The eight Black, female Michigan aerospace engineers who came together on Jan. 19 for a panel to commemorate Martin Luther King Day had taken largely solitary journeys through their programs.
Being the only Black woman in a department, or at a firm, was echoed in many of their stories. The lack of community contributes to organizational climates that are to blame for 30% of women leaving STEM fields, the student moderators and aerospace juniors Erin Levesque and Erika Jones pointed out. They also shared that just 16% of U-M aerospace engineering students identify as belonging to minority groups. It’s 15% in industry. The needle is stuck.
Even so, the panelists expressed hope that support from other members of the aerospace community—and their own work and visibility—might help change things. They discussed topics ranging from mentorship to community, proud achievements to challenges, with a real-time audience of about 150. The discussion was full of insights, coming from backgrounds ranging from technical to leadership to entrepreneurial.
Mentorship, sponsorship and allyship
Sydney Hamilton (BSAE ’13), a manager at Boeing, articulated the important difference between mentors and sponsors. “Your mentor is a person you can go to and talk to about anything, get advice and really help develop yourself,” she said. “A sponsor is someone who is advocating for you when you’re not in the room.”
Belinda Worley (BSAE ’96), a leader at Amazon, chimed in, describing how a mentor had become her sponsor—first discussing her dreams and then recommending her for opportunities that would help her build the skills she would need to fulfill them.
Jessica Jones (MSAE ’13, PhD AE ’17), an aerodynamicist at Aurora Flight Sciences, then turned the discussion to allyship. As her company discussed internally how they should respond to the murder of George Floyd, conversations turned offensive. She and other Black female engineers figured they would have stay quiet while colleagues worked through their racism out loud.
But when a white, female senior engineer stood with them to set boundaries in these conversations, and to push for changes to company policy, other white engineers began standing with them too.
“I’ve never needed an ally in that way before, but this past year was really rough,” said Jones. “She set a really good example for other people in the company to start speaking up.”
In addition to identifying ways to find support, they also discussed when and how to tune out and shut down criticism. Hamilton, the Boeing manager, recounted an experience at her high school, where she gave a talk after graduating college. She visited a teacher who once told her that engineering was out of her reach, thinking she’d change his mind. It turned out that he didn’t even remember her.
“I no longer will take criticism from people that I wouldn’t ask for advice from. Because he was not there to support me, he was not there to build me, and I could’ve taken a wrong turn from taking criticism from someone who was never in my corner,” she said.
When she’s feeling defeated or unsure of her capabilities, Hamilton calls her “wing women,” the friends and mentors who she can call and speak honestly about not feeling confident—people who can call her when they feel the same. They give her the boost she needs to get through challenges—just as another teacher did when she was reeling from the doubt seeded by the one hadn’t been invested in her.
Jasmine LeFlore (BSAE ’15), who now works at Collins Aerospace and co-founded the nonprofit Greater Than Tech, relied on her strong will to push past discouragement.
“I’ve had counselors and advisors kind of give me the, ‘Hey, you should do this instead’ talk,” she said.
To succeed in aerospace engineering, she needed to make up the gap between the courses that had been available at her high school, and the ones that typical engineering students had taken by the time they arrived at the University of Michigan. Her dreams sustained her through that work. In 2019, she started Greater Than Tech to help fuel the dreams of girls like the one she’d been, exposing middle-school-age girls of color to engineering and entrepreneurship.
Worley, the leader at Amazon, shared a story of her promotion to lead engineer of the propulsion division at Boeing, where she previously worked. She landed it, and she asked for feedback about what she’d done right. She didn’t know at the time that she’d need that information.
Later, in front of the team she was newly leading, a male engineer who she had outcompeted said, “Well, we all know why you got it.”
While Worley was recovering from the shock of that attack, another engineer called out the racism saying, “What did you mean by that?”
But fortunately for Worley, she knew exactly why she had been promoted to lead. She was able to say she had gotten the job on the strength of her prior accomplishments, the leadership classes she was taking on her own time, and the Master’s degree she was pursuing. Even so, she shouldn’t have had to defend her merit against a racist assumption.
