In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on STEM Education: Progress and Prospects
March 15, 2013 Volume 43 Issue 1

Engineering Diversity: Fixing the Educational System to Promote Equity

Friday, March 15, 2013

Author: Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux and Shirley M. Malcom

Significant investments have been made over the past several decades to enhance the nation’s science and engineering workforce by broadening participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and related fields. Thanks to these efforts, the numbers of women and African American, Latino, and American Indian men earning bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields have generally increased (NSF 2011). But these groups are still highly underrepresented in many STEM disciplines.1 In this article we address the persistent underrepresentation of minority men and of women from all racial/ethnic groups in engineering education and careers.

Although diversifying the engineering workforce requires intervention at all educational levels and at the critical transition from higher education to the workforce, we argue that the lack of diversity in the engineering workforce arises from the experiences of these populations long before they enter college. Such experiences include differences in (1) access to appropriate coursework and quality education inputs (e.g., good teachers, laboratories); (2) expectations, and career information and counseling; and (3) engineering-related experiences outside of schooling. These “opportunity gaps” contribute to both disparate levels of academic preparation to pursue an engineering degree and knowledge gaps related to awareness of engineering as a profession, conceiving of oneself as an engineer, and understanding what it takes to get there. We conclude by outlining ways to surmount these challenges through the purposeful actions of educators, policymakers, higher education institutions, and professional organizations in partnership with members of the engineering profession.

We begin by illustrating the persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities among undergraduate engineering degree recipients and discussing its significance.

The Status of Women and Minority Men in Engineering

“Engineering has a diversity problem.” This pointed observation by Chubin and colleagues (2005, p. 74) succinctly conveys the disturbing reality that the US engineering workforce does not reflect the nation’s demographics or talent pool. Engineering undergraduate and graduate degree earners are predominantly white and male (NACME 2008; NSF 2011), and the same is true of engineering faculty and individuals employed in the profession (NACME 2008; NSF 2011). While engineering’s “diversity problem” extends along the entire educational and workforce continuum, we focus on the underrepresentation of women and minorities in engineering at the undergraduate level.

Table 1

Women and minority men are not represented among engineering bachelor’s degree holders at the same levels as in undergraduate degree programs in general or in other STEM fields (Table 1). Unfortunately, in spite of efforts to improve the representation of women and minorities in engineering at the undergraduate level, progress has generally stagnated (Figure 1). Between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to white, Asian, and underrepresented minority (URM) women rose slightly, but in the ensuing decade each of these groups saw its share of such degrees decline. This decline is not occurring in all STEM fields, however; minority men have increased their share of engineering and other STEM bachelor’s degrees over the past two decades. The rate of increase has slowed significantly since the late 1990s, though, and minority men remain underrepresented relative to their share of all bachelor’s degrees (NSF 2011).

Figure 1

Strengthening the Workforce by Diversifying STEM

Engineering’s “diversity problem” is significant for a number of reasons. It has been argued that broadening participation in engineering will create a more equitable society, increase innovation by bringing diverse perspectives to bear on critical national and global problems (e.g., Chubin et al. 2005), and maintain American competitiveness in a globalized economy (NACME 2008; NAS/NAE/IOM 2011). While all of these rationales for diversifying engineering are compelling, the “competitiveness” argument has gained the most traction in recent years. The National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm (NAS/NAE/IOM 2007) urged the cultivation of a larger US STEM workforce in the face of rising global competition. Others (e.g., NACME 2008) have pointed to changing US demographics as evidence that diversification of STEM fields must be a national priority, as increasing opportunity and participation in STEM among women and minority men will determine the nation’s ability to compete in the global economy.

We note, however, that the “competitiveness” argument is not without controversy. Since the publication of Gathering Storm, there has been a robust debate about the STEM workforce crisis. Some (e.g., Lowell and Salzman 2007) have argued that US colleges and universities are producing an adequate supply—even an oversupply—of STEM degree holders. Others (e.g., Xie and Killewald 2012) emphasize the complexity of the relationship between the STEM workforce and US global competiveness, citing, for example, STEM areas with an oversupply (e.g., many biomedical fields), subfields with clear shortages (e.g., cybersecurity), and the impacts of an aging federal engineering workforce (e.g., NRC 2007). National security concerns also exist, as technical skills are needed among “clearable” US citizens. While a recent, comprehensive empirical analysis gives a “clean bill of health” to the current US STEM enterprise (Xie and Killewald 2012), the outlook for the engineering workforce quickly becomes murky if ongoing efforts to diversify the profession do not succeed. This is particularly true given current demographic trends, in which women and minorities account for an increasing share of the US population and postsecondary enrollments.

