By Jill Mari Embry
One of my favorite movies is My Cousin Vinny. It is not only hilarious but has a segment that highlights biases associated with working women in a male dominated industry. Lisa (Marisa Tomei), having grown up in auto shop had expert level knowledge of cars to a level greater than that of any PhD engineer in the auto industry. In the movie, Vinny (Joe Pesci) is a new lawyer, defending his cousin, accused of murder. The key to the case is the getaway car and the tire tracks. Lisa was able to prove, based on her knowledge, that the car identified as the getaway car is not the car driven by the cousin, using detailed automotive specifications. In the scene, prior to her testifying, as an expert witness, she is ridiculed for the image she presents, female, big hair, and all. She fits the stereotype of a New Jersey manicurist, (her role is that of an out of work hairdresser) who would be more worried about breaking a nail than as an expert witness on automotive. What her character illustrates is that appearances does not define what you know or who you are. The other interesting point in this scene is when asked to give her “credentials” as an expert, she lists all the men in her family generations back, who have been mechanics. Not one woman is mentioned. She did, in fact work in the garage her father owned, but did not identify as a mechanic, even though she did the tasks associated with being one.
Movies and television are filled with stereotypical images of women, minorities, etc. Whether it is the “dumb blonde”, the criminal, crazy minority, the flamboyant gay man, the geeky Asian, the terrorist Arab, the list goes on. These oversimplified images have been there historically and are what shape a large portion of the world’s views on what these folks. The only stereotype that seems to be absent is that of the white, straight Christian man. Sure, there are some stereotypical “red neck” roles out there, but they do not represent the collective “ALL” white man. The roles filled by white men are broad, both negative and positive, but if negative, there is a positive white man to counter the negative. With other demographics, there was, until recently rarely this balance of these characters. Even now, there is still a large percentage of TV and film without the balance. The exception are films and TV shows with the cast being predominately of the minority. As attempts are being made to diversify casts in the mainstream movies and TV, we are far from a healthy mix of characters that illustrate the true diversity of our society. In addition, years of stereotypes have shaped how many people around the globe view groups of people, that is far from the true representation of diversity within any group.
Throughout my life, I have met many people who have had very little exposure to a demographic within their personal life. I had a friend in college who had never met a black person before me. Her only point of reference for black people was the TV show. Good Times. Others I have met only have the frame of reference is of a the service provider as the only minority they are exposed to. This may (cleaning person, gardener, phone support, etc. This may seem crazy for those who grow up in more diverse cities, but most of the United States is segregated. Because of this, what we see, throughout much of our modern times, since TV and movies have been around, is what the powers of media have chosen for us to see.
My first experience with blatant racism was as a child. I was in second grade, in a suburb of Boston. Soon after my family moved into our house, our neighbor built a fence between our yard and theirs, overnight in the pouring rain! Later that year, my sister and I were pulled from our classrooms and sent home. A man had called the school and threatened to blow up the school if we did not leave. We were the only non-white kids in our school. Neither of these instances involved anyone that had actually met me or my family members.
Growing up in predominately white suburbs, there were several other instances of strangers making assumptions based on stereotypes they had. Whether it was the person coming to the door of our home, asking my mother, who was always dressed to the T, to speak to the “lady of the house”, assuming she was the housekeeper, or the police pulling over my dad or brother for “being in the wrong neighborhood” as they made their way home. I personally don’t remember many significant racist events that were blatant until I went away to medical school. As an undergraduate, at DePaul University, I was treated with the upmost respect, based on my ability. My performance was rewarded with o privileges the opportunity to work in labs of all of the professors in the biology department, doing research with one of my professors, and being the student- faculty representative. It was when I applied to medical school that I saw the first formalized affirmative action plans. At the time, medical schools were clamoring to have X number of blacks and x numbers of Latinx in their incoming classes. What I learned later, was that that number X was finite. No more, no less. The other thing about being accepted, that I found odd, was that regardless of your academic preparedness, or the environment that you were raised, it was assumed that minority students were ill prepared for medical school. Because of this, we all (Black and LatinX) were brought in early to ”acclimate” to the new environment. I don’t remember what was covered during that time. I do know we were given mentors. It was also assumed that we were not financially secure to pay for medical school. And although many people, of all races, are not, the assumption that a black person could not possibly be able to pay tuition became clear when one of the deans approached my father about tuition, which had already been paid. And yet, the most blatant of the Dartmouth medical school culture came out when, at the end of my first term, I was in the infirmary with bronchial-pneumonia. I was prepared to take all my written exams, but not the practical exams. For those, I needed time in the labs to study. When I approached the histology professor to request time to study, I was told, “We let you people in and then you don’t want to work”. It didn’t matter that I was prepared to take all written exams, that he could check the infirmary and my x-rays. He was convinced that the sole reason I wanted a makeup exam was because I was lazy. So, instead of getting an extra few day to study, I was forced to start the year over. I took the anatomy practical over the summer, but had to take histology, with the same professor. The burn was two-fold. I found out that there were other students that were allowed makeup exams.
