Diversifying Engineering: On Campus and In the Workforce

Historically, engineering in the U.S. has been dominated by white and Asian males. While concerns about this lack of diversity have sparked a number of organizations and led to the creation of initiatives dedicated to attracting more women and minorities to STEM programs, these groups remain woefully underrepresented. Liaison recently hosted a webinar featuring three women dedicated to improving diversity in engineering discussing some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Noha El-Ghobashy, vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the Institute for Transformative Technologies (ITT) and former Executive Director of the Association of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Stephanie Adams, first female and first minority dean of Batten College of Engineering and Technology at Old Dominion University, and Rebecca Bates, professor of Computer Science and Integrated Engineering at Minnesota State University Mankato, all agreed that increasing diversity in the engineering workforce starts with improving diversity on campuses.

Why diversity in engineering matters

“If we’re going to design solutions that successfully address problems faced by the over seven billion people living on this earth, we can’t have 84% of the engineering workforce represent only two demographic groups,” El-Ghobashy said. Diverse perspectives are crucial not just in solving problems but in fully understanding them.

In addition, the population is changing. WIRED reported that STEM jobs were expected to increase 17% over the ten-year period ending in 2024. “While interest in engineering remains concentrated among white and Asian men, the emerging workforce does not fit this demographic: Nearly half of U.S. children are girls and an increasing number are underrepresented minorities,” the article stated. To remain competitive in the global market, the U.S. must maintain a workforce with the necessary STEM background.

Attracting more diverse students requires more diverse faculty

Adams pointed out that a limited number of minorities earn Ph.D.s in engineering each year, and that more than half seek employment outside academia. Since these candidates are in demand, they may have multiple job options available. Schools need to be more aggressive and move quickly to recruit faculty members from diverse backgrounds. “There’s a real void — we can’t use the same old practices to diversify faculty because the population isn’t there,” Adams said.

Bates encouraged schools to think about creating spaces where people want to stay. “Consider the policies, rewards and training you’re offering graduate students who are often teaching undergraduates — they need to understand inherent bias, micro-aggressions, etc. We have to think about how people are working together,” she said. In addition to developing more supportive environments for undergraduate students, Bates said, “we need to create spaces where graduate students could see spending the rest of their lives as a career.”

Reaching students earlier with messages that resonate

El-Ghobashy acknowledged that changing the pipeline of engineers requires work during the foundational years, such as sponsoring K-12 STEM programs and rebranding engineering as more than math and science.

Adams agreed. “We’re missing an opportunity — we don’t talk about all the possibilities,” she said. “One of the things that we know about women and people of color is that they we want to serve, we want to know that we’re in a helping profession.” While engineering certainly fits that description, Adams said, universities and the profession overall aren’t articulating that to prospective students. Simply modifying messaging about what engineers do could help attract more minority applicants.

To learn more about ways to attract more diverse engineering students to your graduate programs, watch the on-demand webinar, Diversifying the Engineering Community.