Engi-Queering: To Be SEAS but Not Heard 

By

By HUNTER RICHARDS 

 

Engineering is hard. Struggling with your identity is hard. Navigating how you fit into the engineering community as a whole is hard. Not relating to the majority of your classmates, professors, or leaders in your field because you can’t find your background represented enough is hard. Trying to graduate with an engineering degree when you’ve spent years struggling to believe you can be an engineer is hard. And, honestly, it’s not getting any easier. 

Although my mom always supported my interest in science and math growing up, I wasn’t shielded from those around me expressing their lack of support. Being told as a rising senior that I was wasting my time studying engineering at MIT for the summer when I should be learning how to cook and sew left me in shock. Even as I headed off to Harvard, I was told by older members of my community that it was good that I got into a college where I could finally find a man smarter than me. Rather than being congratulated on these triumphs and pursuits, I was reminded yet again that I was expected to become a wife and mother – not an engineer.  

Even now, in classes filled with other engineers coming from a variety of different backgrounds, I don’t always feel like the expectations of my abilities are the same as my peers. 

Sitting in office hours working on problem sets, I’ve been ignored by the men sitting around me as they struggle to work out the application of an equation. I’ve had the right answer but told that I was likely misunderstanding the parameters being used. I’ve been talked over, only to have one of the men sitting near me repeat my exact words but in a louder tone and then congratulated on his idea. I’ve been pushed to the back of discussions with professors and TFs by men who are louder and more confident in demanding attention. I’ve seen my male classmates mock me for taking the time to do my eyeliner and do my nails even after pulling all-nighters for homework multiple times in a week. I’ve felt jealous of the other women in my engineering classes who fit in better than I do. I’ve sat in bathrooms frustrated that there are no women or minority professors teaching my classes this semester. I’ve watched male professors interrupt their female peers, even when these women are more advanced in the specific field being discussed at the time. 

While I’ve loved my professors and advisors, not feeling like I can relate to their personal experiences distances me from engineering. Not seeing my own background reflected in the leaders of my field has caused me to reconsider my own abilities many times. Without seeing my background represented amongst faculty, I’ve often turned to my peers looking for validation only to again feel a lack of substantial support.  

Harvard’s Bachelor of Science (SB) degree for Engineering Sciences requires 20 courses. On top of these 20 courses, students must still complete their general education, first year Expos, and language requirements. Even after double-counting general education requirements, Harvard engineers often won’t have time for electives too far from their field of study. With a Sophomore Forum that doesn’t count for course credit and the yearlong Senior Tutorial only counting for one course credit, it’s difficult to make time for extracurriculars and working outside of class. The required capstone project dominates most of Senior year and often begins at the end of Junior year. Much of my college experience has been surrounded by other engineers and engineering topics, yet I don’t know if I believe the engineering community has become more representative of who I am. 

The lack of female and minority role models to look up to when considering career paths discourages entrances into these fields. According to the National Science Foundation, less than 40% of full-time first-year students in 2016 pursuing engineering were non-white. The societal discriminatory perceptions and lack of opportunities faced by underrepresented groups continues to prevent access to STEM fields. It’s a cycle: underrepresented minorities aren’t afforded opportunities in STEM, they won’t see role models they relate to in STEM fields, and they’ll feel discouraged to become a figure within these fields that could potentially be a role model to future generations. 

MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach Programs work with middle and high school students coming from underrepresented backgrounds to prepare them to enter into engineering fields in college. I personally participated in one such program – MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Sciences (MITES) – as a rising senior in high school. It was this opportunity to take college courses at MIT and the introduction to postsecondary education in general that helped me navigate Harvard’s campus, courses, and culture. Without having drawn from MITES as a freshman, struggling to stay on track with my classmates in the core prerequisites for engineering while trying to make new friends and keep in touch with my family, I likely would not have continued at Harvard. During freshman spring, I considered transferring to another university closer to home that I felt I would fit in at better. 

It was not until attending 1vyG, the Ivy League first generation conference, in its first year at Brown that I bonded with others from similar backgrounds who validated my experiences. After attending the conference and feeling more confident in my ability to make myself proud of my own successes in overcoming obstacles, I no longer seriously considered not being able to graduate from Harvard. Although I was no longer considering dropping out or transferring, I still struggled to find mentorship that I could relate to at Harvard while pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Engineering.  

According to Harvard’s SEAS, its faculty is 14% and 18% tenured and tenure-track women, respectively, with 21% tenured and 23% tenure-track Asian faculty members. The department boasts a minority population comprising 25.4% of Harvard’s SEAS overall staff, due to efforts of the Human Resources Office to advocate for diversity. However, there are currently no tenured minority faculty members.  With 27% of the 943 undergraduates studying engineering being women, the gender gap is wide. While only about 14% of engineers in the United States are women, Harvard still lags behind peer institutions. In 2016, Dartmouth College became the first to award more engineering degrees to women than men. On the other side of Cambridge, 28% of MIT’s undergraduate engineering student body and 8% of the engineering faculty are identified as being an underrepresented minority 

I’ve struggled to see myself as an engineer after being reminded time and time again that society doesn’t see me as an engineer. But the thing is – I am an engineer. Maybe I don’t look like what the historical engineer is meant to be, but when I hold my degree in front of my full breasts with a hand on my large hip and toss my curled hair back over my shoulder revealing a contoured and rouged face to pose for graduation photos, I won’t care. I’ve learned to love the body I was given and it’s exhausting to be shamed for it, especially within the classroom. Having a masculine name, I’ve often been told repeatedly in professional interactions meeting professors or interviewers for the first time that they expected to be meeting a man. Perhaps it’s this practice that empowers me to keep surprising everyone by not being whom they expected. 

 

Hunter Richards ([email protected]) is working towards saving the world, whether or not the people occupying it believe that she can.