The Impact of Bias in Academia: A Look at the Experience of Women and Ethnic Minorities in Engineering

Engineering is a challenging field that demands a high level of analytical and technical skills. As a Latina student in engineering, I have faced numerous difficulties that have made it even more challenging to succeed in this field. One of the most significant challenges I have faced is the prevalence of favoritism among professors toward male, specifically, white male students. This bias not only impacts my experience in the classroom but also has long-term implications for my future career.

In my experience, professors tend to show favoritism towards male students, specifically white male students. This bias can manifest in a variety of ways. For example, some professors may give white male students more attention during class discussions or award them higher grades on assignments. Others may be more likely to provide research opportunities or recommend them for internships or jobs. When professors show favoritism towards male students, it can be discouraging for female and ethnically diverse students, like me, who often feel overlooked or undervalued.

Research has shown that this favoritism is also prevalent in the classroom, which can contribute to the difficulties faced by ethnic minority women in STEM fields. Studies have found that professors are more likely to call on and interact with male students, leading to greater opportunities for those students to showcase their knowledge and engage with the material. This can result in women, especially ethnic minority women, feeling excluded and marginalized in the classroom, which can ultimately impact their academic performance and their desire to pursue a career in STEM.

A study published in the journal Social Psychology of Education found that white male students received more attention and praise from teachers compared to female students and students of color. The study also found that teachers tended to overestimate the abilities of white male students, while underestimating the abilities of female students and students of color. Even when their academic performance was similar, white male students were more likely to be recommended for advanced math and science courses compared to females and students of color. This favoritism can have a significant impact on the opportunities and experiences of ethnic minority women in STEM fields, as they may be held to higher standards or may receive less recognition for their work.

Furthermore, a study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley found that male faculty members in STEM fields rate male job candidates as more competent and deserving of higher salaries than female candidates with identical qualifications, demonstrating the existence of bias and favoritism towards white males. These biases and favoritism can have a significant impact on the experiences and opportunities of women and ethnic minorities in STEM, contributing to the underrepresentation of these groups in STEM fields.

The impact of this bias extends beyond the classroom. In the professional setting, white males are often favored for leadership positions, even when they may not be the most qualified candidates. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “glass ceiling,” and it can be particularly challenging for women of color to overcome. Studies have shown that women, especially minority women, are less likely to become engineers and therefore represent a small minority of engineers. This underrepresentation is not only harmful to women but also to the engineering field, which loses out on the valuable contributions that diverse perspectives can bring.

According to data from the National Science Foundation (NSF), ethnic minority women are significantly underrepresented in STEM fields. In 2019, women of color represented only 5% of workers in computer and mathematical sciences, 4% in engineering, and 4% in the physical sciences.

Furthermore, there exists a significant body of research describing the biases and discrimination that ethnic minority women face in academia and stem. A few of the most well-documented biases include stereotype threat, microaggressions, lack of mentorship, and unequal access to resources and opportunities. The reports from the National Science foundation shows that in 2018, Latina/Hispanic women earned 4.9% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees and 3.4% of all STEM doctoral degrees. Black women earned 2.7% of all STEM bachelor’s degrees and 2.2% of all STEM doctoral degrees. The numbers continue to be significantly lower than the proportion of these groups in the overall population. In 2019, Latina/Hispanic women made up approximately 18.5% of the U.S. population, and black women made up approximately 13.4% of the population.

Isabel Delgado, complete with welding gear (including a decorated helmet), welds alloys together.

As a Latina in STEM, it can feel like being adrift in a vast and endless ocean. Being the only person who looks like me in a classroom or workplace can be isolating. At times, I’ve felt ostracized or judged for asking questions, dismissing my curiosity and engagement. It’s an incredibly lonely feeling, like I’m floating out here alone, never quite sure if I’m doing enough or being enough. It’s hard not to feel like an imposter in this environment, like I don’t belong here and never will. But even as I struggle to keep my head above water, I know that I am not alone. I am part of a community of strong and resilient women and minorities who have faced similar challenges and persevered. I believe that diversity and representation are essential to advancing science and technology, and that by embracing our differences and amplifying our voices, we can create more innovative and inclusive solutions.

I believe that having more diversity among my instructors is essential for creating a more inclusive and supportive learning environment. It can be difficult to fully engage with material when I don’t feel like I can fully relate to or identify with my instructors. I would love to have more instructors who come from backgrounds like mine, as well as those from other underrepresented groups. Seeing people who look like me in positions of authority and expertise can be incredibly empowering and motivating, and I believe it can help other students from diverse backgrounds feel more included and supported as well. Ultimately, promoting diversity among instructors and other academic leaders is not just a matter of representation, but a key factor in creating an environment where all students can thrive and reach their full potential.

I am passionate about breaking down these barriers and helping to create a more inclusive and equitable field. One way to do this is by speaking out against bias and advocating for greater diversity and inclusion. By sharing my experiences and working together with other female students, we can help to create a more welcoming and supportive environment for all women in engineering.

It is up to all of us – educators, employers, policymakers, and individuals – to recognize and address these issues, to provide support and resources for underrepresented groups, and to create a more inclusive and equitable STEM community. In order to address this issue, various strategies have been proposed and implemented to increase diversity in STEM, as discussed in Linda Tsui’s article “Effective Strategies to Increase Diversity in STEM Fields: A Review.”

Tsui’s article provides an overview of strategies that have been proposed and implemented to increase diversity in STEM fields, including promoting STEM education among underrepresented groups, providing mentorship and support for underrepresented students and faculty, addressing implicit bias and stereotypes, and promoting institutional change through diversity initiatives and policies. These strategies can help to address the systemic biases and barriers that prevent women of color from fully participating and advancing in STEM fields. FRCC does have a “Philosophy of Inclusion,”  which addresses the aforementioned issues and acknowledges that having these conversations can be difficult. However, if they strive to be a Hispanic Serving Institution, which is welcoming of this group and others, then these conversations must be had.

It is clear that ethnic minority women face significant barriers and obstacles in STEM fields, including discrimination, bias, and a lack of representation and role models. However, despite these challenges, there are many brave and talented women who are breaking down these barriers and paving the way for future generations.

Together, we can create a brighter and more diverse future for STEM, where all individuals are given the opportunity and support to pursue their passions and achieve their dreams. Let us stand together and make this vision a reality.

Featured photo courtesy of Joshua Monen

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