Changing the narrative

Rethinking ways to attract and retain African-American women in academic engineering — while understanding the intersection of race and gender — has never been more important. These women are showing the way.


Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Associate Professor Carlotta Berry, with students using LEGO-based robotics in an engineering practice course in the department of electrical and computer engineering. Courtesy: SWEOne of the biggest trends in the workplace today is for employees and entrepreneurs to create a “brand” — a reputation, and preferably a multimedia one — as an expert, a leader, a go-getter, and a deep thinker. Monica F. Cox, Ph.D., a nationally acclaimed engineering professor and the only African-American female to earn tenure at Purdue University’s College of Engineering, looks to Oprah, one of the earliest and most successful multimedia brand builders, as an example for the next generation’s successful engineers and engineering professors.

Oprah’s original, fearless branding strategy is at the heart of the four social media- and multimedia-based initiatives that form Dr. Cox’s own multitiered brand, “Prepared to Be a Pioneer.TM” Developing this brand is part of her mission to attract more African-American women into engineering academia in a whole new way. “It’s not just about STEM,” said Dr. Cox, who is under contract with Elsevier publishing company to write a book about “demystifying” the engineering Ph.D. “It’s connecting people outside of their traditional fields. For example, Oprah is not a psychologist or businessperson by training. She transcended (defined roles) and excels in fields in which she had no formal training. That’s who I want to be.”

A Sense of Urgency

Attracting African-American women into the academic world of engineering has never been more critical, as evidenced both by headline-grabbing news and by digging a bit deeper beyond the headlines. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) reports that STEM women faculty make up 58 percent and 46 percent of the scientists and engineers in two- and four-year institutions, respectively. This reflects a dramatic increase over the 30 percent level reported in 2006. Closer examination of the data, however, reveals that women remain disproportionately underrepresented in some STEM disciplines, such as engineering and physics. In addition, within the ranks of STEM faculty, women of color are woefully underrepresented, accounting for less than 2 percent of the faculty of U.S. institutions of higher education at four-year colleges and universities, even though they make up almost 16 percent of bachelor’s of science and 7 percent of Ph.D. recipients in STEM fields.

As for engineering professors specifically, the American Society for Engineering Education reports that, as of 2011, African-American women made up 4 percent of all women in the engineering professoriate. Between 2001 and 2012, the number of African-American engineering faculty members increased from 2 percent to 3 percent. In all, in 2012 there were 140 African-American women working as engineering professors — out of some 24,640 across the entire discipline (not including computer engineering).

A poll published Oct. 22 revealed that nearly half (49 percent) of all U.S. women are now the primary breadwinners or are on par financially with their significant others, yet the vast majority of female breadwinners reported they do not feel in control of their destinies, nor have their careers given them a greater sense of purpose. The survey of 2,589 women in the United States, the U.K., China, and Germany was conducted by public-relations firm Ketchum and social-media network BlogHer. Indeed, among female primary breadwinners in the United States, 44 percent said they are more stressed than they were five years ago, and 42 percent have less free time.

Monica F. Cox, Ph.D., associate professor, School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, also serves as director of the International Institute for Engineering Education Assessment (i2e2a). Courtesy: SWE

Now, as never before, colleges and universities are under intense scrutiny for their policies regarding women and sexual harassment. The New York Times noted in a front-page story Nov. 2 that a harassment scandal involving one of the nation’s leading medical schools, Yale, comes as the federal government is scrutinizing dozens of colleges for their handling of sexual misconduct allegations against students.

At the same time, best-selling author Glenn Llopis says in his new e-book, Preparing U.S. Leadership for the Seismic Cultural Demographic Shift, that ensuring diversity is “no longer just a numbers game” because the country’s African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-Pacific populations already have surpassed one-third of the U.S. population and are on track to reach 54 percent by 2050. Llopis says that in the corporate world alone, nondiverse executives and board members are not “culturally intelligent” enough to see the impact that this cultural shift has on their employees, suppliers, and consumers, or to meet these populations’ uniquely different needs.In a similar vein, Dr. Cox and other African-American women in academia say it’s still routine to be judged by the way they dress and wear makeup, and to be called by their first names, rather than addressed as “doctor” or “professor,” even though students seldom mention their white male colleagues’ appearances and refer to the male professors with honorary titles. “I wanted to talk to someone about whether I was being overly sensitive, whether I should provide ‘teachable’ moments or whether I should just ignore the comments,” Dr. Cox said. “Over time, the professional demands of my job, coupled with these incidents, started to affect my mental and physical health.”

