In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 15, 2022 Volume 52 Issue 4
From novel applications of microbes to DEI in engineering to the potential for hydrogen energy, Frontiers of Engineering participants tackle today’s challenging world issues. The winter issue of The Bridge showcases research by early-career engineers as shared at the 2022 US FOE symposium.

Resilient Engineering Identity

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Author: Monique Ross

Stereotypes need to be discarded to change the conversation around engineering to reflect this truly admirable, exciting, and engaging field.

Broadening participation in engineering is a long-standing challenge for the discipline that is being investigated by engineering education scholars from many angles—K-20 curriculum, teaching and learning, experiences, and pathways, to name a few. This paper presents an understanding of engagement and persistence in engineering using the construct of identity as the guiding framework.


Identity is a complex theoretical construct that has been widely studied across disciplines. It was established in psychology to understand how people determine who they are, fundamentally.

Identity scholars have developed explanations for how people arrive at an answer to this most basic question through mechanisms such as structure-agency dialectic, communities of practice, and competing identities. The structure-agency dialectic suggests that people can arrive at who they are either by ascribing an identity to themselves (agency) or being ascribed an identity (structure[1]) (Burke and Stets 2009). However, some scholars would say that these enactments of identity are not done in isolation but rather in concert with one another, structuration (Giddens 1984): while people might ascribe an identity to themselves, this identity can be either affirmed or disrupted by the structures around them. For example, I might say I’m an engineer but if my advisor, instructors, and/or peers say otherwise, I may decide I am not.

Because people are typically socially situated in -spaces, it is hard to state with certainty that one’s identity is solely something that can be individually claimed rather than constructed in the context of a system. A system might be a community of practice[2] or space, where tacit knowledge, norms, and values are shared and situated learning can happen (Wenger 1999).

Communities of practice—classrooms, offices, professional organizations, afterschool programs—are arguably where identities, especially those tied to roles, are acquired and practiced. Folks who participate in communities of practice may be rewarded with “member-ship” in the community, resulting in further affirmation of their identity. But those who do not conform to prevailing identity concepts in these spaces may be relegated to the margins or “sojourner” status: they pass through or exist in the space but never achieve full membership (Wenger-Trayner et al. 2015).

The goal is to create spaces where racialized and gendered identities are no longer a competing identity but rather a confluent identity with engineering.

To add another layer of complexity, people assume as many identities as they have roles in their life. One person might identify professionally as an engineer, researcher, educator, and mentor. This multitude of identities may at times compete based on the setting, context, and other inhabitants of a space. Such competition creates a salience hierarchy, as a person feels compelled to move an identity to the top of the hierarchy in a process called identity negotiation, an internal, context-specific negotiation to decide which identity is more relevant (salient) in the moment, relegating competing identities to the bottom of the hierarchy. This is mostly a harmless process—unless one’s hierarchy includes other, socially constructed identities like race, ethnicity, and/or gender.

Racial Identity

Along with role identities (e.g., engineer, educator, researcher), people are often ascribed identities related to race, ethnicity, and gender (among others). These identities are another layer in an individual’s salience hierarchy and are subject to identity negotiation.

For example, as a person who identifies as African American, Mexican American, a woman, and an engineer, I might find myself negotiating my identity based on the community of practice in which I find myself. If I am at a meeting of the Association for Computing Machinery, I might find my identity as a woman most salient, whereas at a Society of Women Engineers meeting I might feel my identity as an African American is more salient. The necessity to negotiate identities can be more complex depending on the situation and its duration, and if I find that I must negotiate away one or more fundamental aspects of my identity (in a process called compartmentalization; Bell 1990), I might decide that the context, space, or profession is not for me. This brings us to the professional identity of engineer.

Engineering Identity

The research literature suggests that one’s ability to identify with a profession through what is considered a professional identity can have immense impact on their engagement and persistence in a field (Godwin et al. 2016; Huff 2014; Huff et al. 2018; Perez et al. 2014). Engineering is no exception.


