…we’re still mostly ‘invisible’…

In my entire academic and professional career, I’ve known of three, but only met TWO, female African American mechanical engineers.

NB: Altho my post-graduate degree in Renewable Energy Engineering is an amalgam of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and sustainable development, I think of myself of as that of the mechanical engineering ilk–fluid mechanics and heat transfer are my comfort zones.

In 1991, I met Dr. Carolyn Meyers at the GA Institute of Technology. At last check, Dr. Meyer’s was the President of Norfolk State University.

In 2006, I met Kayin Talton, who was a member of NSBE [National Society of Black Engineers] and finishing up her BSc at Portland State University. She didn’t take work as a mechanical engineer. She’s a mom, with two young children, and an entrepreneur where she practices industrial design with her business, Soapbox Theory. When I need some graphic design work, she’s my first contact.

The last woman I met remotely only last year from a brainstorming session as a splinter group from the Local Clean Energy Alliance, Linda Barrera. She received her BSc in mechanical engineering, but practices law.

But why is this? I’l tell you why. The engineering discipline, especially the mechanical engineering discipline, can be ‘hostile’. I can attest.

During my time as an undergraduate mathematics-engineering student, from differential equations on, I was usually only one of two women in the engineering classes–but on many occasions, the only one. Nope, STEM [Science Technology Engineering Mathematics] programs weren’t around then. Most of the time I felt invisible. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman affirmed my sentiments back in 2010 in this NY Times article. I lost count him many times the following happened to me:
Bias Called Persistent Hurdle for Women in Sciences

[snip]
Many in the Bayer survey, also being released Monday, said they had been discouraged from going into their field in college, most often by a professor.

“My professors were not that excited to see me in their classes,” said Mae C. Jemison, a chemical engineer and the first African-American female astronaut, who works with Bayer’s science literacy project. “When I would ask a question, they would just look at me like, ‘Why are you asking that?’ But when a white boy down the row would ask the very same question, they’d say ‘astute observation.’ ”

There was a study performed in the UK a few years ago, that cited ~70% of the women who study undergraduate engineering, do not go into their respective engineering professions. Why? Hostility.

More recently, I caught this:

New Commercial Exposes The Sneaky Ways We Discourage Girls From Pursuing Science

Several months ago, I discovered the Goldie Blox company thanks to one of my female machining classmates hipping me to them. Their commercial was featured during the last SuperBowl. In one of their ‘toys for future innovators’ video advertisements, this statistic pops up:

“…only 18% of all college engineering majors are female.”

When I was attending ugrad school it was more like 2%-3%.

What we need are more spots like this.

This is your brain on engineering.

And then there was my recent interaction with my pal, who has a five year old daughter. Just this past week, this young five year old girl told me she wanted to be an engineer like me when she grew up. She tends to soak up my geeky offerings more than her brothers when I present all of them with a word of the day, e.g. innovator, copacetic, onerous, or demonstrate how to tune a bicycle derailleur. The boys could care less most of the time.

Mom, doesn’t want her to exclude her brothers from also playing with Goldie Blox for an all girls play date with another five year old up the street who actually owns the pinkified Goldie Blox ‘erector set. What’s sad, is the boys often exclude their sister for ‘boys only’ activities. I pointed out to mom that I thought she was being contradictory, because she often has a ‘girls night out’, too.

But I’ve witnessed this on the playgrounds, as well—and it’s not always about gender, but more about physical prowess or ‘belonging’ to a cadre, the pack. It’s just human/animal nature, right? I NEVER felt excluded when playing games with my siblings. I thank my mom for this. Most of the time, I was off in my own little world, creating, inventing, taking care of them, so no time to play games. Anomaly. But when I did play with the boys e.g. Cops & Robbers, Cowboys & Indians, soccer, kickball, I can’t help think they embraced me because of my physical abilities to hang in and sometimes become the King of the Hill; it’s good to be the King.

Seriously, because of my own seemingly in-perpetuity exclusions, I really don’t have a problem with the current trend in the toy industry that is trying to take areas of play traditionally reserved for boys and marketing them to girls—mainly because I continue to live this disparity in being excluded. Seriously, I don’t think it’s impossible to make a product solely directed at either girls or boys without excluding the other group, but it’s not they way things are. I think a cause a mom should champion is for toy manufacturers stop marketing exclusively blue for boys and pink for girls, then society might get somewhere.

However, a great deal of little girls want to wear pink, obsess about princesses. When they do this, are they really making their own choices? I think we know the answer to this. “No. They are not.”

Aside: I didn’t like wearing pink or obsessing about princess, and made clear pronouncements to my mom when she tried to force me to wear lacy pink clothes, and put black patten leather shoes on me, which I immediately scuffed up on donning. She stopped trying after that. I was five years old. Before my mom passed away several years ago, she told me, as early as the age of two that I liked playing with building blocks, and flushing them down the toilet to see how stuff worked. Thankfully, my mom did not stifle me and always encouraged me to out think the box—she was, after all, a scientist.

Girls are only conforming to a market-driven view of femininity that has been designed quite deliberately to limit their choices, both in the short term and in the long term—they are being trained to associate their identity with marketized femininity, consisting of a few highly defined elements: fashion, dieting, housework, ‘caring’ roles and professions. Change this, make gender neutral toys a norm, and them perhaps there won’t be a need to pinkify an erector set, Goldie Blox, to make them appeal to girls or their parents.

Right, kids are kids, and they should be allowed to play with whatever they want. I sure also hope that parents who believe this are consistent in managing the diminishing, exclusionary chirps ‘not for girls’ and with their own behavior. So when young girls like my pal’s daughter try to assert their agency to be included, but are instead diminished, banished and told to ‘get lost’, then we wonder why they don’t embrace the sciences/engineering.

I told mom, if this young girl eventually chooses a profession that is (still) dominated by men, er e.g. engineering, neurosurgery, garnering experience and learning how to assert her agency, or come up with her own creative work-arounds, like finding Ms. Kim to come up with a more way-best, geeked-out activity or playing with Goldie Blox, is going to be a life long ‘vocation’–so she might as well start preparing for it now.

Whoa there’s some psychology. Fleh.

 

PREPARE. RESPOND. ADAPT.