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Why Don’t Engineering Tests Track Gender or Ethnicity?

April 6, 2016
There’s a lot of talk about getting more women and minorities in STEM careers. So why doesn't the Professional Engineer (PE) exam gather test-performance data about men, women, and different ethnicities?

In the history of the SATs there has been a lingering debate on whether math and science questions are written in a way that favor certain ethnicities, or one gender over another.

I asked Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) about the state of gender neutrality on tests. She said, “There are definitely ways to improve gender neutrality on tests.  Certainly, men tend to be better than women on mental rotation.  Women tend to be better in terms of language skills. The SAT has done a lot of work to make its tests bias free, but it is certainly possible.”

So, gender neutrality is not only improved in SATs, but more simply, gender is at least tracked. However, gender is not tracked on the exams that get you into a Professional Engineer (PE) position.

I contacted the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) for records of pass/fail in each category based on gender and ethnicity. Tim Miller, the director of examination services for NCEES, replied saying “…we do not collect gender or ethnicity data on examinees, so there are no reports available.”

Unfortunately, that leaves a very old and long trail of data that could reveal some important patterns about performance.   

On a good note, the NCEES now keeps records for colleges and professors to see how their graduates performed. Miller states, “We started publishing some new annual data last year…– It’s call “Squared” and can be found here” And, unlike the SATs, the grading of the tests should be completely unbiased because of the fact that the NCEES doesn’t track gender or ethnicity.

Still, there’s a lot of talk about getting more women in STEM careers. I think this data could be important in uncovering some patterns. Specifically, the number of women in STEM drop at an age when they should be entering leadership, but what if their leadership position requires a PE?

I’d like to see how many men vs women take that test, how well they score in each category and knowledge area (type of engineering focus), and which ones pass or fail. What do you think?

Lindsey Frick is a mechanical engineer turned social engineer and strategist. She has run her own product development company since college and now builds socially responsible business plans and systems. The Brooklyn, NY transplant writes for trade publications and has started a women in sustainability network called @WOMENFIX to give females a test bed to solve problems in ways to raise the quality of life.

Follow Lindsey at @BigIdeaEngineer

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