Published: Jan. 22, 2021

“You’re the first Black professor I’ve ever had.”

The student’s words caught Dr. Jessica Rush Leeker off guard. Leeker is the Director of Undergraduate Education and Stephen Dunn Professor of Engineering Management at CU Boulder’s Engineering Management Program (EMP), and she’s a champion for diversity in engineering. But the seasoned professor and engineering professional was left unsure about how to take the student’s comment.Jessica Rush Leeker

It wasn’t news to Leeker that people of color and women have traditionally been underrepresented in the engineering profession. Yet, for this long-time defender of diversity, the comment was a stark reminder that while progress has been made, there’s a lot of work that’s still ahead.

Leeker came to the engineering field by way of an undergraduate focus on supply chain and information systems at Penn State University. She later added a Purdue University MBA in Sustainability and Operations, then went on to complete her Engineering Education. In her current role as an engineering leader and faculty member in the EMP, she’s building up undergraduate education and embedding into the curriculum the principles of equity, inclusion and diversity that she believes in so strongly.

Defining Equity, Inclusion and Diversity in Engineering

What are equity, inclusion and diversity, and why do they matter? In the 21st century, the terms have become commonplace, frequently mentioned in the news, organizational meetings, neighborhood planning groups and every facet of work and community life. In the engineering space, they have their own connotations.

Leeker explains, “In simplest terms, diversity refers to the presence of differences in any sense. Equity refers to fairness. And inclusion refers to having resources and opportunity.”

In the context of engineering, these terms are often associated with race, gender, orientation and nationality. “I believe we have to embed these principles in our teaching and engineering design projects to cultivate and educate the next generation of students and show that equity, inclusion and diversity really do matter,” says Leeker.

She explains why these touchstones are so important and why progress is an ongoing process.

“Organizations often focus on increasing diversity,” she says. “However, once new individuals are brought in and there’s more diversity, it’s important to keep the focus. It’s important to make sure those individuals have a voice, they feel valued, they’re not seen as a prop or a token— and that they have the same opportunities.”

She adds, “Equity is hard. It's very hard, but it should be the primary step. It takes awareness and commitment from members of an organization to acknowledge that there are inequitable practices. Organizations have to commit to correct and adjust the imbalances.”

Specifically, in the engineering field, context is important. Leeker says, “Engineering is dominated by white, middle- and upper-class men. Some think just increasing the number of women or underrepresented individuals in STEM will solve this problem. They don't acknowledge how organizations got to the situation in the first place, so it’s essential to be aware and understand the historical context. From there, we can discuss how to include women and people of color into the organization properly.”

That’s why Leeker believes it’s so important to help the next generation of students understand how important equity, inclusion and diversity are.

Impacts of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity on the Engineering Design Process

Leeker is candid about the impact that equity, inclusion and diversity have on the engineering profession as well as on innovation and the end result of the engineering design process.

She explains, “Everyone must understand what their individual biases are and be aware of them, so I highly promote the design-thinking framework. The design thinking process is human-centered and starts with empathy. Participants develop a deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people they’re designing for. They’re also cautious not to say, ‘This person needs this product to have a better life or needs this design to be better off.’”

In fact, designers must understand that they need the end-users to buy or use their products. “We spend a lot of time here in the EMP helping students grasp these concepts,” Leeker says, “Understanding the end users’ needs should not be an afterthought.”

Understanding that occurs after the fact can have serious business implications. “When it’s an afterthought is when we sometimes see a product recalled because it's offensive. But empathy and care for the needs of the end-user should be embedded in a design from the start,” says Leeker. “One example of an exclusionary design is the facial recognition of smartphones that doesn’t recognize people of color.”

A design thinking approach helps eliminate such exclusionary designs because it starts with the end user’s needs, leaves room for diverse solutions and makes use of models and feedback from the users.

The Evolution of Diversity in Engineering

“We have a long way to go to get to where we want to be with equity, inclusion and diversity in engineering,” says Leeker, “but I'm thankful for the progress we’ve made and the people and organizations who’ve started this race we're on.”

She credits the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), women's colleges and minority-serving institutions, among others, for making strides toward greater diversity in the profession.

“Understanding how society has defined what engineering is, who gets to be an engineer and who was actually in the room when these decisions were made is so important,” says Leeker. “Systems of oppression run deep, and it's crucial to understand that not all people, especially not people of color, were at one time allowed to apply for patents to certify their creations—even though they invented and created many designs and products that we see today.”

She adds, “The lack of equity and inclusion in becoming an engineer has historically excluded the global majority because Black and brown people make up that majority.”

But progress is happening.

“A couple of great professors are doing some good work in this area,” Leeker says. “One is Dr. Ebony McGee, who has done a lot of groundbreaking work explaining structural racism and STEM. She’s also studied how engineering students feel racially marginalized and exhausted about the process of continued marginalization in engineering jobs.”

