Challenges Persist For Minorities And Women

Oct. 20, 2005
The U.S. is in danger of suffering a serious shortage of engineers and scientists. No shock there—during the past two decades, such warnings have emanated repeatedly from government agencies and professional societies that keep tabs on the engineer

The U.S. is in danger of suffering a serious shortage of engineers and scientists. No shock there—during the past two decades, such warnings have emanated repeatedly from government agencies and professional societies that keep tabs on the engineering community. The failure to produce a new generation of EEs will lead to the "graying" of the engineering workforce. Consequently, graduate schools will have to recruit more engineering students from abroad. And the cycle will repeat itself.

A major factor in this educational shortfall is the relatively small number of women and minorities, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, opting for engineering professions. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, 68% of all undergraduate engineering students in the U.S. are white, 14% are Asian-American, and just over 5% each are Hispanic and African-American. The same statistics show that women represent only 9% of the engineering workforce, even though they constitute 20% of overall undergraduate engineering enrollment.

"The individual successes of women and minorities, some of them in the face of unrelenting discrimination, demonstrates that there are no intrinsic differences in the human brain that would prevent them from excelling in engineering," says Mohamed El-Aasser, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Lehigh University. "Yet despite the fact that women now outnumber men on America's college campuses and have equaled them in virtually every profession, their presence in the engineering field remains limited."

According to a June 2005 report from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (Washington, DC), limited improvements can be seen over the last decade in the employment of Hispanics in scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) occupations. Improvements for African-Americans are less encouraging. Analyzing data on the employment of minorities in STEM occupations from 1994 to 2004, the Commission found that:

  • Representation by African-Americans in STEM occupations appears to have peaked in 1999-2001 and now stands at just 6.2%. This compares to their 10.7% share of the entire U.S. workforce in 2004.

  • Among all STEM occupational groups, African-Americans have achieved their highest workforce penetration in science technician occupations (10.6%) and their lowest penetration in computer, science, and engineering management (4.1%).

  • Hispanics have made relatively steady progress in the last decade in their participation in the STEM workforce. In 1994, they accounted for 3.7% of all STEM workers. By 2004, they had increased their share to 5.3%. This share, however, is less than half their share of the entire U.S. workforce (12.9%).

  • Among all STEM occupational groups, Hispanics have achieved their highest workforce penetration in engineering and related technician occupations (9.0%) and their lowest penetration in the natural sciences (3.1%).

  • The level of participation by Asians in STEM occupations is remarkable. Although they comprise only 4.3% of the entire U.S. labor force, they accounted for 11.0% of all STEM workers in 2004, with even higher levels of representation among natural scientists and mathematical/ computer scientists.

  • African-American women are relatively well represented in the STEM workforce. In 2003, women accounted for about one quarter (26.1%) of all STEM workers. African-American women, however, accounted for more than one-third (35.4%) of all African-American STEM workers. This was not the case for other minorities. As with the overall STEM workforce, women constituted about one quarter of both the Hispanic (23.6%) and Asian (26.6%) STEM workforces.

  • "The lack of significant progress by under-represented minorities in STEM occupations does not necessarily mean that efforts to fix the problem have been in vain," says Richard Ellis, co-Principal Investigator on the Commission's project. "But it does show that there remains much room for improvement, and it underscores the need for full-scale evaluations of our efforts to date to increase minority participation in STEM occupations."

    According to Nancy Lane at the University of Cambridge, mounting evidence suggests that gender bias is alive and well in the engineering profession. Women, she says, often face discrimination by being employed on a less secure footing—despite the growing awareness of the huge untapped economic potential that women represent.

    "Widespread acceptance of a stereotyping of scientists and engineers as male from grade school to the university level is a key factor in the under-representation of women in these professions," says Lane. "The dearth of senior women scientists in the public arena means that women have few role models with whom to identify and few female mentors to encourage them."

    Lane adds that there are social factors to consider as well. "As child-bearers, women carry the 'burden' of child care—as well as the care of aging parents. So unless familyfriendly policies are put in place, women are more likely to be distracted from their engineering careers, or even taken away from them for sometimes considerable periods. In a fast-moving field like engineering, returning to the job becomes an increasingly difficult task, because time away leads to unfamiliarity with new technologies and state-oftheart equipment."

    The National Academy of Engineering suggests many reasons why we must do a better job of encouraging women and minorities to consider a career in engineering. Among them:

  • There is a shortage of skilled workers. Polls of business leaders indicate that the skill shortage is their number one barrier to growth. Current projections show that unless women and minorities are attracted to science, technology, and engineering, the U.S. won't have the trained personnel necessary to meet its needs and remain competitive in a global economy.

  • Society benefits from a more diverse engineering community. Women add valuable alternative perspectives to problem-solving and contribute important elements to group dynamics.

  • Businesses benefit from engaging women in research, design, and development. Women constitute 50% of the population, and thus are a major consumer group. By attracting women engineers, companies gain better understanding of their customers' needs, so they can design better products and compete more successfully in the marketplace.

  • Engineering can be a rewarding lifetime career. It offers significant financial benefits and job security. On average, engineering graduates receive the highest starting salary of any discipline: $36,000 to $50,000 with a bachelor's degree and $55,000 to $65,000 with a master's degree.

  • Enriching the pool of talented people involved in engineering could go a long way toward making the profession a more satisfying career option for everyone, while eliminating some of the concerns over potential engineering shortages.

    "We must ensure that every U.S. citizen—including women and underrepresented minorities—be provided an equal opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to compete in the STEM workforce," says Eleanor Babco, Executive Director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. "But without specific policies and programs that aggressively support greater participation and advancement by all members of the U.S. talent pool, this goal will not be achieved."

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    About the Author

    Jay McSherry

    Jay McSherry is president of Butterflies & Castles, Inc., a full-service marketing communications company that provides market research, strategic planning and other marketing-related services to enterprises and publishers. Before forming B&C in 1991, he'd held senior marketing management positions at some of the major B2B publishing houses, including McGraw-Hill, CMP and IDG. Jay holds a BS degree in marketing from Fordham University. He can be reached at (201) 248.5080.

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