Aerospace professor discusses diversity in the field

Thursday, January 10, 2019 - 8:10pm

Ken Powell, the Arthur F. Thurnau professor of aerospace engineering and DEI faculty liaison, speaks on implicit biases and their impacts in a lecture about the lack of diversity in the aerospace field Thursday in the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Building.

Ken Powell, the Arthur F. Thurnau professor of aerospace engineering and DEI faculty liaison, speaks on implicit biases and their impacts in a lecture about the lack of diversity in the aerospace field Thursday in the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Building. Buy this photo
Danyel Tharakan/Daily

Ken Powell, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion faculty liaison at the University of Michigan, held a lecture regarding the issue of diversity within the aerospace field, focusing on implicit biases, stereotype threats and the accumulation of disadvantage. About 50 students and faculty attended the lecture Thursday afternoon.

Powell used social science research to discuss the hiring process of faculty within the STEM fields, as well as statistics about the general diversity and its challenges within the U-M Aerospace Engineering Department. He further encouraged students to properly respect professors and to also hold professors to the same standards.

“Each of your professors are experts and there’s no question about that, trust me … so treat them accordingly and try to take them as experts in their fields first,” Powell said. “On the flip side, I think you need to hold us as faculty at a similarly high professional standard.”

Powell gave students further advice about the interviewing process for jobs. He focused on how interviewers may ask personal questions at times, and those questions can sometimes negatively affect the interviewees and have unintended consequences. Thus, when students get interviewed, they have the right to politely decline to answer overly personal questions.

Powell also discussed the negative impact personal schemas can have in the job application process and how professors like himself are hoping to address these issues at the University.

“Schemas and lack of critical mass can lead to people, on one hand, not evaluating candidates fairly, and on another hand, can set the candidates in situations where they can’t show off their full chops because they’re not comfortable with the situation. … This can lead to a lower success rate,” Powell said. “So we are trying to work to get around and give these talks so people understand.”

Engineering senior Janera Martinez said she was pleased with the University’s focus on its challenges with diversity.

“I think what really surprised me was to know that at such a high level of the University, they really care about the diversity issue, especially in a field that it is not represented as much with minorities and women,” Martinez said. “So that was really eye-opening for me because I thought, not that the University was ignoring it, but more just wasn’t really aware, so to hear that aerospace was involved with that was really encouraging for me.”

The lecture first focused on how everyone has implicit biases and how those biases can impact their actions in regards to interviewing and hiring people for jobs. For instance, according to Powell, white applicants receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than Black applicants.

Engineering senior Judson commented on how he’s noticed the presence of these biases in his various organizations and sectors on campus.

“Like the professor said, this department is very male-dominated and you see that in the kids who get elected in certain job interviews and leadership positions on teams I’ve been a part of, but it seems like it’s getting better, which is promising,” Judson said.

When discussing what she learned about the job application process from the lecture, Martinez said she realized the value of learning about how to approach personal questions during interviews.

“I think a big thing that I hadn’t thought about before was the answering of those personal questions,” Martinez said. “I never really thought about the fact that I really had a right to be like, ‘Oh I don’t want to answer that question,’ or that it was a formal disadvantage that someone may go through.”

Engineering graduate student Shashank Kedia said the lecture was important for international students like him, but also students in general, in regards to being more mindful of others and their preferences.

“Personally, I am also someone not from the U.S.," Kedia said. "I am from India, so coming to these talks and seeing what people are actually starting does give me some bit of confidence of just being aware of my identity. The best way I would put it is it also helps me when I’m talking to other people, making sure I ask, ‘Am I as aware as I should be?’”