Rethinking the Hiring Process: Perspective of a Black Female

by | Jan 25, 2024

Meet Lisa. Lisa is a first-generation Haitian-American who hails from Brooklyn, NY. In May 2023, Lisa graduated from MIT with a BS in Aerospace Engineering. She’ll soon embark on a new journey of interviewing and job searching. 85%+ of her interviewers will be white men. 

When Lisa was 15, she watched the film “Hidden Figures” in her family’s apartment — it was the first time she learned that female African-American mathematicians served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. For the first time, Lisa saw her possibilities outside of her restricted walls. However, her Haitian parents disagreed with Lisa’s aerospace affinity. They expected their first-generation, American-born citizen to be a lawyer or a doctor, end of discussion.

In high school, Lisa’s aptitude for math and science was undeniable. She held her dreams close – in her bones, she held onto her future career in aerospace engineering. One day, Lisa asked her school counselor for to guide her with some preliminary classes she could take now, in preparation for her career aspirations ahead. She remembers Doug – and his careless career advice well. “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he said. Lisa exhaled disappointment and inhaled her frustration whole. Onward, she told herself. 

As a determined high school senior, Lisa made the bold move of leaving her parents’ house in pursuit of her dreams. In her culture, as a female, you typically do not move out of your parents’ home until you are married. She moved to her auntie’s house in Philadelphia, home to Lockheed Martin’s High School Program. From there, she went on to earn a BS in Aerospace Engineering from MIT just 4.5 years later.

Lisa was a dynamic, high-performing college student. She was the Community Manager for MIT’s Caribbean Club, a member of the MIT Society for Women Engineers, and a frequent player on the MIT Debate Team. In May 2023, Lisa walked on stage to accept her diploma. Sporting a Haitian flag-colored graduation stole around her neck, Lisa waved to her parents as they beamed with pride. Their only child, a first-generation American, became the first college graduate in the family.

Lisa’s graduation party was back at her parent’s Brooklyn apartment. Aromatic Haitian griot (fried pork shoulder), diri kole (rice and peas), and Haitian cocktail patties swirled in the air. Family and friends gave cheers to Lisa’s diligent past and bright future. Hidden Figures played in the background.

This moment: Important. The milestone ahead: Employment.

Lisa will face hurdles that her academic career couldn’t prepare her for.

  • 0-3% representation of Black professionals in her field;
  • implicit biases and stereotype threats within her daily actions and interactions;
  • DEI teams that don’t have leadership influence or buy-in; 
  • Interview experiences that inquire more about her proven experience, yet none about her potential, despite her white peers receiving the reverse treatment;
  • Onboarding and workforce processes that lack consideration for different types of individuals in the workplace; 
  • Less candor from her manager, when compared to her majority peers, on things like performance and improvement opportunities;
  • And so on. 

Today, Lisa is a multi-functional Quality Manager at one of the largest global security and aerospace companies in America, Lockheed Martin. She’s navigated the workplace with strength and grace. She endures micro-aggressions daily and perseveres. With her are the chasms she’s crossed every step of the way. Starting with her interview experiences to secure employment in the first place.  

The Interview Process from Lisa’s Perspective

During interviews, Lisa was constantly working to avoid stereotype threats. At times, she chose to align her communication style and outward appearance more closely to that of the hiring teams she’d interview with to reduce first-impression biases and bring a sense of sameness. This took a high cognitive and emotional toll on Lisa, but she felt it was the cost of doing business in a majority and historically white and male-dominated sector. Several of the stereotype threats she faced:

  • Born to immigrant parents, Lisa had an accent from speaking a different language at home. Once, with no indicators of language barriers shown, she was asked by HR of a hiring company –  “Is English your first language, or do you need an interpreter?” Lisa’s capacity to speak English was questioned before she had a chance to speak. 
  • Lisa asked about the time off policy during one of her interviews, to which the interviewer answered, “We do not offer any sick days for trivial health reasons —  sick days taken must accompany a doctor’s note.” This interviewer assumed that Lisa wanted to see how many sick days she could get away with. All Lisa cared about was really, whether she could head home for the holidays and Haitian Independence Day and if the company had reasonable paid leave policies. 
  • In one of Lisa’s interviews, she was asked to take an additional assessment to showcase her real-world knowledge with a live panel. When asked if the other candidates in this process were taking this assessment, the answer was: “No, because they have other credentials and experience to show for their expertise.” The position was for a college graduate entering the workforce.

