Background: The proliferation of various programs devoted to diversity and inclusion in recent years has signified a broader shift toward fostering changes in engineering education. Many engineering institutions have begun to create inclusive spaces for marginalized students. However, constructing inclusive spaces still presents a challenge for engineering institutions, as students who peruse these spaces often come from diverse backgrounds and have multiple marginalized, intersectional identities. This research project describes how some spaces designed to be inclusive may have cultural scripts – cultural norms, values, and practices associated with social interactions in a space – that isolate some students from participating fully in those spaces.
Method: Nine LGBTQ+-identifying undergraduate electrical engineering students attended one of four semi-structured focus groups during spring 2019 at a large public flagship university in the southern United States. Participants were recruited through an initial survey of general well-being administered to about 1500 students in the electrical engineering department of the host university, on which students were asked to identify as non-LGBTQ+ or LGBTQ+. The participants were not compensated for participating in this study. One of the authors facilitated the focus groups with the participants. At the beginning of the focus groups, the facilitator read a statement that prompted the participants to consider their multiple identities, including racial identity, gender identity, religious identity, etc.
The focus groups were transcribed and coded by one author in two iterations by applying a grounded theory methodology. First, inductive and deductive codes from the transcripts were generated through an open coding technique. Second, after the codes were refined, axial codes were generated, and the transcripts were re-coded. To ensure reliability and validity, the lead author created research memos as reflective writing tools throughout the process. After each iteration of coding and memo-ing, all authors discussed the codes to ensure the reliability and validity of the coding scheme.
From the data, we selected two participants, Parker and Jordan, to be the foci of this paper. Parker and Jordan were chosen because they elicited their experiences at the intersection of several marginalized identities in greater detail than any other participant. In the following paragraphs quotes indicate direct statements from the participants.
Positionality: As a gay Asian man and an undergraduate electrical engineering student in the same school as the study population, the lead author leveraged the cultural knowledges of the school and department to establish rapport with the students during the focus groups. Bringing this perspective to both the focus group facilitation and my coding and analysis process afforded me a unique window into the lived experiences of these participants.
Results/Discussion: Parker, a graduating senior electrical engineering student, identified as a non-binary, straight, Malayali person who uses he/him pronouns. In his experiences, he highlighted how he felt significantly excluded in both engineering and non-engineering spaces, including spaces intended to embrace inclusion, due to cultural scripts that he felt he could not subscribe to. Jordan, a third-year electrical engineering student, identified as a queer, pansexual, cisgender woman using she/her pronouns. In her experiences, she mentioned how she felt she needed to showcase a certain marginalized identity to exist in certain spaces intended for certain marginalized people. We present each student’s experiences separately in the following paragraphs.
Parker was an extremely active member in both engineering-related and non-engineering-related on-campus activities. Splitting his time between participating in engineering activities and broader campus-wide recreational activities, and a leadership position in a campus-wide multicultural organization, Parker had several firsthand accounts of the different cultures that inhabited the different spaces at the university. To Parker, the culture of engineering was extremely “competitive,” “cutthroat,” “judgy”, and overwhelmingly hypermasculine. Such a culture made him distinctly uncomfortable, especially since he had come into the school with no prior engineering experience and felt that he could not prove himself or legitimize his existence in the engineering space. For Parker, the MEC presented an inclusive space that was intended to give him the chance to be himself. Yet this space was also uncomfortable for Parker, as many of the inhabitants made cultural references, such as the latest music from queer artists or recent trends in queer culture, that he did not know about or identify with.
Parker’s accounts of his inhabited spaces led to his expression that he was at the center of an internal “tug-of-war” between the extremely heteronormative, meritocratic, stifling culture of engineering and the extremely open, deviant, non-conforming culture of the MEC. Each space had its own specific form of rituals, and each culture carried certain expectations to which he felt pressure to conform to legitimize his existence in that space. As a result, Parker perceived that each culture was so concentrated and so antithetical to the other that he simply did not belong in either: “too non-conforming for engineering and not non-conforming enough” to fully engage in the resources and people at the MEC. Parker’s feelings of isolation in both spaces showcase how institutional resources, in supporting marginalized identities, may cultivate an environment in which some identities are not embraced.
Jordan was also heavily involved in on-campus student organizations, participating in various diversity-centered engineering student organizations catered to traditionally underrepresented groups in engineering. Jordan found that these student organizations allowed her to associate with a more diverse group of engineering students, a welcome change from the overwhelmingly homogeneous, white, male culture of engineering. However, she still felt incomplete when she participated in these organizations, as they often focused on one identity. While Jordan acknowledges that these groups are often targeted toward a specific group of marginalized people, she noted that her experiences are a product of all her identities, not just the one(s) that each student organization chooses to highlight.
For Jordan, participating in diversity-focused engineering student organizations came at a cost: participating in specific diversity organizations caused her to rank her identities, prioritizing some identities over others in certain spaces. If she chose to participate in one organization, then her decision may force her to not participate in another organization, and that choice, from her perspective, reflected which identities she felt more strongly about. Furthermore, in such focused spaces, Jordan felt that it was “not the time” to talk about other identities not related to the organization’s aims (e.g. being Latina in WECE). Jordan’s need to choose and rank her identities to participate in diversity-centered student organizations illuminates how inclusive spaces intended for specific groups of people may serve as a barrier for those with multiple identities.
Parker and Jordan
In both Parker’s and Jordan’s experiences, the culture of inclusive spaces placed implicit cultural restrictions on their multiple identities. For Parker, the culture that pervaded the electrical engineering space felt too conforming for him and the multicultural engagement center relied on cultural knowledges of non-conformity that he was not aware of or comfortable with, ultimately leading to his lack of sense of belonging in either space. For Jordan, to participate in diversity-centered student organizations, she had to prioritize certain identities of her multiple intersectional identities over others, creating an environment where her choices to participate in certain organizations became, in her eyes, a reflection of which identities she valued more. These experiences showcase how inclusive spaces can exclude certain people by virtue of the cultural scripts that inhabit them.
Implications/Conclusion: The experiences of Parker and Jordan illustrate ways in which inclusive spaces are limited and potential ways for inclusive spaces to take a more intersectional approach to embracing marginalized communities. By embracing specific marginalized identities and elevating their cultural scripts to the forefront of the spaces, inclusive spaces may isolate those who may identify as part of a marginalized group but not subscribe to or be familiar with all of the group’s cultural scripts. Other students, like Parker and Jordan, may feel like they cannot belong in the inclusive space and therefore cannot fully embrace their identities in the space. Inclusive spaces therefore must consider ways to help students feel comfortable enough to express all their identities, not just the dominant ones highlighted by the space. Further research is needed in this emerging area to identify specific aspects of inclusive spaces that may cause feelings of isolation and ways for inclusive spaces to welcome these students.
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