor at Iowa State University. She researches issues of diversity and focuses on intersectional aspects of microaggressions.

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Scott Grant Feinstein

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Dr. Scott Feinstein is an expert in research design and comparative and identity politics.

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Stephanie Luster-Teasley North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

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Dr. Stephanie Luster-Teasley is an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Departments of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering, and Chemical, Biological, and Bioengineering. Over the last ten years, Dr. Luster-Teasley has demonstrated excellence in teaching by using a variety of research-based, student-centered, pedagogical methods to increase diversity in STEM. Her teaching and engineering education work has resulted in her receiving the 2013 UNC Board of Governors Teaching Excellence Award, which is the highest teaching award conferred by the UNC system for faculty.

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Much research has demonstrated that engineering education programs are less likely to retain women and students of color at every point in the pipeline. Although Latinx people have grown to be the largest minority group in the United States, they continue to remain a small percentage of engineering students. When examining retention, what has not been adequately considered are students’ experiences with modern prejudice in an engineering education setting. Because traditional forms of racism and sexism have become taboo, students are more likely to be the targets of microaggressions than traditional discrimination. Microaggressions are ambiguous slights targeting people with marginalized identities that leave the victim unsure of how or unable to respond. Over time the seemingly small and inconsequential behaviors are likely to impact victim’s self-efficacy and self-esteem. Microaggressions must be studied in an engineering education setting because these programs tend to be predominantly White and male.

The current study assessed students’ experiences of microaggressions guided by intersectionality and critical race theory. The intersectionality theory explains that prejudice and discrimination are experienced differently when targeting intersecting identities, such as race and gender, than race or gender alone. The current study used the theory of intersectionality to address how Latinx men had different experiences than Latinx women due to their differing intersecting identities. Critical race theory explains how the structure of engineering education enabled the Latinx students’ experiences of racism and sexism in the form of microaggressions.

The participants were eight Latinx males and six Latinx females attending a Historically Black University and a Predominantly White Institution. The participants were engineering majors 18 years of age or older and identified as cisgender. The institutions were both land grant institutions with well-known ABET-accredited engineering programs. Students participated in one-on-one interviews that lasted no more than an hour.

The findings demonstrated that both male and female students experienced microaggressions in their engineering programs. More incidents took place at the PWI, and while male and female students had some experiences in common, their intersectional identities also led to different experiences. Both groups were treated as if they were not qualified to be in their engineering programs due to their ethnicity. Peers did not think they could do the work or ignored Latinx students’ contributions. Women were more often ignored or told that they were not good enough due to their gender. Women were also more often criticized for speaking Spanish and scolded when they defended themselves. Men were more often subjected to derogatory jokes about “Mexicans” as criminals, “jokingly” accused of being criminals, and often reminded that their ethnicity would make it harder for them to succeed.

These findings suggest that even among the most diverse generation in U.S. history, negative stereotypes about Latinx people as foreigners, criminals, and overly aggressive persist in an engineering education environment. While higher education is typically considered an inclusive progressive space, engineering education programs continue to ostracize people of color, in particular Latinx people, in an ever-increasingly racially diverse nation.

Smith, K. C., & Poleacovschi, C., & Feinstein, S. G., & Luster-Teasley, S. (2021, July), Traditional Prejudice, Modern Discrimination: An Examination of Microaggressions Targeting Male and Female Latinx Engineering Undergraduates Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37926

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