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Re-engineering the Engineering Business

We strive to bring our whole self to work, so why do some of us feel the need to hide our culture? When preparing to enter the workforce, we tend to focus on the technical aspect and aptitude needed to perform and succeed, but often forget to prepare ourselves for the difference in culture and how that defines work expectations.

I wear my identity on my sleeve: I am an early career, sansei, hapa, JA, and a proud female engineer.

Very rarely do I get to share with others this specific intersectionality of identities, but it wasn’t until I started working in industry that I learned why. It took a whole year of working full time to meet another Japanese engineer and another half a year to meet a JA female engineer, and by no means was I working in a place where engineers were few and hard to come by.

"swe conference" - Speaking at the largest women's engineering conference in the world about "Breaking Down Stereotypes and Reverse Engineering the 'Model Minority' Myth"

Granted, Asians only make up 7% of the US population (Pew Research 2021) and only 6% of all engineering bachelor degrees are awarded to women of color (National Science Foundation 2019). It doesn’t help that engineering is not highly pursued in the first place either–my chemical engineering major represented 0.96% of all degrees awarded at UC Irvine my year, and I now help represent 12% of women in my engineering field. I’ve taken more math classes than I can count on my hands, and it wasn’t until recently that I began to appreciate the elegance of statistics. It helps paint a picture, used for past, present, and future data predictions. It quantifies the reasons behind some of my experiences, and ultimately just how much work we still have to do as a society in order to change the narrative of who belongs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

How Did We Get Here?

Society as a whole has much room to grow. from the toys that we design (catering construction and building games to boys and dresses and tiaras for girls) to the way we give grace to young boys for their outbursts while putting pressure on young girls to be perfect. These subtle differences is what has led to girls starting to lose interest in STEM as early as 3rd grade to women feeling the need to meet 100% of job application criteria while men typically apply when just meeting 60% of the qualifications (Harvard Business Review).

This doesn't even begin to include the stereotypes that some people associate with Asians, such as being good at math. Having struggled finding my own voice and confidence when speaking in a room of subject matter expert engineers, I knew that what I once thought as respectful was sometimes interpreted as quiet and not cut out for leadership. A new hurdle that I learned about just last year from leadership about conversations that happened behind closed doors was that an AAPI was reported by a manager that they needed work on their communication skills. As I have seen and felt this in the past I assumed it was maybe the lack of communication, but you best bet that I was taken aback when they said the issue was not that but their thick accent. Although glad that this incident was being surfaced and worked on by an AAPI in leadership who had luckily sat in on this conversation to bring it to attention, I was absolutely floored by this comment. Issues like this along with the various stereotypes that we as AAPI get held to, or differences in culture that get misinterpreted are what leads AAPI and more specifically AAPI women to face challenges in the STEM field.

Struggles as a Double Minority

Thankfully growing up, I didn’t feel totally ostracized as I went to schools with a good representation of minorities. I did feel somewhat of a disconnect from my culture of attending JA events only on the weekend, but nonetheless I felt I had communities that supported me regardless of what day of the week it was. It wasn’t until I became a full-time professional that I felt lost and internal conflict between my heritage and culture and what was expected in this new work culture environment. Lost because unlike many of my minority peers, I didn't have a mentor and generations of family engineers that came before me, and internal conflict because being the one with the least seniority, I felt I had the least to contribute while the expectation was that I would have the most out of the box ideas, unconstricted by years of experience. Instead I felt the need to silence my ignorance, and sit in the back and not at the conference table to be respectful and make space for those of “higher rank” than me.

"ngwin_we19" - Kiyomi with her friends and mentors at the annual strategic planning meeting for their employee resource group

It took a while for the switch from college to career to sink in, thinking about internal struggles I had with being mixed race in a white male dominant field. But I didn’t get to where I am today alone. In those numerous weeks of reflection I have learned that I had it in me all along–I just needed to change my perspective from it being a challenge to a strength. The "gaman" | 我慢 , or endurance with patience and dignity, and "ganbatte" | 頑張って , the "to not give up and do your best" mentality is what got me through four years of organic and physical chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, and statistics, and is also what allowed me to persevere and find that sense of community that I once had growing up.

Being able to lead volunteer events to teach engineering concepts to students who were five years and older in underserved communities to hosting AAPI leadership panels to discuss their career path, and struggles as an AAPI leader in response to the Asian hate crimes that were finally put under the spotlight last year–I felt growth. Growth in my confidence, growth in my ability to utilize my identities intersectionality as a strength, and growth in the community I chose to surround myself, like the Society of Women Engineers, work’s Employee Resource Groups, the East San Gabriel Valley Japanese Community Center (ESGVJCC), and Nisei Week.

"SF japantown" - Next generation of strong independent women leaders and culture keepers from LA, NorCal, and Hawaii at SF Japantown Cherry Blossom Festival

It was the support and lifelong friendships and memories that I’ve made with curious wide-eyed students, brilliant women engineers, and inspiring JA community leaders these past few years that have allowed me to grow more than I ever thought I could. Never would I have imagined being able to get up on stage multiple times within the past year at conferences and through Nisei Week to share my story about my journey as an Asian American female in STEM, but here I am reaching out and hoping that reading this inspires you to do the same.

The Path Forward

There’s no easy way to change the demographics of the engineering industry, but together we can make a difference for the next generation. By speaking up about internal struggles and lifting each other up for our accomplishments as a community, we can begin to modify the vision of who belongs in the engineering industry (or any industry for that matter).

"NGWIN" - Teaching engineering concepts at Girl Scouts's OC annual STEM Expo

By volunteering and doing STEM outreach for K-12 of all backgrounds to providing mentorship to those of all ages, we as a society can begin to close the gender and racial gap needed to engineer a better tomorrow. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential as we continue to develop ground-breaking technology, and so wherever you are on your journey to engineering the best version of yourself and being proud of each puzzle piece that makes up your intersectionality, the last thing I’d like to leave you with as an action moving forward. It is to reflect and be proud of how far you've come and who you're growing to be. This way we will continue the representation we need to succeed in inclusivity and diversity as a society for ourselves and the next generation.  

This is my story, and I hope to hear the stories behind you as well. (feel free to email me your narrative or if you’re interested in stem outreach in the greater LA area - kiyomi.arimitsu.takemoto@gmail.com c:)

Article featured in this issue:
April 2022
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