Hyper-invisibility: What it’s like to be Black in engineering

Biomedical-optics researcher Audrey Bowden discusses systemic racism, implicit bias, and five guiding principles for implementing change
19 July 2021
Karen Thomas
Audrey Bowden meets with Sloan Scholars at Duke University
In 2020, Audrey Bowden met with Sloan Scholars at Duke University, where she received her PhD, to share her professional journey and experiences. Credit: Duke University

SPIE Fellow Audrey Bowden is the Dorothy Wingfield Phillips Chancellor Faculty Fellow and associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering and computer science at Vanderbilt University.

Her research focuses on the design and development of biophotonic tools for applications in medicine and biology such as early detection, diagnosis, and therapies for cancer, and the development and deployment of low-cost, high-performing, point-of-care technologies for rural and global health.

In April, as part of SPIE's Women in Optics Spotlight Series and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) program, Bowden participated in an online chat on "Hyper-invisibility: On Being Black in Engineering." Afterwards, Bowden answered a few questions for us.

You discussed some of the technologies that you and your team are working on. Are there particular ways in which you apply your commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion to the technologies you conceive of and develop in terms of accessibility, low-cost, etc.?

I first started working in the field of biomedical optics in graduate school. The primary technology I worked on is called optical coherence tomography (OCT). OCT is a useful clinical tool, but it can be very expensive. As a postdoctoral fellow, I had a chance to work on other projects that were intended for use in low-resource settings, and the challenge of engineering for this context piqued my interest. I have also had a long-standing interest in serving the poor as a result of experiences I had doing mission work when I was younger. Hence, my current research interest attempts to leverage my expertise in OCT to make technologies more cost-effective and increase their accessibility to low-resource settings.

Audrey Bowden demonstrates a wearable fNIRS brain-monitoring headband

Audrey Bowden demonstrates a wearable fNIRS brain-monitoring headband, designed for children, at SPIE Photonics West in 2020. Credit: Joey Cobbs

What are some of the challenges, including systemic racism, that PoC, women, and other minorities currently face in academia/professional careers? What do you consider the most viable ways of addressing such challenges?

Systemic racism and implicit bias are two of the largest challenges facing non-majority persons in academia. Explicit racism and bias are harmful in their own right, but many existing policies and practices are designed to combat it. Systemic racism and implicit bias are difficult because they can be sources of oppression that often go unnoticed, but their cumulative effects can be extremely harmful, exacting emotional abuses that perpetuate the silencing and exodus of non-majority persons and making it more challenging to keep them in the system.

There is no one way to combat these challenges, but I think it is important to 1) listen to people who feel disadvantaged, validate their stories, and sincerely seek to address their issues and concerns; 2) attempt to put yourself in situations where you might personally experience such discomfort so that you can understand what it feels like; and 3) be willing to challenge your assumptions, intentions, and relinquish current approaches. It is important to also remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing these issues. Different communities — and different individuals — experience the challenges of academia differently, which means that it's important to consider many perspectives and experiences when doing this work.

Explain "hyper-invisibility:" how would you define it for a mainstream audience?

Hyper-invisibility is the idea that, like the elephant in the room, someone can stand out easily in a crowd and yet be treated almost as if they don't exist — as if their presence, opinions, contributions, or experiences don't matter. I recently learned that a student who had received a legitimate exemption from getting vaccinated for COVID was contemplating disenrolling from school for fear of being criticized and ostracized. The assumption here was that, because unvaccinated persons at our institution are required to wear a mask and adhere to certain social restrictions while vaccinated persons are released from these requirements, wearing a mask would make the student's unvaccinated status visible to others and would subject them to negative experiences.

When I heard this story, I immediately empathized, as the notion of standing out when I walk into almost any room in my professional space and being concerned about how I may be perceived is a common experience given my identity as a Black woman. It's like being visible (because I know that I stand out) and invisible (because I may be silenced or ignored) at the same time. This is hyper-invisibility.

Other examples of how this may play out in academia include being ignored when you raise your hand; being dismissed when you raise comments or concerns about diversity issues (or anything else); and being mistaken for someone in another role that may carry less prestige (e.g., assuming you are the administrative assistant instead of the faculty member).

In your EDI talk, you discussed the concept of "unequal burden." Can you elaborate on that here?

When I count the number of hours in my day, I have 24. I bet you do, too. When I get evaluated for my next promotion, I'm told they apply the same criteria to all people at my level. Sometimes Black academics are asked to do things because everyone at their level must share the load, but sometimes Black academics are asked to serve on committees because someone thinks the committee composition would be more well-rounded (i.e., diverse) if they are on it. Given that there are fewer Black academics overall, they often get tapped for these "informal" roles with greater frequency.

With being tapped comes:

  • The challenge of saying "No," gracefully. We're all told as academics that we need to be careful what we agree to do to preserve our time for important things. But the reality is there are only so many times you can say "No" without being viewed as not a team player. Having to waste our "Nos" on these types of requests takes away our power to do so for other things that we may care more about.
  • The time commitment if one does say "Yes." Time spent on these obligations takes away time from other obligations, which can make these requests somewhat burdensome, even if they are desirable activities. For example, it's natural for me to want to spend time helping to improve the diversity of my institution, but doing so does not necessarily contribute to anything that is weighed positively for promotion and can be considered a distraction to some degree.

