Building upon Patriarchy – Kyriarchy & Engineering

What can we do to move past a homogenous (white) women in engineering mindset?

Women are underrepresented in STEM. People of color, and especially women of color, experience a field that is often overtly hostile or “chilly”. LGBTQ individuals face rampant harassment and subtle forms of exclusion which create an alarming rate of hiding their identity.

You may notice that we are not struggling against a simple patriarchy – domination of men in society. It’s more than that. If we look at those who control our offices, institutions, congress, corporations, and White House, we see a clearer image of who tends to solidify themselves within positions of power.

It’s not just men:

  • White men
  • Straight white men
  • Able-bodied straight white men
  • Cisgender able-bodied straight white men
  • Christian cisgender able-bodied straight white men
  • Executive class Christian cisgender able-bodied straight white men
  • Highly educated executive class Christian cisgender able-bodied straight white men
  • Gender conforming highly educated executive class Christian cisgender able-bodied straight white men.

And these men are typically not overwhelmingly present in our social justice efforts. We must avoid becoming laundry lists of essentialized identities. Absolutely. But we cannot ignore the many faces, angles, and intersections of these differences. It requires us to think about power – how does it work, and how it shows in our communities.

Within all of these identity groups there is downward oppression, horizontal hostility, and a whole mess of dynamics which affect our lives. It is not so simple when we really dig in.

This is where kyriarchy becomes an essential concept.


Kyriarchy was developed by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and she outlines it well in this excerpt from the introduction to Prejudce and Christian beginnings – investigating race, gender, and ethnicity in early Christian studies:

Kyriarchy is constituted as a sociocultural and religious system of dominations by intersecting multiplicative structures of oppres- sion. The different sets of relations of domination shift historically and produce a different constellation of oppression in different times and cultures. The structural positions of subordination that have been fashioned by kyriarchal relations stand in tension with those required by radical democracy.

Rather than identifying kyriarchy with the binary male over female, white over black, Western over colonialized peoples, it is best to understand this term in the classical sense of antiquity. Modern democracies are still structured as complex pyramidal political systems of superiority and inferiority, of dominance and subordination.

She goes on to define subject positions and structural positions – things we have control and choice over, and things that are physical or embodied. Wildly fun stuff. If you haven’t checked out her work, open a new tab and start adventuring into it. Her critical feminist biblical interpretation is a realm of study that I had no awareness of before the past few years. It’s really cool and traces kyriarchy in our society as an extension and evolution of Roman social stratification, i.e. Rome never truly fell. That’s a post for another day.

The excellent feminist podcast Kicking the Kyriarchy digs into the many faces of intersectional power. If you’re into podcasts, check it out!


Adopting and integrating kyriarchy into STEM can have far reaching and radical implications. It will allow us to interrogate deeper into how, for example, white domestic women in engineering may have tremendous advantage over international women of color (something I know intimately well from my degree programs). It may shed light into the dynamics facing queer men and women with disabilities and the multiple forms of engineering’s oppressive culture. Most of all, it can give transformative possibilities in our work to truly be engineering for the world – not just a privileged few.

Perhaps the most popular organizations in engineering for women will realize the whiteness of white women in engineering (such as myself) and move towards a more intersectional (kyriarchical) approach towards their activism and outreach. In the vein of critical whiteness studies, perhaps we can start to gaze inwards at ourselves and the many ways that privileged researchers like myself continue to replicate our dominance through our work.

In a 2015 article titled Intersectionality and kyriarchy: A framework for approaching power and social justice in planning and climate change adaptation published in Planning Theory by Natalie Osborne, the application of kyriarchical systems framework is integrated into climate justice in a new and novel way. She notes that climate change does – absolutely – affect communities in disproportionate ways based on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. She writes:

In order to address this issue of differential vulnerability and exposure to risk, it is vital to understand both the complex, intersectional lived experiences of individuals and how those experiences are shaped by structural power – by kyriarchy. The integration of intersectionality and kyriarchy provides a framework for this kind of analysis…

…In planning and climate change adaptation, kyriarchy and intersectionality may help develop a more complex understanding of marginality, oppression and vulnerability. By improving our under- standing of the way disasters and other climate change impacts are experienced, our responses may be improved. A better understanding of other phenomena that are likely to be exacerbated by climate change, such as migration, ill health and homelessness, will enable better planning and preparation.

Engineers will also benefit tremendously from complicating simple power dynamics in our classrooms, workplaces, and projects. We say all the time that we do systems-level thinking, that we really know systems. Let’s dig into this system in our new wave of activism.

What do you think of kyriarchy, how does it fit into social justice engineering for you?


Author: Andrea Haverkamp

Andrea Haverkamp holds a PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in queer studies. Her dissertation research explored the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education. She is currently a labor organizer in Washington state.

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