Michigan Engineering News

Dean Alec Gallimore

Myth 3: Women and minorities don’t need safe spaces because there’s nothing unsafe about engineering

In myth three, we unpack how safe spaces aren’t just havens in which to escape stereotyping—they are places in which the cultures most comfortable to many students and faculty thrive.

This is one of six topics covered in our series about how increasing diversity is necessary to improve engineering.

It is easy for a member of the dominant culture, whether white, male, heterosexual and so on, to miss the harmful behaviors that they—or the people around them—engage in. Even the term “microaggression” can be confusing because the things that are said and done often aren’t meant to be harmful or aggressive.

But the term wasn’t coined to represent majority experiences. Rather, it describes what a minoritized person experiences, the way the small harms stack up—enough molehills can become a mountain as Virginia Valian, a distinguished professor of psychology at the City University of New York, says. By now, most white people have had a dose of what this feels like: It’s the flare of annoyance at the way white men are dismissed as “another white guy,” for instance, or the way “white feminism” essentially means “racist feminism.”

Engineering is among the fields that tend to devalue femininity. It’s well known that women leave the field more often than men, with feminine attributes regularly bandied about as insults.

George Halow, a new professor of practice in aerospace engineering, recounted a conversation he had with a fellow Ford retiree about the 25% jump in female participation he’d seen when he changed an aerospace course to emphasize inclusion.

“She said, ‘You know what? I’m not surprised at all. When I was at Ford, we women all talked, and we knew where the safe places to go were,’” he said. “When you create an environment or a culture that is open to diversity and trying to treat everybody equally, people see that, and they gravitate towards it.”

Women, as well as Black and Latinx/Hispanic people, are told, “You don’t look like an engineer” so often that #ILookLikeAnEngineer became a hashtag. A study in Science Advances reported that straight men were 17% more likely to stay in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) than GBQ men, whereas LBQ women were 18% more likely to stick with STEM than straight women. Further research is needed around STEM cultures and STEM participants to better understand this dynamic.

Minoritized groups that don’t fit engineering stereotypes are even treated like suspected criminals. From the Black in Computing open letter:

“We bear witness to countless examples of Black students harassed by campus police, fellow students, and faculty while accessing research or computer labs because they didn’t think we ‘belonged’ there. We have been asked if we were lost and offered directions while walking the halls of our own departments or academic buildings… We know the compounding effect brought by feelings of isolation on one’s spirit as the ‘only’ in a meeting, within a boardroom, on a committee, in a research lab, or in a classroom.”

Affinity groups are one answer to the isolation and the constant pressure of feeling like an outsider.  Student organizations sprang up to fill this gap, bringing together people facing the same hurdles and their allies. At U-M, these include the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM), the Movement of Under-represented Sisters in Engineering and Science (MUSES) and more. And universities around the country have made space for them.

But safe spaces aren’t just havens in which to escape stereotyping and speak openly about oppressive behaviors without being told, “You’re being too sensitive.” They are places in which the cultures most comfortable to many students and faculty thrive.

Ciara Sivels, the first Black woman to graduate from U-M with a PhD in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, described finding her community as a key part of her experience as an undergraduate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Basically, a good majority of the Black people lived in the same dorm at MIT. Or if they didn’t live there, that’s kind of where we congregated. So I had a really strong Black community there, and I was super-active in NSBE,” said Sivels. “I loved NSBE! For me, that was my own way of connecting with my community outside of MIT.”

Jeremy Atuobi, industrial and operations engineering senior and  president of the U-M chapter of NSBE, says that the society drew him in starting at orientation. On coming to U-M, he had a barbecue to attend where he met new friends. Getting freshmen connected with a community that provides both personal and academic is key to NSBE’s aim to see more Black engineers thrive in the profession. Later, taking on leadership roles has given Atuobi the opportunity to develop professional skills such as managing budgets and people.

Susan Montgomery (BS ChE ’84), the G. Brymer Williams Collegiate Lecturer, called SHPE a place where she could be her authentic self. While dominant U.S. culture is very restrictive about environments in which social hugging and kissing are appropriate greetings, SHPE includes many students with Latin American roots, and hugs and kisses on the cheek are standard for greetings and departures.

“Sure, we are all capable of code-switching, we do it every day, but there is a warmth about Latinx culture that we miss at times, and SHPE and other affinity groups give us a unique opportunity for us to be our authentic selves,” said Montgomery.

SHPE president Jocelyn Ortiz, a senior in biomedical engineering, appreciates SHPE as a space in which members all have a passion for paying it forward and uplifting their community. In addition, many members share her outgoing personality and experiences, such as having grown up in a city and being in the first generation in her family to attend college. And it gave her a way for her to catch up with engineering peers who grew up with resources and opportunities she didn’t know to dream of.

“It was difficult at first, finding my place within the engineering community,” said Ortiz. “But then, finding my space in SHPE, and finding my place where I can be myself, taking on those leadership positions and gaining confidence in myself, I have become comfortable in the broader engineering community.”

LGBTQ+ students also often struggle with feeling comfortable in their own skin, as Anna Pasek, a senior in environmental engineering and member of the oSTEM board, explained. In some cases, including Pasek’s, this is compounded by coming from a homophobic family or community. Within engineering, she distinguishes between tolerance and acceptance—in an environment that is merely tolerant, being “out” still makes for a chilly atmosphere.

In addition to serving as a refuge in which LGBTQ+ status is normal, and where others know what it’s like to be at odds with their families, Pasek points out that oSTEM often also serves as a forum to discuss problems of and solutions for the University’s culture and support systems. For one, oSTEM is a place where students can find informal mental health support. 

“I do think that spaces like oSTEM and other student organizations are not necessarily replacements for mental healthcare, but they are places that can lessen the load,” said Pasek. “They’re places where you’re allowed to feel normal and whole and nothing’s wrong with you.”

Ultimately, the ideas that come out of discussions within safe spaces can provide guidance to the University on how to reduce the need for safe spaces, she said. 

While grievances aren’t part of the agenda at NSBE mass meetings, Atuobi leads the implementation committee for NSBE U-M’s 5-year strategic plan. One of his roles is to work with College leadership to improve diversity, equity and inclusion at the College. 

“Things are accelerating right now,” said Atuobi. “Disproportionate Black deaths due to the coronavirus, Black people facing unjust experiences at the hands of police, these have finally sunk in as systemic issues.”

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