Testimony to the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development

Testimony to the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development. Committee on the Diversity of the Engineering Workforce.

Wm. A. Wulf
National Academy of Engineering
July 20, 1999

Best Practices:
What employer initiatives for developing the careers of female, black, Hispanic, and American Indian scientists, engineers, and technicians... have proved to be the best practices at the entry level? At mid-career?

National Academy of Engineering

Dr. Wm. A. Wulf, President
Ms. Victoria P. Friedensen, Program Officer
National Academy of Engineering
The National Academies
2101 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20418
202/334-3201, 202/334-1605
wwulf@nae.edu or vfrieden@nae.edu

My comments will focus on women in engineering. Many of the issues I will raise apply to other underrepresented groups in engineering. However, the NAE's diversity program is most advanced with respect to women, and so I will focus on them. I will say more a bit later about our broader plans.

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) is an honorary organization of outstanding engineers. Together with the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, we operate under a charter from the U.S. Congress that gives us the responsibility of advising the federal government, whenever called upon, on matters of science, engineering, and health. The National Academy of Engineering also sponsors programs aimed at meeting national needs, encouraging education and research, and recognizing the superior achievements of engineers.

The NAE believes that diversity in the science, engineering, and technical workforce is critical, and we are concerned with the lack of diversity in the engineering workforce. Engineering is one of those professions that materially affects the quality of life of every person in society. To the extent that engineering lacks diversity, it is impoverished. It is not able to engineer as well as it could. Since the products and processes we create are limited by the life experiences of the workforce, the best solutionthe elegant solutionmay never be considered because of that lack!

Women today make up less than 20 percent of students enrolled in engineering, on average, and comprise less than 9 percent of the engineering workforce. (1) These percentages are much better than they were 25 years ago. The mid- to late 1970s saw dramatic increases in women’s enrollment in engineering school and entry into the workforce. Undergraduate enrollment and workforce entries continued to increase slowly but steadily through the 1980s to the mid-1990s. But the gains have slowed and in some disciplines have plateaued or declined. The reduction in gains are more serious in light of the fact that the total numbers of young women enrolled in colleges and universities and graduating with degrees have been increasing steadily the past 10 years. In other words, while the total number of all young women graduating college and entering the workforce has risen in the last decade, the "market share" of young women who have become engineers in the last five years has actually decreased. (2)

Many local, innovative, and inspiring initiatives to recruit, retain, and advance women in engineering have been developed, have matured, and born fruit. The numbers of programs and the professionals who staff those programs have been growing in numbers and effectiveness. Initiatives such as Purdue University’s Women in Engineering Program, the Steven’s Institute’s Lor-el Center, and Arizona State University’s Women in Engineering program are among some of the most successful. Programs like these share lessons they have learned with smaller or less established efforts, helping encourage and support women engineering students around the country. Other programs, such as MentorNet and the Women in Technology International, provide communication and support to students and working engineers.

Yet, even with these programs, the number of new undergraduate enrollees has plateaued. It is a source of great concern to me.

Programs of the National Academy of Engineering
The NAE has begun to address the low numbers of women in engineering. We created the Celebration of Women in Engineering to draw high-level attention to the need to increase the number of women in engineering. Chaired by the Honorable E. Gail de Planque, an NAE member, the Steering Committee for the Celebration focused on two main projects: developing an inspirational and informational website and convening a national conference on women in engineering. The Steering Committee roster is attached here and below as an Adobe PDF document.

The Celebration of Women in Engineering website is beginning its second year. Conceived and developed by NAE staff and volunteer committee members, the website is an excellent resource for discovering not only what engineers do, but also who engineers are. This site was initially funded with seed money from United Technologies Corporation and the AT&T Foundation. The next development phase will focus on refining our technical capabilities and increasing the site’s accessibility by girls in middle school. This phase is funded through a five-year grant from a coalition of utility companies led by Southern Nuclear Operating Company. The Celebration website can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.nae.edu/cwe.

The Celebration of Women in Engineering Steering Committee spent more than a year planning the Summit on Women in Engineering, which was held on May 17-18, 1999. The Summit brought together 175 of the nation’s leaders from industry, academia, federal and elected government, professional engineering societies, media, foundations, and education and outreach organizations. This was not a group of the "usual suspects." Rather, the Summit attracted leaders who had the ability to make commitments on behalf of their organizations. A participant list and agenda appear in Appendix A.

