The Logic for Leaving: An African American Woman in STEM Discusses Challenges

October 21, 2015

Shaneen Harris had not always been attracted to engineering jobs. But she knew that she wanted to pursue a career that would raise her family out of poverty — and that the high-paying engineering field offered a promising pathway.

Long fascinated with electricity and a high performer in middle school math and science, Harris decided to major in electrical engineering in college and went on to earn a graduate degree in the field. She worked in information technology as a computer application developer for nearly 20 years. But then she left the field entirely. Among the reasons? Gender bias and a hostile workplace environment.

Defying the “Diversity Hire”

Shaneen Harris

Shaneen Harris

According to a study by Wisconsin University highlighted in AAUW’s 2015 report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing, Harris’ story is part of the large-scale problem of women leaving engineering. For the study, researchers collected more than 5,500 survey responses from women with engineering degrees. They found that about a quarter had previously worked as engineers but had left the field, most citing a lack of workplace support and a hostile environment to women.

Women make up just 26 percent of the computing workforce and 12 percent of the engineering workforce. African American women represent an even smaller fraction, just 3 percent of the computing workforce and 1 percent of the engineering workforce. As an African American woman who has studied engineering and worked in computing, Harris says she is unsure whether the biases she experienced in the IT workplace were racial or gender-based. Ultimately, however, she experienced the effects of both kinds of bias.

Gender bias coupled with racial bias presents a particularly challenging environment for women of color in engineering and computing. Harris says she felt self-imposed pressure to thwart racial stereotypes, including combating the notion that she was a “diversity hire,” and working to convince her co-workers that African Americans are competent in the workplace. “There’s a misconception that because you are an African American woman [in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics], you can write your ticket, the standards are not as high for you, and you don’t have to do your job when you get into IT — which is totally untrue,” she says.

As a woman, Harris often walked the tightrope between being professional and being social with her colleagues. “I have had to tell [male colleagues], ‘I’m not your girlfriend; I’m not your mother; I’m your co-worker,’” so that they respected her opinions.

Leaving STEM: The Deciding Factors

Shaneen and her husband, who also works in IT

Harris and her husband, who currently works in IT

In her corporate STEM job, Harris often faced the quandary of whether to attend work events and help grow her career or go home and spend time with her husband and children. Harris says this became a running joke from her son, who often said, “If I want you to get something done, I’ll just call your boss and ask him to put it on your to-do list.”

Harris’ experience aligns with the Wisconsin University survey study, which claims that women who left engineering and computing were less likely to have opportunities for training and development, support from co-workers or supervisors, and support for balancing work and non-work roles in their former jobs than were women who had stayed in the profession.

Fortunately, Harris also experienced positive workplace environments during her computing career. She says the best companies she worked for were ones that listened to her and helped her achieve her career goals, paid her fairly, and respected her family obligations.

The Case for Adding Women

Three siblings sit together on a couch

Harris juggled an IT career and quality time with her eldest daughter and writer of this post, Seaira (center), and two younger children.

When women are not well represented in STEM fields, everyone misses out on the novel solutions that diverse participation brings. The great demand for workers in the engineering and computing workforce is just one important reason to attract more women to these fields. Harris advises young women of color pursuing STEM majors and careers to first prioritize doing good work: “Don’t get so caught up on being the only one like you that you lose sight of being the best you that you can be.”

Borne out by decades of research, Harris’ story illustrates how simply recruiting women into existing engineering and computing educational programs has limited success. Improvements to the workplace, including efforts to prevent gender bias and welcome women into these fields, are truly vital. After all, recruiting women will be truly successful only if women who start in engineering and computing get the support they need to stay in these fields.

This post was written by proud daughter and AAUW Social Media and Media Relations intern Seaira Christian-Daniels.


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4 Comments

  1. Angelia Bendolph says:

    Ms. Harris’ story is my story. I worked in the IT field for over 20 years and had similar experiences. The workplace was so hostile at times that my health was adversely affected. As much as I loved what I did, I had to make a choice so that I could be around for my family. I am glad, however, that AAUW still allows me to have a voice when it comes to STEM. I think that having support and the efforts to prevent gender bias are key. I am so grateful that AAUW is making strides by keeping this issue in the forefront.

  2. […] The Logic for Leaving: An African American Woman in STEM Discusses Challenges AAUW […]

  3. […] From designing sports products to building a burgeoning market of smart technology and mobile apps around exercise and athletics, scientists play a powerful role in aiding athletes. AAUW research shows that when women are included in the technical design process behind these products, the devices are better able to meet women-specific needs. A critical example is prosthetics, which are used to help facilitate rehabilitation, yet are largely based on the bone density and structure of a white male. According to biomedical engineering doctoral scholar Adrienne Williams, a 2015–16 AAUW International Fellow, African American women, who face different health risks than white males, would benefit from a more mindful design of prosthetic limbs. “Unfortunately, mass production is based on average measurements taken from groups for which data already exists and is readily available and therefore cheaper to obtain,” she says. This is just one of the many reasons why it’s critical that we work to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields more accessible to women of color. […]

  4. […] This is just one of the many reasons why it’s critical that we work to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields more accessible to women of color. […]

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