Defining Diversity

According to the Fall Census Report for 2017, the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering & Applied Science demonstrates an undergraduate student body with the following stats:

  • Gender: 26.2 percent female, 73.8 percent male
  • First-Generation Status: 15.9 percent first gen., 84.1 percent not first gen.
  • Race/Ethnicity: 61.8 percent white, 11.6 percent Hispanic/Latino, 11.2 percent International, 11.1 percent Asian, 1.9 percent African-American, 1.2 percent American Indian / Native Alaskan and 1.2 percent Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander / Unknown

In the freshman class of 2017, stats show:

  • Gender: 36.8 percent female, 63.2 percent male
  • First-Generation Status: 18.8 percent first gen., 81.2 percent not first gen.
  • Race/Ethnicity: 54.9 percent white, 16.0 percent Hispanic/Latino, 12.0 percent International, 10.8 percent Asian, 3.7 percent African-American, 1.1 percent American Indian / Native Alaskan and 1.5 percent Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islander / Unknown

For those concerned with introducing gender and racial diversity into the college of Engineering, these stats are hopeful, especially given the breakdown of this year’s freshman class. But stats, as CU’s Sarah Banchesfky argues, can’t adequately promote diversity. If we want to break down stereotypes about who engineers are, we need to show people who they are.

Last spring, Banchefsky, who has a doctorate in social psychology, approached the engineering school hoping to gather information for her research, which primarily pertains to gender stereotypes within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. After collaborating with faculty, with the Dean’s Office and with the Broadening Opportunity through Leadership and Diversity (BOLD) Center, the nationwide #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign at CU was initiated.

According to Banchefsky, this campaign has several goals: to reduce stereotypes about engineers and engineering as a field, to reveal the diversity that already exists within engineering, to encourage people within the field to share experiences of discrimination, and to encourage people who have not considered engineering to do so.

“It is my hope that the campaign will benefit the engineers who participate in it by reinforcing their belonging within the field,” Banchefsky said. “And [it] will benefit non-engineers who will learn more about engineers and see that you don’t have to look or be a certain way in order to succeed in engineering.”

The hashtag was originally used in 2015 by Isis Wenger, a software engineer who, when featured in an advertisement by her company, was told she was “too attractive” to be a real engineer. Since then, the hashtag has exploded, with an impressive number of women in STEM fields and schools sharing their stories.

CU’s engineering school wants to use this hashtag for similar ends, but with an eye to illuminating the experiences of all underrepresented students in the school. And so, Vanessa Dunn, director of student engagement and community building at the BOLD Center, reached out to students involved in the BOLD community in search of initial participants. In the first round of sign-ups, nearly 30 students volunteered.

“I feel like it’s really important that our college sees the diversity,” Dunn said. “We want to challenge stereotypes about who engineers even are.” Dunn emphasized that this campaign directly aligned with BOLD’s core mission: to create a diverse environment and empower traditionally underrepresented students in engineering to achieve their dreams.

Students participating in the program attended a photoshoot and were asked to fill out a questionnaire where they were given the opportunity to discuss something they considered significant to their experience. Dunn highlighted the importance of letting students speak for themselves since this is the most effective means of demonstrating their uniqueness. Many of the students who participated chose to reflect on the campaign itself.

“#ILookLikeAnEngineer is a way to combat the stereotype of what an engineer looks like and who can be an engineer,” CU graduate Alan Sanchez said in his questionnaire. “This hashtag is a way to inspire kids who might think they do not fit the engineering mold to pursue a higher education in STEM. There is a lot of power in seeing someone who looks like you or who shares a similar background as you succeed.”

Participant and engineering graduate Caleb Hsu reflected on her early impressions of computer science; she remembers thinking, “‘I’m not smart enough’; ‘I would be out of place in a male-dominated field.’” Hsu is not alone; these are common doubts to have. In Hsu’s case, she was lucky to have people to encourage her to pursue the field, and now she feels as though she has benefited a great deal from the experience. “It is really important to try unfamiliar things out – whether or not we enjoy them or perform ‘well,’ it’s just another opportunity to learn about your strengths, weaknesses and the kind of work you are wired for,” Hsu said.

The campaign seeks to reveal the faces of all CU engineers in order to reduce stereotypes about engineers and increase interest in the field, and as Banchefsky reports, the campaign has already yielded some early results. A survey taken by nearly 4,000 incoming freshmen exposed to the campaign shows that these students believe the campaign is fulfilling its goals, and additionally, feel as though they themselves belong and are likely to succeed.

“This was especially the case for women, suggesting the campaign is particularly beneficial for negatively-stereotyped groups who are underrepresented in engineering,” Banchefsky said. “Among students who did not see the campaign, men are much more likely to say they would belong in engineering and to say they would succeed compared to women. But among students who had seen the #ILookLikeAnEngineer [question and answers], these gender gaps were significantly smaller or entirely eliminated.”

Dunn also praises the campaign for the impact it has had on her; through her work, she has learned more about the lives of many students she’s worked with. At times, she says she gets a little emotional when preparing a feature to post for it is then that she is often struck by the hardships and challenges her associates have overcome.

According to Banchefsky, it is important to feature these challenges and hardships, which is why she decided to add a section for participants to share their personal struggles.

“These responses have been so honest and powerful, and they show that even though the featured students have succeeded in engineering, it was often not a straightforward or easy path,” Banchefsky said. “Research shows that normalizing struggle is motivating for students.”

While the campaign does primarily feature traditionally underrepresented students, Dunn and Banchefsky both agree that this campaign is really open to anyone, and they hope it helps better represented students too. The ultimate goal is to challenge all stereotypes in engineering and embrace the idea that all engineering students are unique in their own way.

“I don’t want students to feel like they are a statistic,” Dunn said. “I want students to think that they are all unique individuals who contribute different ideas to engineering.”

Banchefsky says she intends to continue collecting information about the effects of this campaign. She plans to track surveyed students to see whether exposure to the campaign affects academic performance or has a bearing on the number of math and science courses a student chooses to take. Her hope, ultimately, is that the campaign will positively affect the lives of many.

– Gabe Rodriguez

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