On May 25th I was honored with speaking at a SWE Hawaiian Islands Diversity & Inclusion event. I spoke both from my perspective as the GradSWE Diversity & Inclusion Liaison and also as a PhD researcher in engineering education studying the topic of gender inclusivity for transgender and gender nonconforming students. In this blog post I want to unpack the talk, share my experiences, and also share resources for those who are interested more in this wonderful event.
This is the flier that shares the speakers for the event, and here is the link if you wish to watch all of the talks that were given: https://www.facebook.com/swe.hawaiianislands/videos/2963682503671806/
The event was organized around underrepresented genders – when we think of underrepresentation in engineering, women are the first that come to mind. This event was particularly focused on genders that exist outside of men and women such as Mahu in Native Hawaiian culture or nonbinary / genderfluid individuals.
The talk opened with Dr. Kalaniopua Young, who just completed her PhD in Anthropology, sharing both the history and culture of Mahu gender in Native Hawaiian culture. Dr. Young herself is Mahu and spoke beautifully on the topic. She describes Mahu as being outside of the male/female binary and having existed for countless years before the colonization of the Hawaiian islands. The word Mahu can be thought of representing healing and healer. In a June 2019 article by Honolulu magazine on the topic, Mahu is described by Wong-Kalu as “an individual that straddles somewhere in the middle of the male and female binary. It does not define their sexual preference or gender expression, because gender roles, gender expressions and sexual relationships have all been severely influenced by the changing times. It is dynamic. It is like life.” Dr. Young’s talk taught us all that gender itself is a concept that is shaped by forces such as culture and colonization and that to be inclusive and aware of other genders besides male and female should be an integral part of our diversity activism.
I spoke next regarding the research that is ongoing at Oregon State University into the support structures and resiliency of undergraduate trans and gender nonconforming engineering students. My talk opened with recognizing that OSU is located on the traditional land of the Chepenefa band of the Kalapuya people, land that was forcibly taken after the Kalapuya people were removed from it, and the need to connect the dots between all of our struggles for inclusion and social justice. I then presented three main topics – that we should understand gender as more than just M and F on birth certificates and as a social system that is contextualized by culture, an overview of the current research we are conducting to lift up the voices and experiences of trans and gender nonconforming engineering students, and some tips for creating inclusive organizations and classrooms for all genders. If you are interested in more about these topics, my slides are available at this link.
Frances Stuart spoke next on what SWE has done as an organization to advance diversity and inclusion. Her talk did acknowledge a history of SWE as not centering on diversity, sharing a moment in the early 2000s where she with SWE and someone described it to her as a “white woman’s organization.” There is a great discussion of this moment in the video around the 2 hour 15 minute mark. This was a moment where SWE leadership, after hearing this and other feedback, felt compelled to do more to address diversity and inclusion in the organization. She shared that it is up to each of us to become change leaders in our workplaces and organizations and that SWE is still working on bringing D&I to the forefront of its efforts. Frances brought with her Pat Brown who was the first woman to obtain a chemical engineering degree at University of Louisiana – class of 1947! Together Pat and Frances were able to share a lot of historical context as to the changes that SWE has undergone over the decades and where progress could advance through all of our efforts combined.
Pearl Yamaguchi then ended the event by announcing the creation of a new scholarship aimed at Hawaiian women & underrepresented gender minorities pursuing engineering. It is the Mae Nakatani Nishioka Scholarship named after the first woman graduate in engineering at University of Hawaii (1950) and the first licensed engineer in Hawaii (1954). Hearing about her life and legacy was very moving. Pearl presented slides that showed pictures from newspapers in the 50s about Mae as well as photos of Mae’s life-long dedication to women in engineering in Hawaii. It is so important that her legacy be remembered and powerful that a scholarship in her name can help future students pursuing engineering. They wish for the scholarship to be aimed at not only women, but also open to nonbinary and Mahu students as well. Personally, I think that SWE would be so very lucky to have a scholarship honoring Hawaii’s first woman engineer. It is unclear the future of this scholarship within SWE though because of existing policies that limit extensions of support beyond just women. To me, SWE would be so very lucky as to have a scholarship honoring Hawaii’s first woman engineer.
You can learn more about Mae Nakatani Nishioka, P.E. in this recent post by SWE All Together! Here is an excerpt:
Nishioka mentored female engineering students and professionals. She joined SWE in 1958 as a member at large, and served as Hawaii’s delegate to the First International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists (ICWES), held concurrently with the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. She remained an active SWE member for nearly 60 years. In 2011, Nishioka was one of the original signers of the charter that created the SWE Hawaiian Islands Section.
She died just two days before she was to have been conferred the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Hawaii Council of Engineering Societies. Her daughter, Susan, accepted the award on her behalf. The SWE Hawaiian Islands Section is establishing a scholarship to preserve Nishioka’s legacy.
In the end, the event’s tagline “More Work To Do in STEM” is a phrase I had stuck in my head for the rest of the trip and as I headed back home to my local SWE community and my research. The quest for an inclusive and socially just engineering is long and we still have a lot of work to do. I learned more about Mahu and how it exists outside of the colonial gender binary and reflected a lot on the way home about how my own research on trans and gender nonconforming engineers can be more inclusive, especially given my own position as a white settler decedent on stolen Native land. It gave me so much hope to see SWE local sections organizing such creative and thought provoking content. I was so lucky to be able to share space and time with SWE Hawaiian Islands and – fingers crossed – hopefully can visit again someday soon.