Diversity—Moving Beyond 'Pale, Male, and Gray'

Jan/Feb 2012

Diversity—Moving Beyond 'Pale, Male, and Gray'


NSPE PRESIDENT CHRISTOPHER M. STONE, P.E., F.NSPERenowned inventor Dean Kamen recently described the engineering profession in the United States as "pale, male, and gray." He's not the first to notice or to be disturbed by this fact. The lack of diversity among engineers is a concern because diversity of backgrounds and thinking would logically yield better solutions for society.

Diversifying the engineering profession is as much, if not more, about gender as it is about ethnicity. Achieving gender balance might take us farther in helping the profession better "represent." In the last two decades, the medical sciences, including pharmacology and psychology, have been successful at attracting women to the extent that women are now roughly equal in number to men in these health professions. In engineering, women—of any and every ethnicity—make up less than 20% of the workforce. Multiple theories exist as to why medical sciences have been so successful in attracting women, chief among them the idea that women are drawn to professions where they can make positive social impact.

As an engineer, I would argue professional engineers do more to benefit society than physicians (or just about any other industry). The health impacts of clean water, climate controlled environments, safe modes of transportation, even modernized health-care facilities and equipment, are achievements of engineering that touch everyone. Health care in the U.S. is more about treatment rather than prevention and health maintenance these days—unlike in engineering, where health, safety, and welfare drive design. To date, engineers have apparently not been widely successful at helping others, and in particular, women, understand how professional engineers positively impact nearly every area of their lives.

For years, NSPE has dabbled in programs and relationships to work toward diversifying and changing the face of the profession. Looking ahead, NSPE has made helping to diversify the face of the profession a key goal of its 2020 Transformation Plan.

According to NSPE's position statement on minorities and women in engineering, the Society "proactively encourages diversity in all areas of the engineering profession, which NSPE aggressively pursues in its own organization and seeks opportunities to promote throughout the profession." The position statement further pledges that NSPE will provide minority and women students with information on opportunities and requirements to pursue engineering and that NSPE will work with professional groups representing minority and women engineers to promote mutual interests.

Currently, NSPE works with the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Society of Hispanic Engineers, as well as other groups to actively promote the profession and engineering. But we can and need to do more to help the engineering profession better reflect the demographics of the United States.

Asians are an engineering anomaly in that they are the only minority in the U.S. with a higher percentage of engineers across their population. Asians represent slightly less than 5% of the U.S. population, but annually Asians earn 9% of engineering bachelor degrees. Black and Hispanic populations are a different story. The 2010 U.S. Census counts Hispanics as 16% of the American population, while Blacks make up 12%. But in 2006, Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians combined earned just 16% of engineering degrees, according to the National Science Foundation's Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System.

NSF's 2011 Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering reports, "Unemployment rates are higher for minority scientists and engineers than for white scientists and engineers and are higher for minority female than for minority male scientists and engineers."

As a profession, we must do more, and we must do a better job of encouraging underrepresented groups to pursue careers in engineering. To encourage the attraction of women and minorities to the engineering profession, NSPE encourages its members to promote the profession by mentoring members of underrepresented minority groups. The fact is, the best way to increase the levels of underrepresented groups in engineering is to introduce them to the profession through purposeful mentoring. This can only be accomplished one individual at a time, and only by actively seeking out and promoting engineering will we as professional engineers change the landscape of our profession.

To achieve diversity in NSPE membership and leadership, NSPE will pointedly involve more minority members in leadership activities and encourage them to serve on or chair committees. The Society also will encourage self-evaluation of potential biases as a component of NSPE leadership training and provide sensitivity training to address biases.

And with the aim of helping U.S. engineers be more successful in a shrinking global economy, we will also continue to communicate with members about diversity issues through PE magazine, online content, Web seminars, and other educational opportunities to learn about and empathize with cultural differences.

By these and other measures, as we reach 2020, hopefully the engineering profession will more accurately reflect the face of society, with diverse ideas, solutions, and opportunities.