A Chip On Her Shoulder: A Documentary Play about Women in Engineering

A Chip On Her Shoulder

investigates the experience of women in Engineering and stimulates the conversation of what it means to be a visible and/or invisible identity in the field. It engages directly with engineers through participatory interviews used to create the script and form a collective story of the struggles and accomplishments of women in the field.  The play presents both technological and personal issues and accomplishments in the field, tackles discrimination and bias through subversive musical comedy, and celebrates inclusive ideas for the future of Engineering.

 

Context

Engineers impact our homes, our transportation, our food, and almost every advance we experience in our ever changing world. Yet this field does not often receive the same acclaim and notoriety as the other sciences. The invisibility of Engineering makes most lay people confused about the practices and people responsible for shaping our very lives.  Add gender to an already hidden field, and it is no surprise only 14 % of engineers in the field are women (according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee). And this statistic does not take into account intersecting identities of ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, age, or ability.

30 years ago I struggled as a black engineer. It seems little has changed | Helen Powell

Thirty years ago, when I was struggling to find work as a chemical engineer, I was used as a case study in a newspaper article about the barriers facing black graduates.

Why girls need STEM and why STEM needs girls – Today’s Parent

We spend a lot of time in our house talking to my nine-year-old stepdaughter about Grown-Up Career Options. “You could be an engineer!” we say. “And make cool things and help people! You could be a coder and make websites for awesome causes. You can be a scientist, a math teacher-you can be anything you want.”


Why are women gaining traction in other fields and sciences but remaining behind in Engineering? Who are the people currently in the field challenging the norms? And what challenges and stereotypes are  women and trans people in Engineering overcoming? Working outside the field of Engineering, director/playwright Kristin Kelly struggled to answer these questions and began speaking with students, staff and faculty at the esteemed and competitive College of Engineering at Virginia Tech to gain an understanding of the problem.

Development History 

In 2014, Kelly began interviewing Engineering students, faculty, and local professionals in the field, including her own mother, an IBM engineer with 30 plus years of experience.  The interviews yielded intimate stories of board room arguments, struggles with motherhood, and devastating instances of sexual harassment.  Hearing personal accounts of the complexities and gender inequalities present in Engineering fueled Kelly’s desire to share a more nuanced understanding of the field.

Kelly chose to utilize the form of documentary theater to capture the life behind the stories, as this theatrical form allows for collective storytelling and the exploration of a topic from multiple and diverse perspectives. It has the power to connect voices, stories, and experiences across time and place to better understand the world we live in.  With documentary theater, Kelly carefully edited and shaped verbatim interviews into monologues, juxtaposing varying perspectives to highlight new ideas and allow the stories to be in conversation with each other. In the script we hear a male CEO of a Civil Engineering Firm debate hiring practices against an HR representative fighting for a woman candidate to be considered for a job. And queer men and women reveal the difficulty of coming out in work environments while a black Engineering student encounters a roommate with a confederate flag. In between, and during monologues, Kelly employs movement and song to highlight and explore deeper themes.  She avoids didactic messages and storylines wrapped with a pretty bow, and instead, uses the performance to open up dialogue and exploration around the hidden lives of women engineers.

After several rounds of interviews, collaborations with WINGS, an undergraduate mentoring program, Hypatia, a women Engineer living learning community, and AdvanceVT, a faculty initiative for diversity, A Chip on Her Shoulder premiered March 2015 at Virginia Tech.  Featuring 19 different voices with 10 actors the performance showed the human side of Engineering.  

In 2016, Kelly expanded her reach, partnering with Virginia Western Community College to continue development. In November 2016 a new iteration with more interviews was produced by Virginia Western Community College and Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council with sponsorship by American Electric Power.  Audience members from all fields found the material relevant, moving, and enlightening:

“I laughed, I got mad, and I teared up. I have experienced so much of that, and it really struck a chord.  And having these types of conversations are what will change it!”  – R. Nadean Carson, P.E. Stormwater Program Manager

Bookings and Inquiries:

Interested in bringing A Chip On Her Shoulder to your community? Contact Kristin: krkelly@vt.edu

A Chip On Her Shoulder can provide:

  • Performances of current script and talk back discussions
  • Diversity/Inclusion Training performances and workshops
  • Development and presentation of Engineering stories in your specific educational/professional community
  • Artistic residencies at universities engaging both Theatre and Engineering Schools in documentary storytelling
  • Workshops on
    • Documentary playwriting
    • Docu interview techniques to engage communities in conversations around relevant Engineering topics
    • Strategies for change and improvements in field
A Chip On Her Shoulder at Queens College with Honest Accomplice Theatre In partnership with The Center for Ethnic, Racial & Religious Understanding

               

A Chip On Her Shoulder at The Grove School of Engineering at The City College of New York with Honest Accomplice Theatre In Partnership with The Dean’s Office

A Chip On Her Shoulder at NYU Ethnodrama Forum with Honest Accomplice Theatre

 

A Chip On Her Shoulder at Virginia Tech