Screenshot from Black in Engineering_principles

Credit: Bowden Lab@Vanderbilt.

You mentioned five principles: Attitude, Clarity, Institutional Accountability, Personal Accountability, and Commitment & Resources. Can you explain these principles and provide examples of how they might be implemented?


As part of our development of recommendations for institutions to become anti-racist, my colleagues and I proposed a set of principles that we suggested were necessary to consider prior to reading the recommendations. In my view, how you read the recommendations depends largely on your frame of mind at the outset. Hence, the principles are largely meant to help prepare you to get in a mental framework where you are likely to identify opportunities for action and change, rather than seek to dismiss many of the ideas as irrelevant or potentially ineffective. This is particularly important because, as mentioned above, systemic racism and implicit bias are difficult to detect.

The principle of attitude relates to the idea that you should assume you or your organization has a problem that needs to be addressed. If you think you have a problem, you are more apt to actually look for a solution. In contrast, if you don't think you have a problem, it's easy to dismiss others' ideas as being irrelevant without due consideration.

The principle of clarity relates to idea that our recommendations were explicitly intended to address the problem of anti-Black racism. This is not to say that other forms of racism do not exist or are not important, but it is critical to recognize that some aspects of the Black experience are not shared by people in other groups, and that our recommendations are designed with the history and modern-day Black experience in mind.

The principle of institutional accountability relates to the idea that institutions that choose to engage this work should do so with the expectation that there are consequences for failure, and that these consequences matter enough that it is important to be accountable for progress. I liken it to managing household finances: running a continual deficit in your household budget is not sustainable in the long-term; eventually, you have to address the core issue or it will run you out of a home. Similarly, institutions should be so committed to this issue that failure to address it in the short-term is seen as potentially threatening the ability of the institution to sustain its core functions.

The principle of personal accountability relates to the idea that each person has to do their own work to address their personal biases. Importantly, reading a list of recommendations or asking someone to study the issue can only be a first step: these actions do not address your own attitudes and biases. Personal accountability is really important because an institution is ultimately made up of individuals, and policies alone will not guarantee that the environment is supportive.

The principle of commitment and resources relates to the idea that action on new ideas is much more likely if the resources are already set aside to make this happen. Many of the changes needed to become anti-racist require putting money towards the problem. If that funding is set aside in advance, opportunities to make change do not seem burdensome; in contrast, if you have to come up with resources only after the ideas for change are identified, it's easier to justify why the change is unnecessary or intractable. If you do choose to create a committee to study and report back on options for action, making known that there is a commitment and resources available in advance. This information can empower the committee members to know that their efforts are not in vain and their time will not be wasted, which may also produce more sincere and heartfelt ideas with easy buy-in.

Do you think there is a tendency of making a show of diversity? What can be done to rectify this?

Yes, I think it still happens, but it's hard to catch and rarely goes acknowledged. Oftentimes it's usually without malicious intent. I don't have a good sense of how to prevent this from happening with photographs, for example — although making sure that everyone has given permission to have their photos taken is a good start, as well as alerting them when their photos are being used. In other contexts I think that establishing quantitative metrics to track progress, soliciting, and responding to personal stories, and building a culture where people feel free to be themselves and suggest the cultural changes needed to allow them to be themselves can go a long way to making one's efforts appear genuine.

In the EDI talk, you noted that: "Improving the pipeline and taking more undergraduates and getting them into graduate school is so crucial for having postdocs who then become faculty, etc." What are some of the ways we can improve the pipeline?

Over the years, a lot of emphasis has been placed on priming the pump — that is, getting more people into the pipeline. But I think a major piece of the problem is plugging the leaks so that every person you get into the pipeline has a better chance of staying. This means you need to start at the end, make sure that the few who have mostly made it through are able to succeed, and then empower them to reach back to help the generation behind them.

For faculty, this means we should empower full professors to maintain success in their career while opening space for them to mentor junior faculty and participate in EDI efforts to the extent desired. Opening up that space may mean supporting them with endowed chairs or promoting them as center directors so they can fund trainees to keep their research going without having to write grants.

For junior faculty, this means providing them with the right mentors, sponsors, and other resources to maximize their research productivity. It also means supporting efforts to remove bias in the processes that contribute to their perceived "merit" as researchers to earn tenure and be promoted. These include all aspects of peer review (publications and grants), award nominations, and public speaking opportunities. They may also need additional funding support to connect with mentors and sponsors who aren't on their campus: building these relationships takes time that, while necessary to improve their career, is an additional burden that others who are not disadvantaged don't have to spend. One can identify similar ways to support the next level — postdocs.

You mention needing partners and allies — what's the process of building this type of network/platform?

Partnerships work best when all parties involved have a vested interest and will benefit from the relationship. In contrast, allies can be more distant sympathizers who don't necessarily stand to gain a direct benefit from providing support but are moved to help, likely for benevolent reasons. I think in both cases, it's important to clarify the good that can result from being successful in efforts to improve the climate. This means that the organization should make clear what it stands to gain from improving diversity and the cultural climate, and it should incentivize opportunities for individuals to contribute to building this new platform. There should also be mechanisms in place to call out and address people, policies, and experiences that detract from building this platform.

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