The face of engineering

Sept. 1, 2002
With the demand for engineers rising, the profession faces a need for greater diversity.

Shortly after a female engineer signed on for her first position in the early 1970s, her boss commented that when she was hired the company was facing affirmative action pressures. He said that faced with the prospect of hiring a Caucasian woman or an African American, she became the lesser of two evils, so to speak.

Granted, this was an isolated incident, and given the social climate at the time, it probably was not one specific to the engineering profession. But, fast-forward to the present and it raises questions as to why engineering has lagged behind while women and racial minorities have integrated into so many other fields.

Women are currently about as rare as slide rules and minorities as common as drafting boards in the average engineering department. There are various reasons why women and minorities don’t enter the profession. Engineers, no matter what their gender or race, are becoming an endangered species. The numbers of engineering students and working engineers have decreased over the years, and unless more people are encouraged into the field, the profession could face serious shortages.

“There is a shortage [of engineers], and that shortage could be made up by women and minorities,” says Patrick J. Natale, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). Historically, women and minorities were underrepresented in many fields, yet changes have occurred in these areas and engineering has fallen behind. Factors such as a lack of role models, economic disadvantages, lack of proper education, and outright discrimination dissuade people from pursuing engineering careers.

Role models

Many young women and minorities are not interested in engineering because they do not see themselves represented in the field. Engineering has an image problem, Natale says, because young people do not know what engineers do or they find it uninteresting. If a young person shows interest in engineering that person is immediately asked if he or she likes math and science, instead of being shown the more interesting aspects of what engineers do.

“We want [young people] to be aware that there are opportunities here,” says Natale.

The NSPE recently started “The American Engineering Campaign,” a nationwide education effort to promote available engineering opportunities. The NSPE programs provide potential engineers with role models by placing engineering professionals in classrooms. NSPE is not the only organization trying this approach. The Society of Women Engineers (SWE), the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), and countless others also provide mentors to female and minority students.


Young people need qualified teachers in addition to role models. According to B. Dundee Holt, NACME’s vice president of communication, minorities from economically disadvantaged school systems are less likely to have teachers certified in math and science. Even if minority students show more interest in math than their peers, as a NACME poll found, they are given less access to education.

“Access more than anything keeps minorities from engineering,” says Holt.

In grade school the ways in which females are socialized often dissuade them from math and science. Research shows that sexist attitudes, from both teachers and students, influence the way girls are treated in the classroom. Boys tend to receive more personal attention from teachers, causing girls to participate less. Math and science become “boy stuff,” and girls feel pressured to conform to gender roles.

Engineer and author Kaitlin Duck Sherwood says girls tend to fall behind in math during high school. Gender conformity pressures are the strongest during these years, and young people will submit to gender roles — no matter how unfounded — in order to fit in. According to Sherwood, eliminating these roles is key to easing women into technical fields.

“If one of the gender roles is that ‘girls don’t like technical fields,’ it’s no surprise that girls drop out of technical fields,” Sherwood says.

Women and minorities in college

Lack of exposure to math and science for minorities and females in primary education is made obvious in college admissions statistics. According to 1999 NSPE statistics, only 14.6% of students on undergraduate engineering career tracks were African American, Hispanic American, or American Indian, and only 18.9% were women.

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In college non-minority women have to battle gender roles. This can be overcome, and the number of women pursuing technical degrees is increasing. However, for minorities who are economically disadvantaged the challenge of paying for college can be a tough obstacle, especially at prestigious engineering schools.

In 1999, NACME performed a study on the impact that financial aid has on minorities in engineering. The study determined that two-thirds of all minority students who enroll in engineering will not earn their degrees, but two-thirds of their non-minority classmates will. The study also found that decreases in minority freshman enrollment in the 1990s, coupled with low retention rates, are leading to significant declines in the number of minorities graduating during the first four years of the new millennium. These drops are attributed to the unavailability of financial aid.

The NACME study noted that, unlike many institutional factors, such as low peer and faculty expectations, unsupportive campus climate, the absence of role models, and the challenging nature of math and science, inadequate financial aid is a problem that is relatively easy to fix.

One interesting finding of the study was that in 1999, U.S. industries hired more engineers from abroad than its engineering schools awarded degrees to. “We need to be concerned about growing our own talent,” Holt says. The University of Michigan College of Engineering in Ann Arbor, Mich. opened its Minority Engineering Program Office (MEPO) in 1969 to recruit and retain minority students and faculty. According to director Derrick Scott, the program has survived upward and downward trends in minority enrollment during the last 30 years and it has used “a lot of experimentation” to find programs that help students succeed. It became clear that students had to be introduced to engineering at young ages and given assistance until they earned degrees.

“We learned that, not only did we need to start earlier to get them in, we had to make sure they stayed,” Scott says.

Many factors play into a particular minority student’s success at the university level or higher, says Scott. The challenge is to find out to what degree those factors are present on a particular campus. For this reason, MEPO works to provide students with diverse faculty, supportive programming, and, most importantly, financial assistance to help them succeed.

“I’m spending a lot of time with [private and non-private] companies trying to create scholarship opportunities for students,” Scott says. “The students who have those opportunities are doing better.”

Scott says the more minorities there are in the field and in the classroom, the more future generations will be encouraged to pursue engineering.

“In the African American community especially, engineering is not a career choice because there aren’t role models,” Scott says. “There are no engineers on television, and none that look like us.”

After graduation

If women and minority engineers make it through college, they can still face problems. NACME’s Holt says the same “-isms” that impact society at large impact engineering, a field still somewhat dominated by “the old boys club.”

“If you have an idea of what an engineer looks like and someone walks into your office who doesn’t look like that, you begin to question if the person can do the job,” Holt says.

This applies to minorities and to women, who have to confront racist or sexist attitudes regarding their presence in technical fields. SWE President Shelley Wolff says women engineers can feel alienated by everything from not being asked to lunch with the staff to not being asked for input at project meetings.

“I don’t think it’s so much of an overt thing anymore, it’s more subtle,” Wolff says.

Wolff says many obstacles she confronted early in her career revolved around colleagues making assumptions about her.

“I had two children at home and people would assume I didn’t want to travel, so they wouldn’t even ask me,” Wolff says. She also says that in order for a woman to get what she wants out of an engineering career, she needs to speak up about her capabilities.

Sherwood, whose “Women In the Engineering Industry” speech to the SWE in 1994 was a survival guide for female engineers, says that as more women enter the field those attitudes will dissipate.

“If there are as many women as men in a field, nobody can say, ‘This field isn’t appropriate for women,’” Sherwood says. “Furthermore, when times get rough, the women can say to themselves, ‘Oh, this is a tough time’ instead of ‘Oh, gee, I guess they were right — I can’t do it.’”

The future of engineering

According to many people in the field, the integration of women and minorities into engineering is necessary if the field is going to be progressive and competitive in the future.

“If we [engineers] don’t look like society, how can we fit society?” Natale asks.

“People are starting to wake up and realize that they are going to have to be more diversified in order to fill all the [engineering] positions,” Wolff says.

According to the Engineering Workforce Commission, there was nearly a 20% decrease in the number of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded between 1986 and 1998. Engineering industry speculation is that by 2008 there will be a 20% increase in the number of engineers needed. Women and minorities could provide the needed talent. With increased efforts to incorporate their talent into engineering departments, women and minorities will not go the way of the slide rule and the drafting board.

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