Leeker says that’s something we need to think about and study more. “I feel lucky to have known engineering leaders in education who are studying how to shift the default. In addition to Dr. McGee is Dr. Alice Pawley, who’s working to make diversity what’s expected. Also, Dr. Allison Godwin candidly explains the tensions of whiteness in engineering, and Dr. James Holly has studied detangling engineering’s anti-Blackness.”

Change is a complex process that takes time and it needs to begin early in life. Leeker explains, “In engineering, it’s a multi-level process because we’re all born engineers. We can problem-solve and think critically from a very early age, so it’s important to understand the consequences when this fact is denied, especially for Black children. When children are told, ‘You're not good at math or you're not good at this,’ it’s detrimental. It’s important that we find ways to instill the opposite and encourage the engineers in the next generation.”

She adds, “We’ve also got to get better at creating identity portraits for children of color. Usually, the same famous Black people are brought out once a year in classrooms around the country. But there are so many innovators right now we could portray in classrooms.”

Leading for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Engineering

Leeker is happy to be a part of CU Boulder’s Engineering Management Program and at  the cutting edge of innovation in engineering management education.

“I'm excited to be where we can have honest and candid conversations about the inequities that exist” says Leeker. “The conversations are essential because they raise awareness, and having awareness is very critical to the kind of changes we want to see.”

“We have staff and students at CU Boulder and the EMP who are very open to change, very willing to identify and develop initiatives to grow and support the college. There are resources for designing more inclusive pedagogy, and there’s strong support from other faculty members for faculty of color, which I think is important,” says Leeker.

She adds, “Under Christy Bozic, who is Faculty Director and Lockheed Martin Professor of Engineering Practice for the EMP, we are making strides to build stronger industry collaborations. We're designing coursework in this area, and we're building a strong foundation to support more diverse faculty coming in.”

In the spring of 2021, the EMP introduced a new course: Special Topics: Leading for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Engineering; Leeker is the course instructor.

She says, “The purpose of Leading for DEI is to support students in developing new strategies and approaches so we can have a more inclusive and equitable environment in the entire engineering design process. One of the first things we’ll cover is understanding the narrative of institutions and structures that have shaped instances of exclusion from engineering. We’ll reflect on our own identities and backgrounds and how this shapes our thoughts.”

Drawing from her own background, Leeker guides her students to an awareness of their biases and understanding. She shares a little of her story, “I do not take lightly that my ancestors were not allowed to attend school, much less college. Based on the documents I found, because of their enslaved status, they were never able to create a process that allowed them to become recognized innovators.”

She explains, “In our class, we’ll get into these issues to bring awareness to some of the structures in place—some of them still in place—that did not allow disenfranchised populations to become ‘normal’ engineers.”

Although some of these issues have become highly politicized in the current global environment, Leeker stresses that they are anything but. “These issues are human issues,” she says, “and they’re important to discuss and explore.”

CU Boulder EMP will offer Leading for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Engineering first as an elective, but Leeker and her colleagues are working to make it scalable so they can incorporate it into the program as a core course.

Leeker says, “This course is vital for transformational leadership teams. It’s a foundation for other DEI courses that will soon be in our catalog as well. We're working on several additional courses. One is a class called The Power of Neurodiversity in Engineering. Others are Women in Engineering, Understanding the Importance of Intersectionality in Engineering and Paying it Forward. So we’ve got a lot of different courses in the works, and Leading for DEI paves the way for them.”

For Women in Engineering, It’s Personal

Leeker is passionate about helping people of color and women in engineering. Her personal experiences as a Black woman in the field have driven her desire to help others.

“I've had, of course, both positive and negative experiences,” she says. “On the positive side, I have influential mentors; I call them sponsors because not only do they advise me, but they also vouch for me.”

Those mentors have empowered Leeker and given her the courage to be herself. She says, “As a dyslexic Black woman, I’m privileged that these mentors saw my diversity as an asset and not as a deficit. They chose to include me in discussions; they shared and provided resources. They made sure I had a seat at the table and could provide information and fully participate in the discussions. Never once did they make me feel like I did not fit into the culture.”

On the flip side, Leeker has also experienced negativity. “I've been called racial epithets behind my back and made to feel like the only reason I was allowed to participate or the only thing I had to give was as a result of my color or gender. I’ve felt that those who’ve treated me negatively have not really seen all the things I had to offer,” says Leeker.

For this reason, she aims to make sure the students in her care are seen for who they are. Leeker plans to build up their positive experiences and to ensure equity, inclusion and diversity are routine in their engineering experiences.

She says, “I’m fully committed to the work of making sure all people—especially students here at CU Boulder EMP—are equipped to be seen as assets and have their skills be seen as assets.”

Visit the program page for prospective students to explore and learn more about the CU Boulder EMP undergraduate, graduate and certificate options.