Aerospace Engineering chair speaks on importance of diversity

Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 8:04pm

Aerospace engineering professor Kenneth Powell shares various examples of his recent social science research as part of the AE Chair's Distinguished Seminar Series in the Francios-Xavier Bagnoud Building Thursday afternoon.

Aerospace engineering professor Kenneth Powell shares various examples of his recent social science research as part of the AE Chair's Distinguished Seminar Series in the Francios-Xavier Bagnoud Building Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Ken Powell, Arthur F. Thurnau professor and undergraduate program chair of aerospace engineering, spoke to a group of more than 100 aspiring aerospace engineers and University of Michigan professors in the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud building Thursday afternoon as part of the Aerospace Engineering Chair’s Distinguished Seminar Series. 

The talk discussed the large gender and race disparities present in many engineering fields and the steps administrators can take to create a more diverse and representative community. The discussion took place during a graduate-level aerospace engineering class that features a different guest speaker every Thursday afternoon. 

Powell centered his talk around the ways various “schema,” or stereotypes, influence an individual’s experiences with hiring, employment and education. He emphasized the importance of recognizing unconscious bias in job interviews and academic settings, and cited numerous studies where job applicants were put at a disadvantage because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. 

“(Schemas) allow you to reach a rapid conclusion based on past information that you looked up,” Powell said. “Unfortunately, that conclusion is sometimes not accurate. So, oftentimes what’s really insidious about this is that…the conclusions that are reached because of this fast thinking actually conflict with your consciously-held thought process.”

Though the talk covered unconscious bias as a more broadly prevalent issue, it also touched on how aerospace engineering is particularly affected by a lack of diversity. According to statistics from the Rackham Graduate School, 18 percent of aerospace engineering candidates identify as female and 27 percent of students identify as multiracial or people of color. Compared to the 2019 University Medical School incoming class, where 60 percent of students identify as female, aerospace engineering is a much more homogenous field of study.

Anthony Waas, Richard A. Auhll department chair of aerospace engineering, said aerospace engineering has struggled to attract a more diverse cohort of students because it has typically been dominated by white, male engineers. He said even with these difficulties, the University’s department has taken steps to make the community more inclusive, including creating a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion committee composed of both faculty and students. 

“I’m very optimistic because leadership is changing, and more and more young people are assuming leadership roles,” Waas said. “So, I think the future is very bright. I think we will see a very diverse and more inclusive aerospace community.”

In his talk, Powell mentioned a study done at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado that showed that female cadets who had at least one female math or science professor during their college careers were more likely to pursue those fields in the long term. Conversely, the gender of the math and science professors had little to no effect on male cadets interested in math or science disciplines — the same number of male cadets majored in math or science fields regardless of their professors’ genders. 

Powell said these types of studies clearly illustrate how diversifying a field of study can lead to higher levels of excellence and attainment in the workplace and in the classroom. He also noted how the greatest talent can only be found when employers actively seek out a diverse group of applicants or students. 

“Something that is pretty intuitive is that if you only draw from a small pool — a small percentage of the population — you’re missing huge amounts of talent,” Powell said. “This is an argument for having a relative balance of men and women in the workplace, it’s an argument for looking for people in places that don’t necessarily go into these fields, that don’t have financial resources or go to great universities. We need to really scour the globe for the most talented people.”

Powell also dedicated a portion of his lecture to discussing how universities should move forward with building a more diverse community, even if their past cohorts were relatively non-diverse. He said universities should showcase photos of the diversity they have achieved and hope to achieve in the future instead of the homogeneity that used to define their departments. 

“We want to get rid of cues in the environment that will (raise) those questions, reminding someone that they may not look like the other people who are hired,” Powell said. “When candidates walk past chairs, it can be a stereotype threat. It doesn’t take a huge amount of thought (for universities) to get past that.”

Aerospace Engineering graduate student Tianqi Liu is enrolled in the course and attended Powell’s lecture. Liu said she sometimes feels alienated from the field as a woman and an international student. 

“I just wonder sometimes — you have to prove yourself, like, ‘I can do it, it’s my ability, it’s not dependent on gender, male or female — it’s just what I want to do,’” Liu said. “I think that’s a very important point that was made. I am Asian and an international student, (so) when you do hiring or an interview, people always ask you if you’re a U.S. citizen or something like that. It’s hard for us to get a job and even to submit our resume, because you are not a U.S. citizen.”