Llopis says today’s leaders must consider the strategic implications of “cross-cultural intelligence, diversity of thought, and the rapidly evolving insights from the changing face of America’s work force and consumers.” Not recognizing the significance of these shifts — or the immediate and longerterm implications that accompany them — creates all kinds of friction, he says. Indeed, one African-American engineering professor who asked not to be named said her colleagues had mistaken her at different times for a janitor who worked in the building and for another African-American female professor in the department. 

Kelly Mack, Ph.D., vice president of undergraduate STEM education at the Association of American Colleges & Universities, based in Washington, D.C., and a founding member of the Society of STEM Women of Color. Courtesy: SWE

A Variety of Antidotes

Participants in the STEM Women of Color Conclave — a professional network — recently created the Society of STEM Women of Color, a 501c3 nonprofit association. This new organization is committed to ensuring that the unique experiences of women of color, as well as their cultural contexts, are accurately examined and reported in peer-reviewed articles in scientific and engineering journals, said Kelly Mack, Ph.D. As vice president of undergraduate STEM education at the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), based in Washington, D.C., and a founding member of the society, Dr. Mack explained that, “Our first step is to make people aware of the intersection of race and gender, and the role it plays in decision making.”

To achieve the goal, the organization aims to build the collective intelligence of STEM women faculty of color, particularly around best practices for recruiting and retaining diverse STEM faculty, Dr. Mack said. “We as a nation can no longer rely solely on social-justice arguments about diversity being the right thing to do,” she continued. “We want to express the value of diversity in terms of evidence that indicates it leads to better research outcomes.” To do this, the AAC&U will continue to host its annual conclave for STEM women of color and will use its influence to promote better data analysis on women in STEM, as well as provide opportunities for STEM women faculty of color to connect and collaborate, Dr. Mack said.

Another example of a professional development opportunity for STEM women faculty of color is the Opportunities for UnderRepresented Scholars (OURS) program, based at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. OURS runs a yearlong leadership development program for women of color in which the women earn a graduate certificate in academic leadership. The NSF has provided $2.2 million toward the effort. “They are actually gaining a credential that can be used to catapult them into leadership positions on their campuses,” Dr. Mack said.

The program provides executive coaching and a thorough investigation of higher-education literature grounded in cultural contexts that are relevant to experiences either in their lives or at historically black colleges and universities. The program, which the participants do online and in short residency periods at the School of Professional Psychology’s Washington, D.C., campus, has recently been expanded to include Native American women.

The first group of 15 finished the program in spring 2014. From this initial group, 25 percent were promoted to leadership positions at their colleges or universities while they were still enrolled in the program, Dr. Mack said. “Our long-term goal is to enhance the climate for women of color so that they are able to thrive in the academic world,” she said. “In the short term, we want to raise awareness about the uniqueness of these women’s experiences and empower women of color to lead within the ever-changing landscape of STEM higher-education reform,” Dr. Mack added.

It’s that kind of top-down, strategic rethinking that Dr. Cox would like to see more of. She is working on it from both inside and outside academia, as witnessed by her initiatives to create new leadership degrees, tools, and even entertainment. At Purdue, she is in charge of a new engineering leadership minor, a 16-credit course of study that encourages engineering students to concentrate on ethics; creativity and innovation; the global and societal impacts of their decisions; and other nontraditional issues. She also serves as director of the International Institute for Engineering Education Assessment (i2e2a). 

On other fronts, Dr. Cox started her own company, STEMinent LLC, which seeks to license and commercialize her innovations, including The G-RATE, a Global Real-Time Assessment Tool for Teaching Enhancement that lets teachers track the time they spend on tasks such as classroom organization and how they engage with students in classroom observations. She also created the Quirky Time (@QuirkyTime) YouTube channel, featuring an animated series exploring the lives and eccentricities of a multicultural research group that just happens to be into STEM. And she co-authored a publication about socialmedia branding with entrepreneur Paul C. Brunson, co-host of “Our World with Black Enterprise.” Brunson is serving as Dr. Cox’s entrepreneurial mentor and research collaborator. 

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