We are still cataloguing the results of the Summit, but I can tell you that we were successful in bringing the subject of engineering workforce diversity to the attention of the individuals who have the most at stake and the most resources to bring to bear on the problem.

This summer, the NAE is expanding its programs to include other underrepresented minorities in engineering. We are currently creating a series of programs aimed at diversifying the engineering workforce. One program, a direct result of the Summit on Women in Engineering, is the Forum on the Diversity of the Engineering Workforce. This Forum will keep stakeholder attention focused on the issue, and it will create a new mechanism for reporting new initiatives and gains among the chief stakeholders.

The Celebration project and the new Forum are examples of the NAE’s efforts to increase the diversity in the engineering workforce. Admittedly, we could have started sooner. Certainly, we have far to go. We see our role not as a program manager but as a catalyst, using our imprimatur and convening power to bring legitimacy and urgency to the issue and to draw policy-level attention to the solutions. The engineering workforce diversity programs, under the leadership of Ms. Victoria Friedensen, are a major programmatic focus for the NAE: We have spent over $450,000 since 1997 on efforts related to women in engineering and expect to increase our budget in the next five years as we expand our activities to include underrepresented minorities. Descriptions of our projects appear in Appendix B.

The Driving Issue
The diversity of the engineering workforce is a business imperative. The strength of this workforce depends on the availability of talented, well-educated young people available to fill jobs. The quality of the work produced by the workforce depends on the variety of perspectives and life experiences brought to the job by its members. Without diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as result, we pay an opportunity cost--a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, and in processes not invented.

In an article in the July 9 Fortune magazine, titled, "Outperforming the S&P 500," Geoffrey Colvin concluded that companies that are diversifying their workforces are achieving higher rates of productivity, of innovation, and of profit. (3) The reason: Diversity provides a competitive advantage. Very few of the companies in Colvin’s list of 50 most diverse were engineering industries.

The Nature of the Problem
There are many issues that need to be addressed in order to diversify the workforce at large. Many of those issues will be addressed by others at this and future hearings. Thus, I would like to focus my limited time on one issue that is, if not unique to engineering, at least more serious for engineering than some other professions: the incorrect image that society has of engineering and engineers.

Many people do not have a clear idea of what it means to be an engineer or of what engineers do. A poll commissioned by the American Association of Engineering Societies dubbed engineering the "stealth profession" because so few people indicated they knew what engineering was. (4) When asked to identify what engineers do, a response was "drive trains." The choices made by young women and underrepresented minorities, as well as by their parents, teachers, counselors, and role models are affected by this incorrect image of engineering and engineers.

My favorite definition of what engineers do is "design under constraint." What we do is design things to solve human problems. But not any solution will do. The solution must satisfy constraints of size, weight, power consumption, heat dissipation, manufacturability, repairability, reliability, safety, environmental impact, ergonomics, and so on. I would make two points about this:

      First, engineering is one of the most creative occupations I know. Designing under constraint is as far from the coldly analytical stereotype of engineering as I can imagine. In many ways, engineers have more in common with sculptors and composers than with scientists.

      Second, what engineers do has had profound impacts on our quality of life. If one reflects on the day-to-day existence of someone in 1899 and 1999, virtually all of the differences are due to technology--to what engineers have created. If one wants to have a positive impact on peoples lives, engineering is a great career.
      A recent study of information technology (IT) professionals commissioned by the Department of Commerce found that 6th grade students generally identified IT professionals as white male "geeks." (5) This study tells us that children, who are developing their internal perspectives of who they can be, are not including engineering because of an incorrect or nonexistent image. It may be that adultsparents, teachers, and counselorsunconsciously reject engineering as a career choice for young women based on the mistaken notions that only men can be engineers and that engineering and engineers are boring.

      Thus, engineering is not offered to young women as a career opportunity, and if it is, it is often accompanied by an incorrect, dull image that must be overcome, not only by the aspiring engineer, but also by all those whose image of an engineer does not include young women. Changing this image is a significant challenge. But, by correcting the image of engineering, engineering will also be more open to women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities.

