A GIF of four people wearing white coats with crossed arms with ambiguously coded genders. One person is wearing the hijab. The picture has a pink, blue and purple background. It features the text “Engineering x IDBE”.
A GIF of four people wearing white coats with crossed arms with ambiguously coded genders. One person is wearing the hijab. The picture has a pink, blue and purple background. It features the text “Engineering x IDBE”.

Illustration by Yana Peeva

Engineering x IDBE: A Call for Inclusivity in STEM

Globally the STEM fields are some of the least diverse in terms of workforce. The Engineering department at NYUAD has formed a committee to address this issue, but there are still many challenges ahead.

Apr 30, 2023

On a global campus like NYU Abu Dhabi’s, one would expect the diversity across all disciplines to be naturally ensured. However, that is not the case. This is the reason why the university launched the Inclusion, Diversity, Belonging and Equity (IDBE) committee in July of 2020. The Engineering department in particular followed-up by creating their own department-specific IDBE committee to encourage diversity across the faculty, researchers, administration and students (including undergraduates, graduates, postgraduates and post-docs) within the discipline.
Lack of diversity is not a localized issue within the STEM field. Here, the most noticeable gap appears to be the difference in numbers of male-identifying and gender-expansive individuals working in academia, research and in general practice. The trend is consistent across all science and technology fields, but the exact percentages vary: while the share of women studying within the physical sciences is about 40%, that percentage drops to 19% and below for women in the fields of both mathematics and engineering. It is important to note this disparity since when looking at global and generalized statistics it is often reported that women make up nearly 50% of workers within the STEM fields, but that is mostly because of female workers in the medical field (which is often counted towards the physical sciences). Perhaps the most stark gap is exactly within the engineering field, with only 10% of engineering professionals identifying as women (on average), reported in 2019/20.
IDBE in Engineering
The experiences of gender-expansive engineering students at NYUAD only attest to the truthfulness of the statistics. A piece previously published in The Gazelle by Simran Parwani, Class of 2021, details what the experience of studying in a gender-marginalizing environment is like. Non-inclusive language, problem questions catering towards a mostly male audience, and insensitive jokes plagued her experience in the male-dominated STEM field while on campus. This is before and just as IDBE was being introduced to the general university operations but also as part of major-specific actions and even the curricula. Now that IDBE has been an integral project to the Engineering department for nearly two years with over 50 events on inclusivity and equity, it begs the question whether things have changed for female students in STEM. The events feature seminars, panel discussions and meetings of the committee and its subgroups, such as the WeBelong initiative and All Engineering Getting Together event.
Rameen Mahmood, Class of 2023, is the only female-identifying Electrical Engineering student in her batch. She shared a very similar experience with The Gazelle to the one described by Parwani. She highlighted the fact that in-class examples use mostly “he/him” pronouns when referring to engineers or subject matter experts, rather than “they/them” or “she/her.” “It is small things like these that make you realize that [professors] didn’t really go through a training on [practicing] diversity mindfulness,” Mahmood commented on the lack of understanding of the importance of inclusivity in such academic circles.
While this approach might not have been intentional, in her experience gender-expansive students are definitely treated differently in male-dominated spaces because of the assertion that they are a minority. It is also reflected in group projects, when she recounts often being assigned by her peers the task to make the project look “pretty” but not much to do with the technical part of it, undermining her skills and knowledge within the field. “I realized that I didn’t enjoy doing this and that I would actually rather work on the actual project. After that I became more assertive and would say ‘no, I’m taking the lead in this’,” she shares.
Trying to overcompensate is a characteristic of the experience of many underrepresented groups within STEM. Global reports highlight how prevalent impostor syndrome is among minority groups in STEM fields, which lead to them feeling an unfair need to hold themselves to an unfair standard. In Mahmood’s experience, this puts a new kind of pressure onto students in particular, as she feels the need to always outperform her peers: “It is almost as if I try to overcompensate, prove that I know [something] even though I shouldn’t need to do that. Even in class I always try to ask the best questions, there’s just this need to prove that I am not only [their] equal, but I might even be better than [the others], so don’t undermine me.”
A part of the reason why we need greater diversity is because representation is also about the encouragement of others and creating a comfortable space for everyone to develop in, which is reflected in Parwani’s article and was highlighted by Mahmood as well. “It is very much about how much support you get from seniors. I remember many first-years and sophomores who were about to declare their majors and they reached out to me, seeking mentorship. And I didn’t have that. I think this does play a role in how you choose your major,” she stated. Currently, weSTEM, an on-campus Student Interest Group (SIG) that works with women in STEM with the objective of empowering more girls and women to pursue education and careers in the sciences and applied sciences, leads a student mentorship program for that exact reason.
weSTEM and the role of SIGs
