The Engineering Identity Development of Department of the Air Force  Women of Color Developmental Engineers

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


The National Research Council (2010) reports that minorities and women are consistently overlooked as a critical source of STEM talent and expertise, and are a segment of the population that must be sought after if the U.S. is to meet the educational, industry and military demands of tomorrow. These three entities (education, industry and military) are key stakeholders in the preparation of a strong STEM workforce, and each is heavily vested in the recruitment of the most talented individuals. Despite the military's ongoing efforts, specifically those of the Department of the Air Force (DAF), the armed forces continue to fall short in recruiting and retaining women and minorities in engineering (National Research Council, 2010).

This qualitative, phenomenological study is informed by Gee's (2000) theory of four interconnected perspectives of identity, Erickson's (1962) Psychosocial Theory of Development, Godwin's (2016) engineering identity development, Kummel's (2018) military identity, and Lent et al.'s (1994) social cognitive career theory (SCCT) and sought to answer the following research question: How do Department of the Air Force (DAF) Women Of Color (WOC) Developmental Engineers (DE) describe the lived experiences that have affected and shaped their engineering identity development and enabled them to become DAF WOC DEs?

The current state of knowledge about and understanding of the many ways in which WOC become DE in the DAF and develop their engineering identity are complex but amenable to further review and intervention solutions. Many of the issues addressed in the literature review remain unaddressed or insufficiently addressed: the need for self-belief, competent and compassionate educators, science learning experiences with engineers, role models, STEM motivation and identity, shared military meaning for engineers, affiliations with minority engineering programs, and a range of support including family, financial, emotional and educational.

Purposeful sampling was used to intentionally find the people who have experienced the phenomenon of being a WOC Developmental Engineer (DE) in the DAF to best articulate their lived experiences and inform the research study (Creswell and Poth, 2018). Criteria for participation included identifying as a woman or female, being a member of the DAF (USAF or USSF), carrying the 62E Developmental Engineering Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC), and belonging to one of the following ethnic or minority groups: American Indian/Native Alaskan, Asian, Black or African American, identified as more than one race, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Island, Hispanic or Latino. Six women responded to the solicitation and were interviewed. The research participants for this study are adult female members of the DAF, active duty or retired. DAF comprises both the United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Space Force (USSF).

The key points from the findings suggest four major themes, closely aligned with the work of Gee (2000), in understanding the dynamic nature of identity as an important analytic tool for how people perform or see themselves in society, in school, in learning, and in life. The four major perspectives/themes are nature identity e.g., female; institutional identity e.g. DAF; discursive/discourse identity e.g. recognition; and affinity identity e.g. developmental engineering.

Based on the experiences of these women, developing an interest in STEM or engineering along with setting a goal early in life is key to becoming an engineer. Additionally, various learning experiences supported by a strong math foundation played a role in developing an interest in engineering, especially hands-on experiences. Having a strong math foundation was important to developing engineering identity. Math helps students think abstractly, develop critical thinking skills, and enables them to deal with hard, ill-defined problems. Math is also an area where students need encouragement and are likely to struggle and need help. Connecting math to real world situations and applications helps with interest and as Alma puts it, math can "activate the curiosity of the mind". Critical choices were made to get scholarships and to join ROTC enabling them to earn an engineering degree and providing a pathway to the DAF. Essentially, learning experiences including having a strong math foundation, interests/goals, support/self-belief, and critical choices supported these women in developing their engineering identity.

Having the support of family and teachers and encouragement are also keys to self-belief and perseverance. Within this, conscientiousness is also seen because the women set a challenging goal and then took the necessary steps to achieve that goal. They were diligent in their learning experiences and very achievement oriented. The women valued having a cohort for encouragement and support. Recognizing that both the military and engineering will enable a career and not just a job seemed critical to these women. There was a need to be financially independent so engineering and the military provided this. Whether it was deciding to be an engineer or deciding to be an engineer in the DAF, seeing minority women in leadership roles was critical for pivotal decisions.

Seeing women of color in the military in leadership roles served as a source of inspiration for some of the participants and fostered certain decisions. Once into their career, the desire to stay technical served as a recognition of who they are as engineers and led to new goals and decisions. The participants did not allow the military to strip them of their identity but they fought to have impressive careers.

Several implications and recommendations are presented for how to get more Women of Color into the engineering career field and into the DAF. Recommendations were distilled to recruiting, encouragement and mentoring, exposure, utilizing various platforms to showcase representation, developing partnerships with ROTC and local schools, and ensuring visuals on television and in movies.



Engineering Identity Development, Department of the Air Force, Developmental Engineer, Phenomenology