Successful efforts to broaden participation in engineering require understanding of the challenges and barriers to recruiting, retaining, and graduating more women and URM men from engineering undergraduate degree programs. Only then can appropriate and effective interventions be implemented.

The Challenges to Diversifying Engineering: Starting in K–12

The persistent underrepresentation of women and minorities is attributable to many factors that limit opportunities to pursue engineering at different points along the educational continuum. Because of the complex ways in which race and gender interact to affect educational opportunity in the United States (e.g., Oakes 1990), the points of greatest loss vary among demographic groups.

There has been a great deal of attention to the retention of women and URM students already enrolled in undergraduate engineering degree programs (e.g., Seymour and Hewitt 1997). While challenges to broadening participation in engineering in postsecondary educational environments are of great concern, national data (NSF 2011) consistently show that women and URM men are significantly less likely than white and Asian men to indicate even an intention to major in engineering upon college entry (Table 2). The racial/ethnic and gender disparities in intentions to pursue engineering are problematic, particularly in light of these populations’ increasing share of undergraduate enrollments.

Table 2

We argue that this “interest gap” originates from the disparate experiences of girls and minority boys in K–12 schooling environments. In this sense, it may be more accurately characterized as an “opportunity gap,” originating from inadequate academic preparation, lack of exposure to engineering, tenuous personal identification with engineering, and inadequate knowledge about the steps necessary to pursue an engineering career. These factors prevent many women and minorities from embarking on engineering pathways.

Mathematics Performance

Recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) illustrate clear and disturbing racial inequities in mathematics and science achievement (Figure 2). Underrepresented minority students were significantly less likely to score at or above “proficiency”2 on mathematics and science national assessment tests than whites and Asians in grades 4, 8, and 12 (DOEd 2009, 2011a).

Figure 2

Fortunately, the differences in mathematics achievement by gender are smaller, and statistically significant for only two racial/ethnic groups, whites and Latinos. White boys in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades were more likely than girls to score at or above proficient levels in mathematics (Table 3). The size of the gap in mathematics performance remained roughly constant through elementary, middle, and high school. A gender gap in performance also existed among Latinos, with higher proportions of boys scoring at or above proficient levels in mathematics than their Latina counterparts in grades 4, 8, and 12 (Table 3).

Table 3

Figure 3

Science Performance

Data on science achievement among the nation’s youth also reveal large race-based inequities throughout K–12 schooling (Figure 3). For example, in 2009, just 11 percent of African Americans, 14 percent of Latinos, and 17 percent of American Indians in the 4th grade scored at or above proficient levels in science, compared to 47 percent of white and 45 percent of Asian 4th graders. Similar patterns emerge from the data on science achievement in grades 8 and 12. As with the race-based gaps in mathematics performance throughout K–12, these stark inequities in science achievement likely set the stage for the disparate levels at which underrepresented minorities participate in engineering at postsecondary levels.

Table 4

Table 4, which presents the 2009 NAEP science achievement levels for grades 4, 8, and 12 disaggregated by race/ethnicity and gender, reveals gender-based performance gaps in science achievement among certain demographic groups. In each of the three grade levels for which data are available, white males are more likely than white females to score at or above proficient levels on the science assessment. Statistically significant differences in science achievement were also present among Latino 8th and 12th graders, with boys more likely than girls to score at or above proficiency in science.

Although the gender differences on the NAEP science assessment are small compared to the race-based disparities, they are still problematic, particularly when considered in light of gender-based science course–taking patterns.

Becoming “Engineering Eligible”: K–12 Science and Mathematics Course–Taking Patterns

The path to engineering does not begin upon college entry. Individuals who enter and are successful in engineering degree programs complete rigorous science and math coursework while in high school (Adelman 1998). Indeed, advanced courses such as precalculus, chemistry, and physics are necessary to be adequately prepared to pursue engineering in college, or “engineering eligible” (NACME 2008). Unfortunately, girls and underrepresented minorities are less likely than white and Asian males to complete such coursework in high school (DOEd 2011b), diminishing the diversity of the pool of students prepared to study engineering in college.

Figure 4

Underrepresented minority students are also less likely to complete Algebra I before high school (Figure 4). This is significant because the timing of this course determines how far a student advances in the mathematics course–taking sequence. Indeed, the consequences of this disparity are apparent in the lower rates at which URM students earn credits in precalculus in high school (Figure 4). These inequities contribute to the lower rates at which underrepresented minorities enter engineering undergraduate degree programs, as students need precalculus in order to be considered engineering eligible. Similar patterns emerge from high school science course–taking data (Figure 4); underrepresented minorities are significantly less likely to have taken physics while in high school (DOEd 2011b).

Interestingly, no gender-based differences in mathematics course–taking patterns appear in each racial/ethnic group: female high school graduates were as likely as their male counterparts to have taken Algebra I before high school and equally likely to have earned credits in precalculus. However, there were some differences in science course–taking patterns. White girls were significantly less likely than white boys to have taken a physics course before high school graduation. In contrast, white, African American, and Asian female high school graduates were more likely to have taken chemistry than their male counterparts (Table 5).

Table 5

Sociocultural Factors

Given these race-based differences in course-taking patterns, it is not surprising that smaller proportions of URM students—just 4 percent on average—complete high school academically prepared to pursue engineering than do whites and Asians (NACME 2008). What causes these stark differences in academic preparation? Much of the problem is attributable to structural inequalities in K–12 schooling. Underrepresented minority students are more likely to attend underresourced schools in higher-poverty areas (DOEd 2012), and less likely to attend high schools that offer a rigorous curriculum including, for example, Advanced Placement (AP) coursework (ETS 2008). Furthermore, URM students who do attend highly resourced schools are less likely to enroll in college preparatory and AP coursework due to tracking and other discriminatory factors (e.g., stereotypes) (Oakes 1990). Not surprisingly, these inequities at the K–12 level lead to further inequities, as underrepresented minorities are less likely to attend selective institutions that often offer a wider range of engineering degree programs (Bowen et al. 2005).

Beyond the academic challenges to diversifying engineering, a great deal of research has examined sociocultural factors that impede women’s and minorities’ progress down engineering pathways. These challenges relate to the ways gender, race/ethnicity, and the intersection of the two affect opportunities to pursue engineering careers by limiting exposure to and personal identification with engineering, as well as the extent to which women and minorities are mentored and socialized to pursue careers in engineering.

As early as middle school, girls exhibit lower levels of self-confidence in their math and science abilities than do boys who have demonstrated similar levels of achievement (Parajes 2005). This lack of self-confidence makes girls less likely to engage in experiences that require math and science skills, including experiences relevant to engineering (AAUW 2010). Women and URM men also find that their opportunities to pursue engineering are limited by negative stereotypes about their math and science ability and normative beliefs about “gender-appropriate” careers (AAUW 2010). Such stereotypes lead to inadequate socialization to engineering fields and fewer opportunities to engage in engineering experiences both in and outside of formal learning environments (AAUW 2010). These stereotypes about which groups are “cut out” for engineering—and which left out—are reinforced by a lack of women and minority engineers to serve as role models (AAUW 2010; Widnall 2000).

With these challenges in mind, the gender and racial/ethnic differences in student intentions to major in engineering are not all that surprising. However, given that women and minorities represent an increasing share of college-aged students, it is essential to find ways to turn these challenges into opportunities to diversify engineering. We suggest several measures to achieve that.

Measures to Improve Access and Opportunity

Greater Career Awareness

Notwithstanding efforts over the years, students and their families need encouragement and access to information at a much earlier stage than has typically been provided, through exposure to role models who look like them, information about the kinds of jobs done by persons with preparation in engineering, and examples to dispel the idea that engineering is solitary work. And both students and parents need to know that engineering and technical jobs have been quite resistant to recession-related unemployment and that they enjoy some of the smallest pay gaps between males and females (AAUW 2012).

More Engineering and Technology in the Precollege Curriculum

Increased career awareness needs to be accompanied by increased access to engineering concepts and ideas. The Next Generation Science Standards (, being developed by Achieve and based on the NRC Framework for K–12 Science Education (NRC 2012; see Schweingruber et al. 2013 in this issue), explicitly include engineering and technology and provide an opportunity to engage students meaningfully. The framework emphasizes equitable opportunity to learn and personal identification with problems. The greatest challenge will be in providing equitable access to individuals in the classroom (i.e., teachers and/or visiting professionals) who can incorporate this into their teaching and support student learning.

Quality Education

Unless and until the structure of educational opportunity is addressed it will be very difficult for schools to provide quality education for all students. As it is, access to rigorous courses, good teaching, adequate facilities, and appropriate equipment correlate with socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic group membership, and poor and underrepresented minority students receive less of everything needed to successfully study STEM. Students at these schools need to have access to more AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses as well as programs such as the National Math and Science Initiative’s Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program (APTIP).

More After- and Out-of-School Experiences Connected to Engineering

Early efforts to increase the participation of females and underrepresented minorities in engineering education and careers started outside of school. Programs such as Expanding Your Horizons for female students and Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) for minority students were established by university-level program advocates (e.g., Malcom et al. 1984). Programs for girls often emphasized the experiences and role model aspects of intervention, as well as interactions with parents to provide career information. Programs for minorities offered experiences as well as rigorous supplemental course content at a level needed for students intending to major in STEM fields. Sally Ride Science and AAAS’ Spark Club (part of a suite of programs under NSF’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers, ITEST) are examples of more recent programs that support STEM in the out-of-school space, along with a number of initiatives by science and technology centers, libraries, and others (e.g., But just 19 percent of students have access to such programs (Change the Equation 2012). More efforts are needed to expand the opportunities to engage in science and engineering experiences after school and during summers. Communities must be engaged and relevant contexts created for students from different populations.

While the aforementioned intervention programs have had a positive impact on minorities’ and women’s pursuit of engineering education and careers, they exist outside the regular educational system and are often part of special projects with “soft” financial support. Moreover, many now face legal or judicial challenges because they targeted underrepresented populations. Uncertainty about their status has decreased the likelihood of their continuation and limited their ability to target underrepresented groups. And the extension of programs to other populations decreases the numbers of members of the originally targeted groups that can be served. The solution needs to be structural—to fix school systems so that opportunity is not stratified by race and expectations are not driven by gender or racial/ethnic stereotyping about who does engineering and science.

Consideration of Unintended Consequences of Policy Shifts

Policies are often put in place to address a specific problem or concern that emerges at a particular time, but are not necessarily considered in the context of their impact on the larger system of which the problem is a part. Thus although the accountability measures put in place under the No Child Left Behind Act aimed to ensure attention to the education of all population groups, the focus on reading and mathematics and allowances for states to set their own minimum performance thresholds, or cut scores, have had serious unintended consequences. These include pushing other subject areas, such as science, out of the curriculum and lowering standards to “meet” performance goals.

Policymakers and policy advocates need to consider the possible consequences of proposed policies for STEM education and opportunity: Will increased reliance on international sources of STEM talent lessen the effort for or interest in supporting the development of domestic talent pools? What about proposed changes in immigration laws to retain international STEM talent? How might changes in financial aid policies affect access to engineering degree programs for qualified students with financial need?

Targeted Research

Support is needed for research, experimentation, and evaluation that can point to effective practices and refinement of instructional strategies and policies to “fix the system.” The findings of such research can eventually reduce the need for interventions and support the creation of institutions that work for all.


Efforts to address engineering’s “diversity problem” require attention to critical issues along the entire educational pathway. We have identified some of the serious challenges in precollege contexts that have impeded long-standing efforts to broaden participation in engineering. Although we have outlined some ways in which educators, professional organizations, and members of the engineering professions can work to turn these challenges into opportunities, these actors must come together to develop and implement innovative ways to further enhance diversity. Doing so will ensure a high-quality engineering workforce and the long-term sustainability of pathways to engineering for all students.


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 1 These groups are underrepresented relative to both their share of the general population and their presence in the higher education population

 2 The NAEP defines three levels of achievement: basic, proficient, and advanced. Subject-specific definitions of each level are provided on the NAEP website,

About the Author:Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux is an assistant professor of higher education administration in the Department of Educational Leadership at The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD). Shirley M. Malcom is Head of Education and Human Resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.