By Mini Racker
On April 16th, the University named the newest four Stanford Engineering Heroes, sparking a conversation about representation among Stanford engineers. This year’s winners are astronaut Mae Jemison, graphics processing unit inventor Jensen Huang M.S. ’92 and the late computing duo, Stanford computer science (CS) department founder George Forsythe and co-author of the first-ever CS textbook, Alexandra Forsythe.
The program recognizes the accomplishments of School of Engineering alumni and former faculty. Out of 39 Heroes named since the program’s inception in 2010, Jemison and Forsythe are the third and fourth women. Jemison and Huang are the third and fourth people of color.
Questions of diversity
Civil and environmental engineering student Kimberly Lawrence M.S. ’18 first discovered the Engineering Heroes program in 2016 after she was admitted to Stanford.
“It’s a good way for me, as someone who grew up in the Caribbean and didn’t really get to interact with engineers much, to see what could be possible for people like me,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence, however, said she did not recognize many people like herself among the Heroes. Neither did Margaret Daly, another graduate student in civil and environmental engineering.
Daly said she first learned about the Engineering Heroes when she saw their photos displayed on the wall of the Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center basement, a space where students often gather for office hours appointments with teaching assistants and faculty.
“I was just staring up into space, and I [saw] this wall full of white men,” Daly said. “And it’s pretty apparent there are almost no women.”
Though this phenomenon may be beginning to change with this year’s winners, engineering student Sage Lagron ’18 M.S. ’19 said she noticed commonalities between the Heroes from marginalized groups. She pointed out that Huang, one of three men of Taiwanese or Chinese descent, is the namesake of the building where the photos hang.
“The past two deans of the School of Engineering have been inspiring and incredibly accomplished women,” Lagron wrote in an email to The Daily. “However, the Stanford Engineering Heroes awards have historically adopted a narrow view of what constitutes heroism, and the particular professions and accomplishments highlighted among awardees has the unfortunate effect of implying that you have to be an astronaut to be recognized if you’re a woman, and you have to build a building for Stanford if you’re a person of color.”
Mechanical engineering professor Sheri Sheppard said she was glad to see more diversity among this year’s awardees, including in the diversity of Heroes’ scientific accomplishments.
“If you always define excellence in one way, it may limit identifying a wider range of people,” said Sheppard. “So if excellence becomes that you’ve done a start-up that’s made 100 million dollars or that’s grown really fast, the ability to be diverse in recognizing that kind of excellence is pretty narrow.”
Teyonna Jarman ’18, a product design major, said she felt that some types of excellence were out of reach for her at Stanford.
“Of course I’m never going to be a CS genius because I had never coded before coming to Stanford,” Jarman said. “It can be hard to imagine myself as one of the original software engineers at something like Google because the only people I’ve ever heard talk about it are old white men.”
Jarman, Lagron, Daly and Lawrence all said they recognized that the historical lack of diversity among engineers might pose a challenge when selecting a diverse group of Heroes. However, they added that they want Stanford to push harder to be at the forefront of diversity in engineering.
“I think Stanford is, in many ways, very cautious and therefore, in some ways, a slow moving institution,” said Lagron. “It’s reluctant to make large changes. I think it’s partially an administration-culture piece.”
According to School of Engineering (SoE) Dean Jennifer Widom, diversity is a priority for the Engineering School.
“Improving diversity across the School of Engineering is critical to our success and to the entire field,” said Widom. “We’ve been making solid strides in the right direction and seeing measurable results.”
To this end, the SoE has worked to increase personnel in the Dean’s Office for Student Affairs. Recent additions include Lourdes Andrade, director of diversity and inclusion, who previously supported first-generation and low-income students as director of the Leland Scholars Program.
Furthermore, the SoE’s nominating committee for the Engineering Heroes is composed of two dozen individuals from diverse backgrounds, including current and former students and faculty, staff and historians.
The committee nominated Heroes based on their status as former SoE students or emeritus faculty, their life’s work in a technological field and its societal impact, their leadership abilities and their overall adherence to the SoE’s mission of using engineering principles to solve global problems.
Still, some students said they felt the committee has passed over deserving recipients. They named some of their own engineering heroes — women or people of color — and wondered why Stanford had not yet featured them.
“For instance, Marissa Mayer, who is the CEO for Yahoo — she’s not represented on this wall,” said Daly. “I don’t think there’s a dearth of women who are considered successful. I think it’s that, instead of digging in the archives for all the women who could be considered successful, [the judges] are not considering the possible biases they may have.”
