The University of Michigan Society of Women Engineers and the Center for Entrepreneurship held a seminar and group discussion titled “Strategies to Overcome Gender Stereotypes” Thursday afternoon for an audience of nearly 40 students. The discussion was a part of a new lecture series called Empowering Women through Entrepreneurship, which explores how business ethics and power ethics can defeat gender inequality in the workplace.
The discussion was led by Elizabeth Rohr, a program specialist for the University’s Center for the Education of Women. Throughout the session, Rohr focused on helping the group recognize and address microagressions as well mediating small group-led conversations.
Rohr described microagressions as everyday verbal or nonverbal environmental slights, snubs and insults; more often than not, she said, they are subconsciously performed by an individual with a privileged, or majority, background.
“Through years of my training and experience in social work, I automatically pick up on instances when people say ‘all of mankind,’ ” she said. “It makes me, and other women, feel excluded, like we were not a part of the history as well.”
As an example of a microagression, Rohr discussed instances like when men will spread out their legs on public transportation, possibly taking up two seats, while women are expected to cross their legs and take up as little space as possible.
Rackham student Jessica Chen said she was intrigued by the topic and decided to attend the seminar particularly to discuss issues like the gender gap among minority groups.
“I’ve always been interested and involved in women’s rights,” Chen said. “I do a lot of volunteering and the organization I’m involved with, we’re very interested in promoting a way to lessen the gender gap and for underrepresented minority groups.”
In addition to discussion of personal experiences and ways to resolve workplace issues resulting from microaggressions, the seminar also focused on progress made in recent years in gender equality. Many of the statistics in the presentation pertained to those in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — including that women make up 20 percent of engineering graduates, but only make up 11 percent of the engineering workforce.
Rackham student Jamie Do, who also attended the seminar, said she wanted to better understand how these microagressions and stereotypes play out in everyday life.
“I thought the title sounded interesting, and it would be neat to recognize how people view others and find out how to take away what I learn here to break down those barriers for my own sake,” Do said.
Ashleigh Bell, a student administration assistant for the Center for Entrepreneurship, said the center decided to start the seminar series in the College of Engineering because of the significant gender disparity in those fields.
“I really believe in the power of entrepreneurship as a means of empowering everyone, but especially women and individuals who are underrepresented in STEM,” Bell said. “I want them to really pursue their goals, whether that be starting your own company someday, working for a startup or innovating within an existing industry.”
Correction appended: An earlier version of this article misstated Elizabeth Rohr's title. She is a program specialist.