Researchers who focus on how to increase participation and retention in fields like engineering and computer science have used their understanding of individuals’ interest in engineering, recognition by others in engineering, and self-assessed performance/competence to measure their identity as an engineer (Godwin et al. 2016; Ross and Godwin 2016; Ross et al. 2017). This tried-and-true approach to understanding engagement has held up largely when studying people who align with the norms of those who occupy the field as the majority—White men, who are the basis for the stereo-types and tropes associated with being an engineer. These images and ideals have dominated mainstream media and been propagated through the education system, creating the illusion that only “nerdy,” mostly White men exist in and succeed in engineering and computing (Cheryan et al. 2015; Dou et al. 2020; -Master et al. 2021).

In addition to being male, engineer stereotypes include social ineptitude, tinkering, lack of creativity, love of math, poor communication skills, and limited/myopic interests. This image, constructed from the historical participation of a particular subset of the population, has resulted in a professional identity of an engineer that is limited and that perpetuates unequal patterns of participation in engineering and computing.

Resilient Engineering Identity

Scholars must acknowledge that what constitutes an engineering identity has variation. The most widely accepted description of an engineer does not apply to those least represented in the field of engineering—or even, arguably, most engineers: not only those who differ from the stereotype in terms of race and gender but also those who see themselves as creative, socially engaging, great communicators, and fun. The entrenched prevalence of the stereotype means that engineers who are women, Black, Latinx, or Indigenous have to make the ongoing effort to construct and affirm a more individualized definition of their identity that includes personal identity/self—a racialized and gendered variant (Ross et al. 2021).

The individually constructed convergence of identities results in a resilient engineering identity, based not solely on interest, performance/competence, and recognition but also the multiple social identities that a person is ascribed. Through analysis of narratives from Black women across the engineering spectrum—from undergraduate programs to engineering industry over more than 10 years—I defined the resilient engineering identity, which encapsulates the racialized, gendered engineering identity and can withstand the challenges of being marginalized in the engineering field (Ross et al. 2022).

So What?

These findings provide the grounding for pragmatic and practical means of fostering a resilient engineering identityone not subject to the identity negotiation that jeopardizes the participation of diverse people in engineering. As University of California, Davis, chancellor Gary May (2022) puts it, “Diversity is everybody’s job.” With that in mind, following are some simple steps:

Persistent images and ideals create the illusion that only “nerdy,” mostly White men exist in and succeed in engineering.

  • Be mindful about how an engineer is defined, described, or pictured and avoid stereotypes. The work of practicing engineers is social in nature. Engineers are creative and can apply their creativity to finding solutions—and their interests are seldom myopic. Stereotypes need to be discarded to change the conversation around engineering to reflect this truly admirable, exciting, and engaging field.
  • Create supportive spaces for Black, Brown, and/or women engineers (and any other identities that do not conform to the cisgender, White, male norms). Traditional communities of practice force participants to conform to norms and values that are in direct contradiction with their other identities. The goal is to create spaces where racialized and gendered identities are no longer a competing identity but rather a confluent identity with engineering. This can be done through the establishment and support of ethnic engineering professional organizations (e.g., the National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society of Women Engineers), minority engineering programs, and employee resource groups. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) should also be actively supported through funds, recruitment, and engagement. HBCUs outpace all historically White institutions in the production of Black engineers, so this is an overlooked space for recruitment and support. Likewise, minority and Hispanic serving institutions also support students’ multiple identities toward resilience.
  • Remember that engineering is social. As such the human side of engineering must always be incorporated, including supporting one another in this profession.


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Cheryan S, Master A, Meltzoff AN. 2015. Cultural stereotypes as gatekeepers: Increasing girls’ interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereotypes. Frontiers in Psychology 6:49.

Dou R, Bhutta K, Ross M, Kramer L, Thamotharan V. 2020. The effects of computer science stereotypes and interest on middle school boys’ career intentions. ACM Transactions on Computing Education 20(3):1–15.

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[1]  “Structure” here refers to social structures or patterned social arrangements in society (e.g., norms, values, and expectations).

[2]  The concept of a community of practice has roots in education as a means of facilitating learning.

About the Author:Monique Ross is an associate professor, Department of Engineering Education, The Ohio State University.