Race and the Digital: Racial Formation and 21st Century Technologies

"African American Women And Their Participation In Engineering and Technology Fields" By Alan Evangelista

Media Summary:

The Numbers
 In the article Graduate Engineering Programs Beef Up Efforts for Women, Minorities, Michael Morella looks at how schools are searching for ways to boost recruitment and retention of underrepresented students and faculty in engineering programs. According to a study by the American Society for Engineering Education, only about 24 percent of engineering master’s students and 22 percent of doctoral candidates are women. In regards to the engineering workforce, 15 percent of workers are women and 1 in 10 workers are either black, Hispanic, or American Indian. In light of such issues, Morella states that Rice University, along with many other engineering schools, are doing their part to ramp up programs to “recruit, retain, and advance women and other underrepresented students.”
 It Starts with Engagement and Opportunity
 For starters, educators in engineering programs are finding more effective ways to engage and support its students. This mean moving away from a strictly lecture based curriculum to one that brings engineering principles “to life” through real-world problem solving and community service. Karen Horting, executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers argues that this shift in educational practice “goes a long way” in keeping students, particularly women, committed to the program. Beyond the learning experience of its students, many schools are also awarding scholarships and fellowships to women and students of color who are pursing degrees in science and engineering.
 Establishing a Community and Mentorship
 According to Adrienne Minerick, associate dean for research and innovation in the College of Engineering at Michigan Technological University and chair of ASEE’s diversity committee, finding a community and a mentor or two can make a huge difference for students. This is why a number of institutions have begun establishing mentoring and enrichment programs. Georgia Tech for example, puts on a summer engineering program for underrepresented high school students and relies on grad students as chaperones and mentors. It has also established a longstanding relationship with Morehouse and Spelman, two historically black colleges, to create a “pipeline” for African American students interested in a graduate degree in engineering. Moreover, many universities who understand the importance of role models are making a more concerted effort to recruit more women and minority faculty members. 

Citation: Morella, Michael. "Graduate Engineering Programs Beef Up Efforts for Women, Minorities." US News. U.S.News & World Report, 1 Apr. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Reading Summary:

In the chapter "Black Women Engineers and Technologists" in A Hammer in Their Hands: A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience, V.L. Thomas looks at the participation of African American women in the field of engineering and technology. 

Brief History of the Engineering Discipline
Engineering education began in 1802 with the establishment of a civil engineering program at the U.S Military Academy of West Point. By 1872, many other schools had followed suit and the number of engineering programs increased from 6 to 70. Even with the increase, relatively few African Americans attended these schools because of their high concentration in the south. According to Thomas (1989), “Even though blacks could go to engineering schools in the North, they could not be admitted to the schools in the south, which were federally and state subsidized” (p. 314). It was not until post-WWII that along with Howard University, other historically black schools began establishing their own engineering programs. While many African Americans benefited from their increased educational opportunities, their participation in the technical professions was limited and difficult, especially for women. 

African American Women and Their Challenges
African American women in technical fields have had to face the “double handicaps” of being both black and female. This “dual identity” has both opened and closed many opportunities for them. Prior to WWII, job opportunities and membership in professional technical organizations in African American women’s fields were “nearly non-existent.” During the 1940s, the only professional jobs available to African Americans with degrees in physics and engineering were “teaching, preaching, and the legal or medical profession” (Thomas, 1989: 317). By the late 1960s however, the fate of African American engineers and technologists change drastically. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and Executive Order 11246, companies that wanted government contracts needed to hire more minority engineers and technologists. (Thomas, 1989: 320). In 1974, there were only 4300 women engineers in the U.S and the number of minority women engineers in the U.S was too small to count. This made it difficult for the government and corporations to find and hire Black women engineers. As a result, Black women engineers became heavily sought after. 

Remarkable Women Overcoming Adversity
Despite the many challenges and hardships that African American women faced in the field of engineering and technology, many survived and went on to make significant contributions in their respective fields. In 1979, for example, Jennie R. Patrick became the “first” African American women to obtain a Ph.D in chemical engineering from MIT. Although Jennie was credited to be the first, another African American women, Lilia Abron, received her doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Iowa in 1971. (Thomas, 1989: 315). In 1982, Dr. Irene Long became Kennedy Space Station’s first Black woman Chief of the Medical and Environmental Health Office in the Biomedical Operations and Research Office. Dr. Mae Jemison had one of the most challenging technical careers, becoming the first African American woman astronaut. 

The Future for African American Women in Engineering and Technology
When young Black women engineers and technologists were asked how to increase the number of African American women in their respective fields, the broad answers were to have mentors and role models, have outreach activities, introduce young students early to engineering careers, and emphasize the importance of math and science at an early age. Most of the women surveyed were very optimistic of the future of young African American women. As long as they are well-prepared, African American women can be leaders and pioneers in the fields of engineering and technology. 

Citation: Thomas, V. L. (1989). “Black Women Engineers and Technologists.” in A Hammer in Their Hands: A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience, ed. Caroll Pursell. MIT Press, 2005.


 From what we have come to learn so far, the digital divide has often been thought of in terms of who has access to the internet or computers (as seen in the blog post by Ebony on Native Americans). Or it can be thought of in terms of who is actually participating on the Internet (as in the blog by Michelle on Measuring Race on the Internet). What Morella’s article and Thomas’ chapter point to, however, is that the digital divide can also be looked at within the scope of technical careers. Who is participating in jobs related to technology and engineering? What we find is that there is and continues to be large disparities in the participation of technical fields—with women and minorities being underrepresented. There is a growing need to bridge this gap and create a more diverse and multicultural workforce. Doing so will not only lead to better economic prosperity for the individuals involved, but will help with the advancement of our country. More women and minorities in engineering and technology fields can lead to increased adaptability, broader service range, and higher productivity.

Many minority groups have already come up with ways to get more individuals involved in technical careers. As early as 1926, for example, a group of African American men formed the National Technical Association (NTA), which served to break down the barriers that impeded the advancement of science and engineering education and job opportunities for blacks (Thomas, 1989: 317).  According to Thomas (1989), “NTA became a very effective network for obtaining job opportunities in the members’ respective fields” (p. 317). Many African American women joined this association and shared in the leadership. In the article by Morella, we see schools doing their part to better recruit, engage, and support students interested in engineering. We need to continue providing greater opportunities for women and minorities, even if it's one step at a time. 

Discussion Questions:

1. According to Thomas (1989) "In 1988, engineering disciplines were among the most lucrative for minorities and all graduates" (320). Do you think this is still the case today? Why or why not?

2. The article and reading stated some solutions to bridge the gap in the technical professions among women and minorities. Do you agree with their solutions? Do you think they are effective? What are other ways we can bridge this gap? 

3. For young women and minorities already in Engineering/Technology fields, what are some of the barrier and or challenges they may continue to face? Do they receive the same respect? The same pay? 


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