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Unpacking the Elevator Pitch: Women’s Narratives in Engineering

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 4

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Women in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Sarah Appelhans University at Albany-SUNY

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Sarah Appelhans is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology. Her dissertation research, "Flexible Selves in the Integrated Circuit", investigates gender, migration and belonging in semiconductor engineering in the Northeastern US region. She is honored to be a research assistant on the NSF-sponsored study on engineering education reform entitled "The Distributed System of Governance in Engineering Education." In addition to her academic experience, she is a former mechanical engineer with several years of experience in the aviation and construction industries.

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When you ask women how they became interested in engineering as a career path, they typically launch into an origin story, perhaps detailing their childhood hobbies, educational achievements, or mentors who encouraged them. The narrative often seems well-practiced, as if it has been honed to include only the most important information and sharpened through repeated tellings. In my ethnographic fieldwork with women engineers, I began to associate these stories with the “elevator pitch” genre, in which the narrative is condensed to provide the maximum impact in the shortest amount of time. Faulkner (2009) observed in her fieldwork that women’s origin stories are well-rehearsed in ways that men’s are not, indicating women’s obligation to justify their existence in the male-dominated world of engineering. These narratives are opportunities for women to define their own identities as engineers, and to simultaneously reshape the listener’s perception of what makes a “good” engineer. This paper draws upon narratives collected during 15 months of field work in the Northeastern US (2018–2019), including 50+ life history interviews. The “elevator pitch” was a frequent occurrence, unprompted, usually at the beginning of the interview, and the participant and I would develop the life history in more detail throughout the rest of the interview. I use narrative analysis to identify core components and strategic variations of these origin stories, highlighting what these components and variations do in terms of defining women’s engineering identities. Using the more detailed life history content, I note the components of participants’ experiences that have been trimmed out of the “elevator pitch”. I also compare the narratives of women born in the US with women who were born in India and China. I find that engineers who immigrated to the U.S. are not always familiar with this particular story-telling style, which can limit their persuasiveness in the workplace. In addition, Asian women struggle to explain their histories to an American audience, placing them at a disadvantage in shaping how they are perceived by their colleagues. Small sample sizes and regional specificity limit the generalizability of these findings; however, these narrative accounts provide important context related to how women perceive their position in the male-dominated field of engineering and their efforts to situate themselves as full members within it.

Appelhans, S. (2020, June), Unpacking the Elevator Pitch: Women’s Narratives in Engineering Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35434

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