In light of the newly named Engineering Heroes, several students expressed their desire to see people like them represented among Stanford engineers.
In particular, Daly described how accomplished female professors shaped her own journey.
“Especially when seeing the most recent nominations for the Heroes,” said Daly, “where it was a man and his wife — this kind of complementary thing, this dependency on the two — it’s really nice to see these fully independent, strong women in power.”
Students also expressed mixed feelings about diversity among their peers.
Daly said that while her incoming class consisted of approximately equal numbers of male and female-identifying students and that she does not “feel treated any differently than [her] male peers,” the Engineering Heroes are not representative of this diversity.
“You might see all this diversity around you in race, gender and ethnicity,” she said, “But then you look at this wall, and you realize, ‘Okay, this is actually who’s ‘succeeding’ in Stanford’s eyes outside of this bubble.’”
Other students also described tensions between their racial or gender identities and Stanford Engineering. Lawrence, for example, completed her undergraduate program at the University of the West Indies where most of the people she worked with were people of color.
“I never felt like, ‘Now I’m a black woman in science, okay, I’m a black woman here, I’m black,’” she said. “I was free to just focus on my work. ”
At Stanford, Lawrence said she finds herself more aware of her race, especially when she is the only black student in a class.
“Sometimes that is kind of limiting,” she says, “because if you’re confused about something or you want to ask questions about something, subconsciously you might feel like, ‘I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, it’s the black woman who doesn’t get it.’’”
Jarman said Stanford affected her self-perception similarly.
“At my high school, it was very easy for me to assume leadership roles,” she said. “Coming to Stanford and being thrust back into what society would expect me to identify as my place has been weird.”
Jarman said she also noticed how the number of white men in her engineering classes has led to a disproportionate number of white men in her project groups. In her experience, being a minority in such groups has made it harder to have a say in the project direction. She gave the example of a design she had worked on in an introductory course.
“We walked away with something I wasn’t really proud of because I didn’t really have a stake in it,” Jarman said.“It wasn’t an idea I was involved in. We made a pinball machine that was Christian McCaffrey-themed. So even that, we were celebrating more white maleness. It didn’t excite me in the same way.”
What the numbers say
Despite the disproportionate number of men in engineering, gender diversity among Stanford engineers is relatively high compared to that of the U.S. in general, according to Sheppard.
According to the Registrar’s statistics for the ’16-’17 school year, women make up about 30 percent of Stanford’s mechanical engineers. Nationally, she said that only 10 percent of mechanical engineering students are women and that even fewer women are in electrical engineering.
She added that MIT’s mechanical engineering program currently consists of 50 percent women.
While there are many theories about the lack of gender diversity in engineering, Sheppard highlighted one in particular.
“There [are] some theories that some fields where you can more directly see a connection to impact on people tend to draw more women,” she said. “And that would be environmental engineering, bioengineering and, to some extent, chemical engineering.”
The numbers partially support this theory. At Stanford, women make up 32 percent of chemical engineers, 42 percent of bioengineers, 45 percent of civil and environmental engineers and 59 percent of environmental systems engineers. Women also make up a majority in the SoE’s individually designed major and the bachelor of science degree in engineering major, which includes subplans like product design. Among graduate students, however, men outnumber women in every program, according to the Registrar’s ’16-’17 school year statistics.
Sheppard explained that the diversity challenges at the graduate level may exceed those at the undergraduate level because faculty, rather than the admissions office, select masters students. These decisions may thus be more subject to individual biases, a challenge which Sheppard says the School of Engineering is working to address.
Lawrence, for her part, said she would like to see more transparency in the statistics Stanford publishes. For instance, she expressed the desire for more clarity on the backgrounds of students who are lumped under the “international” designation.
“I think it would help us to face the facts,” she said. “You can’t know what needs change if you don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
On the whole, though, Lawrence said she is glad the conversation is happening and glad to be a stakeholder in it, a role she has grown into over the course of her engineering journey.
“I felt like I needed to prove myself before I could talk about things like this,” she said.
Contact Mini Racker at mracker ‘at’ stanford.edu.
This article has been updated to clarify that the statistics on gender diversity in Stanford’s graduate engineering programs are referenced from the ’16-’17 school year, given that ’17-’18 data has yet to be made publicly available. This article has also been updated with additional comment and clarification from Sage Lagron.