The Importance of Identity & Community

In my last blog post, I wrote about Imposter Syndrome and how feeling fraudulent leads to increased anxiety and reduced confidence in the workplace.

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a seminar by Jenni Buckley. She’s a professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Delaware and has used her platform to research and improve diversity and representation within her department. While her talk largely focused on trends in engineering education and diversity with respect to biological sex, these trends may be common in other academic disciplines and with various minority groups.

To hear the full story and see the figures included in this blog, check out Buckley’s TEDxYale lecture: “Designing for Diversity.”

Investigating the Trends:

The pie chart below (Figure 1) indicates the distribution of annually-awarded engineering bachelor’s degrees by discipline. Out of the 107,000 engineering degrees earned nationally, more than 70 percent of students are practicing either mechanical, electrical or civil engineering (disciplines with the largest available job market). Newer and generally more interdisciplinary fields of engineering, such as environmental, biomedical and chemical engineering, represent less than 25 percent of the total graduating engineering population.

Figure 1: Credit to Jenni Buckley, University of Delaware. Images taken from her “Designing for Diversity” TEDxYale slide deck.

However, we see significantly more women majoring in environmental, biomedical and chemical engineering compared to the engineering disciplines that dominate the job market (Figure 2). Out of all the engineering degrees earned nationally, women comprise only 20 percent of civil engineering and 12 percent of electrical and mechanical engineering degrees.

Figure 2: Credit to Jenni Buckley, University of Delaware. Images taken from her “Designing for Diversity” TEDxYale slide deck.

In her “Designing for Diversity” lecture, Buckley highlights that these trends are not due to a lack of ability in these fields. On the contrary, national AP Calculus scores suggest that men and women are equally prepared academically to enter engineering degree fields (“Designing for Diversity”, TEDxYale, Jenni Buckley).

The Importance of Critical Mass

In Figure 2, you’ll notice a dotted red line at the 30% mark. The 30% mark in a population has long been identified as the point where “critical mass” is reached. In terms of minority student population, when this crucial point is reached, the population is self-sufficient, meaning that not as much recruitment is required to get people into that degree program or to prevent attrition from the degree program. This is likely due to there being a higher number of similar or like-minded individuals, helping people feel less secluded or tokenized. While critical mass may not be strong enough to retain women in departments, it’s a good starting goal that can help people find strength in numbers.

The Role of Identity

The field of engineering has long been depicted in the media as a masculine discipline, requiring one to be fluent in mathematics, physics and chemistry (Carberry & Baker, 2018). This image largely results in the recruitment and retainment of people who fit within this culturally-established stereotype (Carberry & Baker, 2018). As you can imagine, this culture has resulted in less participation by women, suggesting that identity is a large indicator of whether someone will choose to participate and persist in a certain discipline.

(See Carberry & Baker, Chapter 10 to read more about how engineers are depicted by the media and perceived by the public.)

Finding your Community!

How can you find community here at Duke, so that you feel more encouraged and empowered to persevere in your degree program? Below are some resources within the Duke Environment community that can be good places to start:

Nicholas School of the Environment:

Pratt School of Engineering:

Johnna Frierson, Director of Diversity & Inclusion, Pratt School of Engineering

I had the opportunity to meet with the Director of the Pratt School’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Johnna Frierson. She has developed various events and mentoring programs to promote diversity and encourage community development in the Pratt School of Engineering.

  • “Engineering a Community” and is a “near-peer” mentoring program that matches graduate student mentors with undergraduate mentees. Mentors can help connect mentees with faculty, prepare for conferences or find internships. This program is in its third year and is always seeking more mentors and mentees. For more information, and to see other resources in the Pratt School, click here.
  • Community Ambassador: In this role, students can serve as mentors and allies to other students and advocate for them by attending advisory board meetings, conferences and recruitment events.

“Everyone can stand to think more deeply and intentionally about how we mentor students. Because it makes a difference, especially for students who don’t feel represented or have a challenging trajectory.” – Johnna Frierson

Duke University Center for Exemplary Mentoring

The Duke University Center for Exemplary Mentoring is working to recruit more under-represented minority (URM) PhD students to engineering and physical science disciplines. This program also provides support for URM PhDs when they get to Duke through scholarships, preparatory “boot camps” and mentoring programs.

Social event at the NC Escape Room with students in the Engineering a Community program and BME 1st-year PhD Mentoring Program. Photo courtesy of Johnna Frierson


Thank you to the Mechanical Engineering Department for inviting Buckley to give a seminar at Duke. Thank you to Johnna Frierson and MEM student Dieynabou Barry for introducing me to the opportunities within the Pratt School’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion and the Nicholas School’s DICE organization.


Carberry, Adam R., and Dale R. Baker. “The impact of culture on engineering and engineering education.” Cognition, metacognition, and culture in STEM education. Springer, Cham, 2018. 217-239.

TEDxTalks. “Designing for Diversity | Jenni Buckley | TEDxYale.” YouTube, TEDx Talks, 18 Jan. 2017,