In previous articles, I have discussed some of my experiences that display the “isms” endemic in the medical device and software industries. Which, even in this decade, still lack the representation of people that look like me both as a person of color and as a female engineer in research and development. Whether in interviews or the day to day work. Unfortunately, organizations, whether educational or industry, those wanting to make a change cannot gauge the commitment to genuine change of those responsible for hiring. The challenge is even greater when bonuses and performance is tied to increasing diversity. Without this, incentive for hiring managers, an effort to increase diversity can be viewed as that manager’s personal mission. When there are metrics associated it with it is being, indirectly forced on the manager. At that point, it has, historically, been associated with finding a body,
qualified or not. Sadly, the “affirmative action” stereotype is that the body is unqualified., which translate to any diversity hire is unqualified. This may seem like a stretch, but in all the debates around affirmative action in education, the central point is that an unqualified minority is taking the place of a qualified white person. This circles back to my initial premise that as minorities, the stereotypes are representative of the whole, where with the majority, one does not represent the whole. See mass shooter, Middle Easterner = terrorist = ALL Middle Easterners are terrorists. White make mass shooter = HE is mentally ill. No part of the university affirmative action debates are the qualifications of white students raised. Those opposing affirmative action, I guess, assume that all the white students that may have taken spots in the admitted students were well qualified, and therefore did not take the spot of the qualified white students that were not admitted. The other assumption made, is that those accepted under an affirmative action incentive are in no way qualified to be there. It is this reason why I, personally, cringe when I hear of standards being lowered for diversity admissions, scholarships, etc. The other reason I cringe is that the assumption with the do-gooder’s motivation is that there are not qualified minorities to meet the standards set. To me, this translates to the stereotypes that mean we are all the same, have the same background, the same intellectual abilities, same social economic backgrounds, etc. This is ludicrous. It creates a atmosphere in which those tasked with educating us, hiring us, etc. have very little expectations of our abilities and very little motivation to try to find those of us that are qualified for the positions that with provide them with the bonuses or positive performance reviews. We are out there. But due to so many historical challenges, we are few in the medical device engineering profession. And unfortunately, if a hire is unqualified, it will be a reflection on all of us. Sure, I see plenty of white males in my industry, but they do not reflect on the whole. Often, it does not impact their position in the least.
After 30 years of affirmative action, the summer of 2020 has put a new coat of paint on it. Many in positions of power/authority are re-energized to make a real difference. I am not sure that a new coat of paint can do that. I have had several of my, well meaningfriends , some that consider themselves very liberal, comment on the injustices of affirmative action. A good friend supported it until his son was denied admissions to the university he had attended. His assumption was that his son’s spot was taken by a minority that was less qualified (I repeat: no mention of these that were white being less qualified than his son that may have been admitted. (Assumption: ALL minorities are the lowest qualified of those accepted to universities: Son is the least qualified white person that would have been accepted). Because the general public, well meaning or not believes, to some extent that we minorities are less capable of being as good, if not better than our non-minority peers or as long as an individual can represent the whole of a minority group, I question how effective the efforts for diversity can be. I have always felt that I had to work 3x as hard and be 3x as good as my white male peers, both academically and professionally. Even with that, the bigotry has been there. Those that do not have the biases often do not se them when they are happening unless they are blatant. So, can the 2020 affirmative action work? Can the negativity associated with it be change? I don’t have the answer to that. I do believe that to succeed, organizations must have checks and balances in place to ensure that employees are equally prepared for the positions they are hired in to. They must ensure that the support is there for diversity hires. I also, strongly believe that incentivizing managers is fine as long as they are held accountable for ensuring that their hire is qualified, and efforts are made to retain them.
In an ideal world, there would be no need to try to diversify all departments of an organization. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. I just hope that the change to affirmative action is more successful as in the past.