The Gazelle reached out to Reem Hazim, Computer Science major from the Class of 2023, who is also a representative of weSTEM. Her experiences are not vastly different from Mahmood’s, but her work with the SIG has given her a perspective as to why the issue of inclusivity remains so difficult to resolve. As part of the SIG, she has worked on projects with the Engineering IDBE committee and notes that their events are rarely attended by male-identifying individuals. She recounts an experience at one event when the organizers of the event also commented on the importance of involving male peers in these discussions, educating them on the meaning of IDBE and sharing with them the experiences of minorities within the STEM field. During her work, she shares how she has often heard stories similar to Mahmood’s when girls have felt that they could not make any mistakes because otherwise they would not be treated fairly.
As far as development opportunities on campus go, both Mahmood and Hazim have not experienced there being a restricting glass ceiling for girls at NYUAD to participate in research or work opportunities. However, since in actual practice such diversity is often ensured by quotas which are as helpful as they are harmful in the way they are implemented. “Because the idea of quotas exists, whenever I get a good opportunity, I feel like I’m just a diversity hire and [that notion] tends to undermine my own skills. I get this impostor syndrome,” Hazim commented. “I don’t know why but I always think of what my male peers would think and how they might say ‘Oh, it would be more difficult for us to apply because you’re a woman and you got it because there’s a quota for you,’” Mahmood added.
The professors within the Engineering department recognize that there exists a disparity between the male and the female-identifying specialists within the professional field that is translated into academia as well. Mohammad Qasaimeh, associate professor of Mechanical and Bioengineering and the chair of the Engineering IDBE committee, believes that the purpose of the project is to bring awareness about the inequalities within the field and thus create more welcoming spaces for people from underrepresented groups. What Prof. Qasaimeh sees as the main advantage of the Engineering IDBE committee is that it is action-based rather than strategy-based. “We are engineers, we want to do actions, we want to make a change. Our mission from the beginning was to recognize what NYUAD is doing in the IDBE domain, because there are many efforts, [...] to adopt what has been done to our local community of engineers and start innovating,” he pointed out.
IDBE in Curricula
Part of the challenges the committee has set for itself is integrating IDBE lectures within the curriculum of Engineering courses, starting with Engineering Ethics. The online talks and on-campus events of the committee are most often on the topic of gender equality at the workplace, but contrary to Hazim’s experience, Prof. Qasaimeh believes it does not drive the male-identifying colleagues away: “It educates us about what is really going on. We hear about [underrepresentation], but we never experience it, we don’t know the real feeling. [...] As engineers, we need to understand and apply [the knowledge].”
However, the engineering department’s motto that understanding the problem is half the solution might not hold true in this case. Especially because without actually experiencing and evaluating the casual sexism many gender-expansive professionals face daily in the workplace, it would be very difficult to completely grasp the extent of the problem. Educating their male-peers is only a fraction of what gender-expansive engineers can do to address the problem but it is also important to recognize how much emotional labor goes into such organizing. While gender-expansive workers should be allowed to take the lead in such actions on implementing IDBE practices in the workplace and in classrooms, their valuable labor should also be recognized.
Another major challenge the committee has taken up to resolve is diversifying the faculty, so that it reflects the overall diverse NYUAD community. “We [NYUAD] are diverse already. But how can we take advantage of this? [...] I don’t think we have a problem of diversity within the general population. But when it comes to the professors community, there are way less women than men, [...] way less African professors,” commented Prof. Qasaimeh. The IDBE committee was formed in response to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, and its mission is still deeply rooted in ensuring racial and national diversity among students and professors as well. Some of the practices that were changed to reflect the IDBE values are the recruitment processes of new professors, researchers, and teacher assistants. Prof. Qasaimeh emphasized the importance of inclusive language in job offers and interviews, as well as the addition of a question to the candidates about their understanding of the IDBE values. These changes have proven to be effective and Prof. Qasaimeh has noticed a significant step forward in diversifying the engineering faculty at NYUAD, exemplified by the growing number of female-identifying professors from various backgrounds entering the engineering department.
The main challenge that lies ahead for the IDBE committee is bringing more involvement in the events it organizes, especially from undergraduate students. Saideep Sreekumar, Electrical Engineering student from the Class of 2023 and a representative of the undergraduate students on the Engineering IDBE committee, also sees the involvement of undergraduates as the biggest and most important obstacle to overcome: “The main challenge for me has been trying to get undergrads invested enough in the seminars. All of our committee has been trying to solve that issue. I think that students do care about IDBE and IDBE issues [...] The way we have been trying to address this challenge is by trying to bring IDBE into the classroom.” He shares that he got involved in the project after one of the annual networking events within the Engineering department, where he felt for the first time a sense of belonging to a supportive community.
As the academic year comes to an end, it is important to reflect on the opportunities taken and missed to make NYUAD a more inclusive and supportive community. Since part of the mission of this university is to educate generations of global leaders, implementing the values of IDBE and pushing for unprecedented inclusive practices within the STEM field is key in order to truly achieve the status of a leading educational institution.
Yana Peeva is Senior Columns Editor. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org
gazelle logo