These stereotypes continued long after the interview process was over, and they will continue to affect Lisa even if she gets hired. For instance, Lisa was raised by her parents, who primarily spoke Haitian Creole to her growing up. While her parents can speak English, their accent is very evident. Lisa has a slight accent, and she tries to be mindful of her pronunciation when in professional settings. 

Lisa also finds herself having to prove her credibility amongst her professional peers. A colleague at her former job once asked if she had someone take her final exams. This doubt can impact Lisa’s inclusion in projects and consideration for future promotions. 

Alongside these challenges, Lisa often feels excluded since it’s “uncommon” to see a woman, let alone a Black woman, in her field and her current role. 

What Can Hiring Companies Do Better?

Hiring companies must evaluate candidates as individuals and actively work to dispel stereotypes in the workplace. Showing representation on the hiring panel or calling out the lack thereof can speak volumes to a prospective employee. Hiring companies must also be mindful of the peers that the candidate will be working with – they will need just as much of an onboarding process as the new employee does. 

When it comes to hiring strategies and workforce readiness, we’ve seen these initiatives deliver successful outcomes:

  • Partner with universities and organizations like Lockheed, MIT, OBAP, and Spaceforce Workforce.
  • Undergo implicit bias training to bring better hiring outcomes and more positive candidate experiences
  • Investing in ongoing upskilling and development programs will improve workforce readiness while empowering your people to perform now. 

How to Become an Aerospace Engineer

The aerospace industry is ripe with opportunity. 

Typically, aerospace engineering jobs require a degree in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, or another relevant field. Some aerospace engineers may seek an associate degree in aerospace engineering, but it’s more common for professionals in this field to hold a bachelor’s degree. You can also earn a graduate degree like a master’s or doctorate, but employers may not require aerospace engineers to hold advanced degrees depending on the role or industry.

Some universities offer Ph.D. programs in aerospace engineering, which can prepare students for careers in teaching and research. To earn a Ph.D., students must complete an original dissertation based on their research interests and take coursework related to their area of interest, which could be in propulsion, aerodynamic systems, or aerospace structures. 

For those who pursue a Ph.D., they’ll unlock: 

  • Higher salaries. Following this program of study and getting a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering results in higher salaries for the same job as compared to having a master’s or bachelor’s degree.
  • Funding for research projects. The authority and experience that come with a doctoral degree vastly increase your chances of winning various government-funded and privately funded research projects. This can help you become a leader and innovator in the field.
  • Robust academic career. Many aerospace engineering students who pursue a doctoral degree intend to make a career in academia rather than in the industry. You can publish research papers and grow as a respected researcher in this field.
  • More career options overall. In addition to research opportunities, PhD holders in this field have more job options overall. These are usually higher-ranked positions. You are also eligible to become a postsecondary teacher of engineering subjects at colleges and universities.

The outlook for the aerospace industry is positive, with over 3,800 expected openings for aerospace engineers each year until 2026.

Let Digital Knack Help You Grow

Aerospace companies will continue facing strong headwinds when it comes to talent deficits for engineering, manufacturing, and technician roles — but tailwinds are also powerful. Digital Knack is proud to recruit critical talent for aerospace companies that prioritize recruiting, reskilling, representation, and retention.

When individuals create inclusive interviewing experiences, diverse candidates are more likely to perform at their best. Start by diversifying your awareness of under-represented identities in your industry and company today; perhaps by learning, engaging, and connecting, and you’ll spark a tailwind that can advance hiring far and wide. 


Written by Jackie Bycinthe