Commentary on a flawed system: diversifying engineering

April 2, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

This quarter, I was fortunate to have taken ENGR 117 at Stanford, a course that investigates how culture and diversity influence who becomes an engineer. My motivation for this class was originally to fulfill my major’s Technology in Society requirement, and had I not needed to take this class, I couldn’t say that I would have sought it out on my own. But now, looking back, it has been one of the most enlightening classes I’ve taken at Stanford, and I’m glad to have taken it.

As the course has unfolded, and we’ve explored the effects of diversity on engineering, I’ve been conducting conversations with friends and peers to learn more about my own academic environment. I was often shocked to hear some of the things that were said, but at the same time optimistic because of others. I’d like to recreate my journey and experiences here.

Early on, I received a comment: what if merely starting our own conversations amongst ourselves could have an impact on creating a more accepting, engaging and aware engineering community? To explore this, I talked to both friends and peers, men and women, and heard a lot of what I had hoped to from both sides. For every interviewee, we spoke twice, allowing them to reflect upon how the first conversation had impacted them. Everything I note here was either self-reported or from my own observations.

When talking to men, a lot of what I inferred from tone and comments led me to believe that this was one of the few times that they had engaged in this topic outside of class, and that we were just scratching the surface. When I related to them the experiences of interviewed women, especially how often the women were “mansplained” a topic or not given a lead role, this was new news to many of the men. That struck me. However, from the first conversation to the second, there were definitely changes that I saw. One reflection from a second conversation offers a good example:

“My capstone group is me and two other women, and I was wondering if there’s stuff I’m doing that I’m not really conscious of, so I’ve been trying to be more aware of that. I’ll bring that up and see if that’s an issue because that’s definitely something I want to be aware of.”

I was happy to hear many of them begin to reflect more on their own attitudes and actions, even if they may not have been doing anything negative themselves. While from the first conversation to the second, I had noticed a heightened self-awareness, it sounded doubtful that our conversations would prompt more tangible action to spread that awareness.

Talking to women in engineering, even though they were clearly aware of the disparity, they were almost less inclined to take action. One of the women I interviewed grew up playing video games, an environment which she describes as 99 percent male, which was something she had gotten used to. Another described her situation by saying, “Yup, [I’m] entering a man’s world. Get over it.” This ran contrary to the hopeful message of equality that I had believed. It seems that, on the surface, we’re always hearing about how progress is being made by organizations like and people like Maria Klawe, but in reality, this is only a very small (though not unnoticed) part of what needs to be done. As stated by another interviewee: “maybe it’s indicative that the world is sugar coating everything.”

We’ve all grown up in a male-centered society, and given the difficulty in shifting perspectives, most of us just intend to “go with the flow.” After my conversations with women, as with the men, they also began giving the topic of equality more thought, but wouldn’t necessarily speak up because of fear of what others might think of them (a problem unto itself).

Stanford’s community is unique in that the majority of, if not all, students come to this campus with open and malleable minds — both academically and socially. I am optimistic in saying that by engaging in and furthering conversations, we will increase awareness and create a broader community within engineering. And while these conversations do not propagate as widely as I would have hoped, they are powerful tools in raising awareness and pushing towards future change. In addition to raising awareness, they give people the necessary vocabulary to recognize what is going on and to start a serious dialog. Just as a wealth of words for snow allows the Eskimo language to convey details we cannot, a wealth of conversations about diversity in engineering can allow us to push the topic forward into the spotlight and explore details and nuances that we might not have been aware of before.

— Benjamin Barcklay ’18

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