Professor James Njuguna from RGU in front of a blue background

Smashing Stereotypes: Professor James Njuguna

By James Njuguna, Associate Dean Research & Knowledge Exchange and Professor of Composite Materials & Integrated Energy - 11 March 2024

My approach to smashing stereotypes is mainly driven by creating and offering opportunities. This of course involves identifying barriers and enablers at first instance followed by personal commitment and action.

Here, I will highlight females in engineering and race colour masking stereotypes and solutions through creation of opportunities, coaching and mentoring.

At institutional level, where sometimes the loudest are most heard, there are very few opportunities for so many creative and high-performing people to demonstrate their capability. So my question is, how can we get our friends, mentors, and colleagues to demonstrate their capability of moving to the next level without it just being part of their everyday job?

During my education path, engineering has always been dominated by males and most of my college and university education included one or two girls in classes of 40+.  These females were excellent students throughout, but they were unfortunately an exception with only so few of them.

While they have become exemplary in their career, this lack of female student remains a challenge in the mainstream engineering courses today in universities. Over the years I have managed to stimulate my MSc and PhD students to engage with schools’ programmes to support STEM interest as change opportunity are at this level. Quite a few of them have moved to full-time roles in teaching and activism in breaking barriers to science uptake and engineering. 

The challenge of getting females into engineering is complex and compounded with many artefacts, mainly stereotype barriers despite positivity in wider public perception.  Identifying barriers and enablers is a continuous exercise, especially in the STEM subjects.

Perhaps a key barrier is the design of the mainstream courses that are narrow funnels without demonstrating or offering enough options in interdisciplinary or cross disciplinary areas. It is important to be able to demonstrate how arts and humanity subjects relate to engineering and mathematics for instance. Or, in engineering, how do we create diversity to include system engineers in relation to itemised specialists?

On a personal level, one of the most common issues is being stereotyped because of race colour - I am black, and I am expected to behave and act in a certain way. It is acceptable to some extent, as many people may not have had any experience with black people.  It is, however, unfortunate that too often I must fight to prove my track record.

While people may respond and act differently, I still think there are gaps to fill and improve. This ‘mistaken identity’ is often one that I have had to correct in academia settings. I am often given an identity mask to fit in, but I must re-position myself, adjust and throw the masks away, and just be me!

There is also often a lack of effective mentoring and coaching to combat these issues.  I have found creating opportunities before following up with specific coaching to be very effective in interventions. The challenge however is to provide enough opportunities for coaches to provide effective coaching at personal and institutional levels.

The deficit in coaching opportunities lies within the institutional work culture and values. In current University policies, one would struggle to identify the word ‘coach’ or ‘coaching’ as an offer to staff development and the recognition is only more recently emerging.

It’s a newer development and urgent actions are required to facilitate the embedding of coaching practices in current University strategies to accommodate its added value. This would also involve the development of support mechanisms at institutional level to see a return of investment and enable the possibility of it being pitched as an enabler to RGU values. Here, it should be recognised that there is a need to invest in coaching and that such value will need to be translated into tangible, measurable outcomes that will support devolution of the value of coaching in departments and schools and, eventually, anchored in line-management.

British Science Week is a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, taking place between 8 - 17 March 2024. This year’s theme is ‘smashing stereotypes’, celebrating the diverse people and careers in STEM.

On RGView, we have featured five leading staff members who have each written about their experience of smashing stereotypes. Read their inspiring stories:

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