Making Systemic Change, Making a Profession for Everyone

July/August 2020

NSPE Today: Policy Perspectives
Making Systemic Change, Making a Profession for Everyone

BY STEPHANIE HAMILTON

As I write this today, the country is eight days into nationwide protests that broke out after George Floyd, an African American man, died at the hands (technically, at the knee) of a police officer. I don’t know what the state of things will be by the time this goes to print, making this the second “Policy Perspectives” in a row to begin with “I don’t know what will be happening when.…”

The death of George Floyd shines a harsh spotlight, yet again, on the systemic injustices that have existed in this country for centuries. And who knows, by the time this is published, the protests may have quieted. They might also have intensified. Regardless, one thing is for certain—the engineering profession has both an opportunity and an obligation to make some positive and overdue changes.

There are several bills in Congress right now that aim to increase access to STEM education for minority students, a vital precursor to increasing diversity in the engineering profession. Here are just a few:

Supporting Minority STEM Student to Career Act (H.R. 5784)

This bill amends the Education Department’s Minority Science and Engineering Improvement program to authorize funding for a variety of support mechanisms available to minority students, including faculty and peer mentorship, research opportunities, and summer bridge programs. It also directs the Education Secretary to create a plan for implementation.

Clean Energy Jobs Act (S. 2393)

This is a broad bill that isn’t focused specifically on STEM education, but it has provisions that address the need to improve minority access to both STEM education and clean energy jobs.

Diversity Advancements in Accelerated Programs Act (H.R. 6107)

To improve the diversity of accelerated learning programs, this bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to allow federally allocated public education funds to be used, in part, for these programs. Funding can also be used to establish screening processes to identify students who are eligible for accelerated learning programs.

In addition to promoting diversity in education, the engineering profession has an opportunity to support policies that promote diversity in leadership as well.

A great example of this is the Diversity in Corporate Leadership Act of 2020 (H.R. 3279, S. 3367), which directs the Securities and Exchange Commission to require all public companies to disclose “the gender, racial, and ethnic composition of its board of directors and nominees for board membership.” Additionally, it directs the SEC to convene an advisory group to study strategies and make recommendations for increasing diversity among public companies’ boards of directors.

These may seem like small steps. And to be fair, they are. But they are small steps that can move us in the right direction. And they are necessary steps in the process of improving diversity within the engineering profession. According to a 2018 study published by the National Academies of Sciences, African Americans comprise just 4.3% of the engineering profession, despite being about 14% of the US population.

A lack of diversity in the profession also means a lack of innovation. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group found that “companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity.” For these companies, diversity clearly isn’t about filling quotas or creating the right image.

Increasing diversity in the engineering profession won’t magically erase systemic issues of injustice. It will, however, get us closer. We can’t fix the entire world, but there are certainly steps we can take to improve our little corner of it.

Exhibit 1 | Companies with More Diverse Leadership
Teams Report Higher Innovation Revenue

Inforgraphic: Company diversity scores

Source: BCG diversity and innovation survey, 2017 (n=1,681)
Note: Average diversity score calculated using the Blau index, a statistical means of combining individual indices into an overall aggregate index.

Stephanie Hamilton is NSPE’s manager of government relations and advocacy.