The panel also discussed the sense of being interchangeable with other Black women, as colleagues mixed up their names. The overtone of being “the Black woman” rather than a fully individual engineer feeds into a perception that, in a company or department with multiple Black women, there is space for only one to advance. This can lead to a defensive hostility, particularly from Black women who are more senior and see younger hires as a threat.
Even so, the lack of support from other Black women can sting worse than the indifference of colleagues who don’t know the struggles that women of color face.
Nearly all the women on the panel spoke of their outreach efforts, whether informally visiting classrooms to talk about their experiences or starting organizations to inspire young students of color to pursue engineering. But they are so rare that they seem incredible to the students they visit.
“Most of the time, when I would go to the classroom, they would just look at me, like I had two heads, and say, ‘Wait a second. No way. There’s no way that you’re an aerospace engineer,” said Aisha Bowe (BSAE ‘08), founder of the government contractor STEMBoard.
She tells her story of growing up with a mother who cleaned houses and a father who drove taxis to show them that her childhood was not so different. During the pandemic, she and her colleagues at STEMBoard created a coding kit they call LINGO to help students of color learn to code at home.
“I receive emails from them that say, ‘Hey! This is the first time I’ve seen this topic taught by someone who looks like me, and it makes me think that I can. And it makes me know that one day I will have mentors in the field that I can reach out to, that reflect me,’” said Bowe.
Jasmine L. Sadler (BSAE ’09) eventually left aerospace engineering because of the lack of others like her in the field, beginning in her upper-division years of college.
“I didn’t see Belinda. You know, she was gone. I didn’t see Jessica,” said Sadler, referring to her colleagues on the panel. “I had to make up in my mind that there were Black women out there that had finished this program before. But I didn’t know who they were. I’d never met them, never seen them.”
After a few years in industry, deflecting racist and sexist assumptions at work, translating her vernacular to the languages preferred by her boss and on the production floor, she decided to change direction. Now pursuing a doctorate degree in educational leadership, she’s started the STEAM Collaborative to empower more girls, more Black children, to become engineers. And when they get to industry, they’ll belong to a cohort rather than being isolated.
That uphill recruitment battle was at the heart of perhaps the most poignant and powerful moment of the event, when Jones, the Aurora Flight Sciences aerodynamicist, talked about what it was like to encourage students in communities like hers to dream of engineering. Moderator Levesque had asked, “How do you respond to people who question the need for targeted recruitment or scholarship programs that are dedicated to women of color?”
Jones’s answer is excerpted below:
“How is a talented girl in southeast DC supposed to know that she can build high-altitude pseudosatellites for a living when there’s not funding for a science program in her school, and the guidance counselor will only give her community college recommendations—because that’s what they’ve seen succeed?
…I tutor high-risk, disadvantaged kids. I tell them what I do, I tell them the degrees I have, and sometimes I see the light go out of their eyes when they realize how much work it takes to get there. Because they can’t see themselves where I am. And how can they? I couldn’t have seen myself where I am right now…
The trail that’s blazed through the mountains by a pioneer who came long ago is useless if you don’t have a map or the equipment to forge your own trail. So mentorship programs, scholarship programs, workshops, these are the tools we use to give our young hopefuls the opportunity to find the path and then walk it successfully. And then we want to target these workshops to women of color so that they know the focus is on them. If we want them here, you have to show them that they are the people we’re looking for.
Alec Gallimore wrote a nice article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, I believe, and he mentioned that diversity is a trait that must be actively planned for, then pursued. It must be maintained and cultivated. And that’s every day. Not one event.”
The chat was alive with “Well said!” “Amen!” and “*mic drop*”.
Watch the panel discussion, titled, “Overcoming Turbulence: Trials and Triumphs of Black Women in Aerospace,” and view the program. The event was co-sponsored by Black students in Aerospace, Women in Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Aerospace Engineering DEI Committee.
Michigan Aerospace Engineering