      I believe more women will enter engineering when they begin to recognize engineering as a creative, interesting, rewarding career, when they see it as a way to improve people's lives. College programs that increase the numbers of available role models and the numbers and effectiveness of mentors and programs that show the creative, diverse side of engineering will open engineering up to more women and underrepresented minorities. Employers who elevate the importance of family in the family-work equation, who increase the number of mentors (and train them), and who institutionalize the changes that will advance women through the corporate ladder will find not only do more women enter the workforce, but they will stay longer and work more productively.

      Addressing the image challenge will require efforts focused both at individuals and groups. If we think of the young engineer as a center point and of the people around her as being farther and farther removed from that center point, then, in increasing distance, we see the following groups:
      • The young women who are potential engineers,
      • The friends, spouses, and families of the engineer,
      • The teachers, counselors, professors, and employers of the engineer,
      • The customers, bankers, and managers of the engineer, and
      • The people in the engineer’s school, community, town, and state (i.e., the public).

      Most programs focus on the engineer herself and are designed to have a specific impact on a specific person. These programs provide something that the engineer may be missing: information, inspiration, support, or assistance. There are many excellent and adequately funded programs that are supported by the top leadership of various organizations. I have already mentioned a few. At the college and early work phases of the engineer’s life, these are certainly the most frequent programs offered.

      Move one step farther away from the engineer herself, and we find that programs to educate the friends and families of engineers, their teachers, employers, and fellow citizens are few in number. Keep moving farther outward from that engineer, and there are no serious attempts to increase awareness of engineering or to correct the image problem. We are all aware of the rarity of engineers presented as interesting, capable people in the print and broadcast media. Engineering is rarely mentioned in nonengineering curricula. And yet, these are the loci for change.

      The best help for graduating students and entry-level engineers is provided by programs that sensitize the public to the different strengths and talents that women and underrepresented minorities bring to the engineering workforce. These programs focus on the quality of life that engineering provides to all citizens and on the diverse range of people and jobs that are a part of that quality of life. Maybe, to complement the existing programs, we should work from the outside in.
      • Create public service announcements (PSA) that use the words "engineering" and "fun" in the same sentence.
      • Develop K-12 and college curricula in which the engineer--and the engineering--in the lesson is explicit and not subsumed in the words "science" or "technology."
      • Implement pedagogical methods that keep the educational challenge, and remove the social hurdles that some, but not all, have to jump over.
      • Promote academic and industry teams that receive regular training in gender and ethnic sensitivity.
      • Measure the performance of senior managers and professors against the diversity of the teams they manage.
      • Institutionalize an appreciation for differences in perspective.

      In conclusion, I would like to report on some potential best practices or new applications of other good practices that have come to my attention since the Summit on Women in Engineering.
      • The Society of Automotive Engineers has created the Johnnie C. Breed Lifetime Achievement Award for women who have not only succeeded in engineering, but have also given significant support to their communities.
      • The Department of Commerce has teamed up with a production company to produce PSAs to address the image of information technology workers.
      • The Engineering Dean’s Council of the American Society for Engineering Education has voted to conduct a nationwide study of faculty retention, focused on women and underrepresented minorities.
      • Smith College is starting its own engineering school, and the Rochester Institute of Technology has renamed its engineering school the Kate Gleason School of Engineering, two specific opportunities to make the connection between women and engineering.

      The challenge to change the image of engineering was clearly articulated by the participants at the Summit on Women in Engineering. To change the image we must
      • insist on long term commitment to diversify the workforce,
      • involve more than the just engineering community (e.g., educators, media), and
      • target not only the potential engineer, but also her parents, family, teachers, counselors, friends, and employers.

      Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

      Attachments to this testimony

      (1) National Science Board. 1998. Science and Engineering Indicators-1998 (NSB-98-1) Arlington, Va: National Science Foundation.
      (2) National Center for Education Statistics. 1997. Digest of Education Statistics, 1997 (NCES 98-015). Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Research and Improvement.
      (3) Colvin, G. 1999. "The 50 best companies for Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics." Fortune (July 19, 1999): 53-57.
      (4) American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES). 1998. American Perspectives on Engineers and Engineering: A Harris Poll Pilot Study Conducted for AAES. Washington, D.C.: AAES.
      (5) U.S. Department of Commerce. 1997. The Image of the Information Technology Professions: a Report of the Image and Information Technology Professions Task Force. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.