Underrepresented Minorities in America's Technical Workforce

Amy Slaton, "The Anxious Engineer" (2007) -- Dr. Slaton addresses the challenging task of increasing the representation of minority students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. While many point to a problem in the so-called pipeline and call for more attention to disadvantaged students earlier in their K-12 education, Slaton focuses on the role university departments play. One stumbling block to addressing the issue at the university level is deficiencies many underrepresented students have when being admitted into collegiate programs. The time and cost of remedial instruction to help play catch up has traditionally been met with resistance because of threats to the prestige of the institution and expectations of students, parents, administrators, and the societal workforce. Slaton suggests that for universities to seriously tackle the issue, they may need to undergo a thorough transformation in current models of success and time expectations. This involves a decoupling of the pace of research from the merits of the cognitive work being achieved.

While this may sound benign, it's actually revolutionary, challenging core fundamentals of traditional power structures within academic science and engineering.

Why should we spend time and energy to increase the representation of minorities in STEM fields? Answers to these questions typically fall along at least one of three lines, depending on which audience the persuasion is being directed (and persuasion is necessary, as the inclusion of minorities within STEM has not come without a struggle):
  1. equality of opportunity
  2. because the STEM workforce can not be filled by white males alone, therefore minorities and women are need to fill this role as well
  3. because diverse perspectives will help further the goals of scientific inquiry and technical innovation
I'm left wondering which reasons underpin Slaton's analysis. Surprisingly she makes a brief dismissal of the third reason in her conclusion, noting that such rhetoric attributes varied cognitive and creative contributions to the respective underrepresented persons. However, I don't see it necessarily positing essential qualities to a particular racial or gendered type. Rather, we can draw upon notions of situated knowledge, marginalized perspectives, or standpoint theory (and yes, here's where the calls of essentialism begin to bellow up) to validate some of the difference diversity allows for scientific discussion hitherto dominated by one particular cultural position. This difference is what will change the nature of science, and by necessity, will change the social relations and institutional nature of how it's practiced (including the academic setting in addition to the laboratory).

Equality of opportunity alone is not enough to move beyond what Avery Gorden refers to as liberal racism ("The Work of Corporate Culture: Diversity Management," 1995). It simply admits the previously unauthorized to participate in a system without changing that system or acknowledging that changing the system is indeed part of the goal of inclusion.