To avoid system errors, if Chrome is your preferred browser, please update to the latest version of Chrome (81 or higher) or use an alternative browser.
Click here to login if you're an NAE Member
Recover Your Account Information
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
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
email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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: