Attendees of the Diversity Showcase have the option to pull a light switch accompanying a wooden art piece depicting someone’s face.
If attendees pull the switch and turn the lights off, they will be representing the power society has to dim and discredit people’s passions. The metaphor can translate to how women in STEM are often pushed out of their respective fields, said artist Allison Shindell.
The Diversity Showcase, a gallery of student quotes, art pieces and interactive posters, will be on display in Kerckhoff Art Gallery through Friday. The weeklong event, hosted by the Society of Women Engineers at UCLA, centers around the isolation and difficulties women in engineering experience. SWE member Sana Shrikant, a second-year computer science and engineering student, said the gallery reminds underrepresented students in STEM that they are not alone in feeling marginalized.
“We created the Diversity Showcase because we wanted to highlight the diversity present in UCLA engineers, because we wanted to be able to show different perspectives of people in engineering,” Shrikant said. “The perspective of people who aren’t as numerous in the field usually tends to get left out.”
All of the curated pieces in some way depict the experience of being a woman in math- and science-oriented spaces, said Mounika Narayanan, a fourth-year mathematics of computation and statistics student. Shindell, an Asian languages and linguistics student, said her piece with a light switch, for instance, features her own face cut from a wooden board.
Shindell, who hopes to double major in computer science and linguistics, said her art piece is somewhat pointillist, a style in which small dots make up a larger image. Differently sized circles, cut from the board with a laser cutter and then placed in front of a black background, represent the varying depths and dimensions of her face.
An LED light switch accompanies the portrait; when turned on, rainbow lights shine through the holes in the wood. When illuminated, the piece is supposed to represent people in their natural state, highlighting their passions and interests, Shindell said. But viewers can also switch the light off, symbolizing a disregard for someone’s natural state or passion, the way women in STEM are often disrespected, she said.
SWE members also interviewed about 15 people – most of them women, and a couple of men of color – mainly in engineering fields. Direct quotes were pulled from the interviews and printed out on white paper to be hung up around the walls of the room.
Shrikant said she and the other SWE organizers asked interviewees about their experiences as UCLA STEM students and how they think it has been different from others in the classroom. Another question they asked interviewees was if they have any advice for students coming into UCLA engineering. Across the board, Shrikant said the interviewees reported a sense of impostor syndrome when coming to UCLA, which will show students they are not alone in their struggles.
“I want to inspire confidence in people who will see themselves in the interviewers – that’s the whole point of interviewing people,” Narayanan said. “It really brings people together; it makes people see humanity in everyone.”
Shrikant said she first felt isolated as a woman in STEM when she arrived at UCLA after attending an all-girl high school. One day at UCLA, she was sitting in a discussion section for her computer science class when she said she realized there were only about five girls in a class of nearly 40.
“I was uncomfortable asking questions especially freshman year because I was afraid they would be like, ‘Of course the girl is confused,’” she said. “I didn’t want to make it publicly known that I was confused about anything.”
Female STEM students at UCLA also face subconscious discrimination from others in the classroom who may think they are unqualified, Narayanan said. For example, Jillian Dudley, a member of the SWE advocacy committee and a third-year computer engineering student, once worked in a group project where the boys in her group would allow her less responsibility than others, assuming she did not understand the material, Narayanan said.
Narayanan said microaggressions like these build up and collect over time, but knowing that others at UCLA face similar struggles can help combat the pressure faced in disproportionate classrooms. She added the art exhibit reminds students that there is a community on campus that supports them.
“I think the importance of having events like this is to show people who might be in this situation that there are other people like you who feel the same way, because it’s not talked about openly,” Narayanan said. “I feel like if I had this if I was a freshman, I would have felt more confidence.”