T9-D&BP1-2 - Whiteness and Race in the Engineering Workplace

3. Research Work In Progress
Elliot P. Douglas1, 2 , Gretchen Dietz1, Erica McCray3
1 Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida
2 Department of Engineering Education, University of Florida
3 School of Special Education, School Psychology and Early Childhood Studies, University of Florida

This Work in Progress examines the role of race in the engineering workplace. In the United States, the demographics of the engineering profession do not reflect the population as a whole. Black engineers make up 12% of the overall population but only 5% of the engineering workforce. Various explanations for this disparity include lack of academic preparation, a “leaky pipeline”, and lack of role models. These deficit-based explanations are increasingly being replaced with examinations of the culture of engineering that disadvantages Black professionals. Critical Race Theory (CRT) highlights how racism is engrained in the fabric of US culture and facilitates maintenance of White power. Bonilla-Silva has described four frames that White people use to talk about race without being overtly racist: 1) abstract liberalism, the use of liberal tenets to explain or counter racial issues; 2) naturalization, explaining racial issues as natural occurrences; 3) cultural racism, explaining racial issues as having roots in cultural practices; and 4) minimization of racism, suggesting that discrimination and bias are no longer relevant. Through these frames White people practice color-blind racism, further minoritizing non-White people without engaging in overt acts of racism.

We are interested in understanding how the experiences of both Black and White engineers in the workplace are impacted by and impact both individual and structural racism. In this presentation we focus on preliminary data from White engineers. Our research addressed the following question:

How is Whiteness manifested in the engineering workplace?

To answer this research question we interviewed nine White engineers, five men and four women. Interviews were semi-structured and asked about their workplace culture and experiences. Our findings show that both men and women talked about racial minorities using the frame of abstract liberalism. The men espoused color blindness in hiring and framed the importance of diversity as being “diversity of experience”. They also used a frame of minimization, saying that even if there was potential for bias there was “no problem here.” The women used abstract liberalism to explain the lack of racial diversity in their workplaces, stating that they wanted to hire for diversity but there are few non-White applicants. However, the women also recognized their own status as minorities within engineering. They identified their intersectionality, described experiences of not fitting into the workplace culture, and recognized the importance of mentorship. While the men described the importance of a work ethic that required routinely working outside of business hours, the women valued family and life outside of work.

Our preliminary results suggest that among our participants “Whiteness as property” remains essential in defining engineering workplace culture in the US. For the White women, the intersection of race and gender creates a liminal space where they have experiences that are reflective of both the majority (White) and minority (women). We are continuing to interview engineers, including Black men and women, to gain a broader understanding of individual and structural racism in the US workplace.

Keywords: diversity, inclusion, gender, race