Brittany Arthur // University of Cincinnati
Batsheva Guy // University of Cincinnati
Within the United States, engineering
has been labeled as the “last gender-equitable and race-equitable profession” (Pierrakos, Beam, Constantz, Johri, & Anderson,
2009, M4F-1). Although hundreds of research articles can be found on the
topic of women in engineering, little progress has been made in regard to
retention and recruitment of women within engineering, both at universities and
within industry. The current article utilizes a Participatory Action Research (PAR)
approach through the use of a Group Level Assessment (GLA) methodology. The use
of PAR and GLA empowers women in engineering as co-researchers to share their
voice on how we can solve this extremely complex problem, and, consequently,
develop a concrete d action plan to address the issue at hand.
Participatory Action Research Overview
Participatory Action Research (PAR) is a research approach that views research participants as co-researchers rather than subjects (Herr & Anderson, 2015; McIntyre, 2008). Within this framework, research participants are involved in cycles of reflection and action in a collaborative manner, and their input is integrated during the entire research process, including the creation of research questions, data collection, data analysis, and dissemination (Herr & Anderson, 2015; Chevalier & Buckles, 2013; McIntyre, 2008). Additionally, PAR focuses on conducting research that leads to action within a particular institution or community in response to a systemic problem (Coghlan & Brannich, 2010; McIntyre, 2008). PAR is a solutions-focused approach to research that may involve several types of research methods, including arts-based, qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods. The particular research method or methods used is highly dependent on the content of the project, although the general values ingrained within PAR, including reflection, collaboration, and action, remain the same (McIntyre, 2008; Burns, 2007).
Benefits of PAR
PAR is beneficial to the integrity of the research, to research participants, and to the communities and institutions being studied in several ways. Taking advantage of PAR as a research approach leads to rich, participant-driven data that not only identifies problems in a community, but also works towards solving them. Additionally, regarding participants as co-researchers provides historically marginalized groups with a platform to create change as well as have a voice in their communities. The PAR process also instigates institutional change as a result of action planning. In the current project, our co-researchers are undergraduate women in engineering at the University of Cincinnati, and our research tool used is Group-Level Assessment.
Group Level Assessment Overview
Group Level Assessment (GLA) is a qualitative research method that is participatory in nature (Vaughn & Lohmueller, 2014). Preparing for a GLA includes recruiting participants and developing relevant prompts. Prompts should be open-ended and broad, addressing several aspects of a problem within an organization. The GLA process involves several steps including participants responding to written prompts, reflecting upon answers to the prompts, analyzing the prompts in groups, and discussing the themes as a large group as well as action planning.
Benefits of GLA
GLA allows researchers to collect a large amount of qualitative data with several participants in a relatively short amount of time. GLA as a process provides co-researchers with a level of autonomy that is empowering, leaving to participant-driven, qualitative data that provides a stepping-stone for solving a relevant problem within a community. GLA also allows for a preliminary thematic analysis of the data as well as the creation of salient action plans in real time in collaboration with participants, which can lead to positive change within a community of organization.
Women in Engineering Literature
Within the United States, engineering has been labeled as the “last gender-equitable and race-equitable profession” (Pierrakos, Beam, Constantz, Johri, & Anderson, 2009, M4F-1). Engineering as a profession is considered “gender typed as masculine,” often referred to as manly and male-centered (Hatmaker, 2013).
This continues to be an issue as we see that women only account for 10 percent of engineers within the workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). Since 2000, women have earned more than half of bachelors degrees administered, however women only account for 20 percent of the degrees administered within engineering (National Science Board, 2018).
When we look at the literature, women in engineering has been a researched topic for several decades. Although hundreds of research articles can be found on the topic of women in engineering, little progress has been made in regard to retention and recruitment of women within engineering, both at universities and within industry. Organizations such as the National Research Council (2007) have released call to action statements in which they stress the importance of strengthening the science and technology workforce to ensure economic and social prosperity; this demonstrates the need to use PAR as a research strategy so that actionable change is reached.
Our Research Process
As we were combing through the literature, we found article after article using traditional research methods within positivist quantitative and qualitative traditions. Consequently, we determined that another approach to the research must be explored, namely, using participatory action research (PAR) to better understand the experiences of women in engineering. By implementing a PAR approach, we provided women the opportunity to participate as co-researchers, but also empowering them to share their voice on how we can solve this extremely complex problem.
Over the course of a year, we have facilitated three GLAs in which we gathered information from women about their experiences. 25 GLA prompts were used to help us understand the experiences of women students in the classroom, their experiences on co-op (a cooperative education program, similar to a paid internship), how they look at their engineering identity, and how they experience the culture of engineering. The prompts were put on large white sticky notes around the room, with one prompt on each.
The GLA method consists of seven steps, carried out in sequential order. The steps include: (1) Climate setting, (2) Generating, (3) Appreciating, (4) Reflecting, (5) Understanding, (6) Selecting, and (7) Action. Below details the seven steps as carried out by our research team:
Step 1: Climate Setting
Once they arrived, participants were welcomed into the room and asked to complete a consent form to participate in the study. They were also encouraged to grab food. Once all participants had arrived we did a brief introduction of our study, highlighting the purpose and why we were passionate about our research question. Then women were asked to share their name, major, what year they were currently in their program, and if they were an animal what kind of animal they would be. Asking participants to answer a funny question helps to lighten the mood and made participants feel more comfortable.
Step 2: Generating
The participants were each given an individual sheet that had all of the prompts on it, and then were asked to respond to each prompt on a smaller individual sticky note. Once they were finished writing their responses, they placed their responses on the larger sticky notes around the room.
Step 3: Appreciating
The women then walked around the room and read their peers responses, putting a star or check on the responses that resonated with them.
Step 4: Reflecting
As the women walked around the room to read the responses, they were also asked to internally reflect on the responses.
Step 5: Understanding
Next, the women were broken into smaller groups and given a few of the larger prompt papers with the individual responses. Women were asked to determine themes across the prompts, rather than themes per prompt. Once groups had found salient themes, we asked each group to report out their themes, which were captured on the board.
Step 6: Selecting
The facilitator guided a discussion helping the participants to condense the themes into overarching themes in which small groups reported their themes out, and the larger group narrowed down the list into a handful of salient themes. Some of the themes included: feeling tokenized (or constantly being expected to represent one’s gender), intimidation, lack of confidence, and excitement to make a difference.
Step 7: Action
The final step of the GLA is what we like to call, “the good stuff.” During the final phase the women developed action steps for how to improve their experiences and the experiences of future women engineering students. Some of their suggested action steps included: (1) develop a stronger community of women engineering students by holding more events and encouraging women to join organizations, (2) improve the experiences of women engineering students on co-op by provided gender equity and inclusion (Title IX) resources and (3) create a more inclusive environment on campus by provided faculty and staff with emotional intelligence training.
Currently, we are in the dissemination phase of this research study. We are sharing findings and action items with faculty and administrators in an attempt to bring about positive change on our campus.
Using PAR is
an opportunity for us as faculty, staff, and administrators to empower our
students who have historically been marginalized or whose voices haven’t been
heard. We more often sit in a room and put our heads together in an attempt to
solve complex and complicated problems. However, how often do we say- why don’t
we ask those that are being impacted their thoughts? It seems like such a novel
concept that is more often not utilized. By using PAR, in this research project
specifically, we are empowering the women to help us solve a very complicated
problem. Here we see that women came up with impactful yet realistic action
items that could be carried out in a timely manner. We hope that professionals
continue to explore research methods that will allow the voices of your
students to be heard, while also empowering them to help solve the problem.
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