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Hidden in Plain Sight: Asian-American Engineers, Part 1

In observance of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, SWE Member Jennifer Morikawa shares her experience of being an Asian-American woman engineer and insight on how the engineering industry can be more inclusive.
Hidden In Plain Sight: Asian-american Engineers, Part 1

This article was contributed by SWE Member Jennifer Morikawa.

When people talk about trying to encourage minorities to go into the STEM field, they are usually not referring to kids of Asian descent. From my experience, many Asian parents encourage their children to obtain a higher education which usually meant going into a STEM field. My Taiwanese immigrant parents were no different. It seems that Asian communities are supporting the future engineer pipeline. Woohoo! So, why do I think Asian engineers are “hidden in plain sight?”

Even though I was a minority in college I did not feel isolated. I was blessed to have friends in my classes who were also second-generation Taiwanese Americans, and a friend who was a second-generation Vietnamese American. We had each other and friends from my Women in Science & Engineering residential program.  However, we did not have access to many women “like us” in the industry to help us navigate potential pitfalls that come with cultural biases and unintentional exclusion from having dual identities (not American enough in appearance, not Asian enough in how we were raised).  To be honest, we might not have looked very hard because, growing up in the 1980s/’90s, we probably had experienced some racism or exclusion and just wanted to blend in.

For my first internships, I was lucky to be hired by women and have a few women in my department. Since I grew up as a minority, I was used to not seeing another Asian in my department, so at the time it was no big deal. Fast forwarding through my career in Manufacturing Engineering, I see and interact with a few other Asian women in my different departments. It’s 2019 and I am still one of two women of Asian descent in my immediate department. If we zoom out to my larger department, there are < 10 (< 1%) Asian women. Fortunately, two of them are now Senior Managers! I know if I continue to zoom out, I would find more; but it is still relatively sparse and most are not in leadership positions.  Maybe I need to change functions or industries to really see more.

In SWE, I know and see few more women of Asian descent. I see several in collegiate section leadership and some in professional section leadership to society level committees as chairs or higher leadership positions.  I think I can count on one hand the number of women of Asian descent on the Board in my years of SWE membership; even in my professional section there are still only a few who took on the higher section leadership roles.

Hidden In Plain Sight: Asian-american Engineers, Part 1
In SWE Detroit’s 67-year history there have only been two section presidents of Asian descent.

Recently, industries are starting to ask the same question: why do we not see many Asian women in higher leadership positions even though Asians are not considered a minority in engineering? We all need to help answer the question. We need to better understand the roadblocks that may stem from the different cultures and experiences (first generation, next generations, adopted).  We need to be more intentional and organized to help this group of members be more visible instead of “hidden in plain sight.”

To kick-off the movement and in honor of Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we want to “talk story,” as my Hawaiian-born, Japanese-American in-laws would say, to highlight members who identify with these two groups.  Valerie Mencias was brave enough to share her story for an application to become one of SWE’s next affinity groups and we want to share it here with you. May her story be the first of many to bring us closer to inclusion and inspire others to be more visible instead of hidden.


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