Like other companies in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, engineering firms have been increasingly focused on improving diversity within their organizations in recent years—but progress remains remarkably slow.
The share of women in engineering jobs stood at 15 percent in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center. The numbers are similarly low among other underrepresented groups. Fewer than 10 percent of engineers are Latinx, according to the employment research firm Zippia, and only 3.3 percent identify as black.
For those in the field, there’s a recognition that meaningfully increasing diversity at engineering firms will be a long-term project.
“It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon,” says Masai Lawson, manager of talent acquisition and Diversity & Inclusion Committee chair at Gannett Fleming. “Change is not going to happen overnight. It takes courage, and it takes some wherewithal to be able to push and drive for change.”
It’s also becoming essential for companies to make that change happen from a business perspective.
“The demographics of the country are changing,” Lawson says. “And it’s important that we can make that connection and engage individuals who are coming from underrepresented groups in our industry. This requires that we are intentional about our outreach and engagement when it comes to identifying women and people of color for opportunities at all levels of the organization.”
“It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Change is not going to happen overnight. It takes courage, and it takes some wherewithal to be able to push and drive for change.”
MANAGER OF TALENT ACQUISITION
Lawson says that Gannett Fleming is increasingly seeing requests for proposal from prospective clients asking about the firm’s diversity recruiting and retention-related metrics, as well as how many people from diverse backgrounds hold leadership roles. To help improve such figures, Gannett Fleming has been focused on creating an internal culture of inclusion so that employees feel a sense of belonging at work.
“That’s critical to retaining talent,” Lawson says. “And it allows you to hold on to that intellectual capital and elevate the people that you’ve invested in into more senior roles at the company.”
There’s a similar focus at Parkhill, says Dawn Moore, principal and senior vice president of people and culture at the firm.
“We think inclusion plays a large role in engagement and retention of our people,” she says. “We work hard to find outstanding people. Once we find them, we want to keep them.”
At both Parkhill and Gannett Fleming, there’s a focus on minimizing bias in the workplace and during the hiring process itself.
“Our hiring managers do not have access to candidates’ identifying information,” Moore says. “We emphasize the importance of diversity on a regular basis with all leadership to ensure it is front of mind.”
The firm also invests in career development opportunities that allow staff members of all backgrounds the opportunity for advancement.
“We value deepening credibility,” Moore says. “All Parkhillers are expected to keep learning and developing our competencies. We also believe pay equity is important in retaining a diverse workforce.”
Gannett Fleming and Parkhill have both invested in employee resource groups to give diverse employees an opportunity to connect with allies and others with a similar background. Such resources are seen as steps in the right direction, necessary to level the playing field in the industry.
“We think inclusion plays a large role in engagement and retention of our people. We work hard to find outstanding people. Once we find them, we want to keep them.”
Principal and Senior Vice President
of People & Culture
“The profession has generally suffered from implicit bias that women or people of color didn’t have the right skill set or ability to thrive in the profession.”
DEAN OF ENGINEERING AND APPLIED SCIENCE
“The profession has generally suffered from implicit bias that women or people of color didn’t have the right skill set or ability to thrive in the profession,” says Andrea Goldsmith, dean of engineering and applied science at Princeton University. “This bias is historical, and now we are dealing with the impact of that bias in terms of recruiting and retaining diverse people in the profession.”
At Princeton, for example, 41 percent of undergraduate students in engineering are women, 6 percent are black, and 8 percent are Hispanic. Those figures track closely with national data that show that in 2018, women earned about half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, 44.7 percent of master’s degrees, and 41.2 percent of doctoral degrees, according to the National Science Foundation.
Such figures reflect a long-term, systemic problem within the industry as a whole.
“Due to a number of factors, including bias, diverse people who could have thrived in the profession, going back to its origins, were unable to enter the profession, let alone thrive in it,” Goldsmith explains. “Therefore, we don’t have many diverse senior people in the field to serve as role models. When there are no senior people of color or women in the field, it perpetuates the stereotypes about them.”
Another case in point: About 1 in 5 undergraduate engineering students at Virginia Tech are women, and about 5 percent are black and 9 percent are Latinx. Those numbers are an improvement over the past, says Bevlee Watford, associate dean of equity and engagement at the university’s College of Engineering and the executive director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at Virginia Tech.
In addition to making progress on representation of women and people of color, institutions of higher learning and engineering firms need to broaden the way they think about diversity, says Watford.
“We are looking at the nontraditional paths and people and trying to increase access for all of them.”
Associate Dean of Equity and Engagement
Fewer than 10 percent of engineers are Latinx, and 3.3 percent identify as black.
“There are other populations that we are also targeting to increase and broaden participation rates in engineering in particular and STEM fields in general,” she adds. “That includes firstgeneration students, Pell Grant-eligible students, or students who come from the lower end of the income spectrum.”
In October, Virginia Tech announced the creation of a task force on access and affordability, which is aimed at getting more students interested in engineering at a young age. The university is also working to make more opportunities available to veterans and to students transferring from two-year schools.
“We are looking at the nontraditional paths and people and trying to increase access for all of them,” Watford says.
“We are being creative about how to raise awareness about what it means to be an engineer and the multiple pathways you might take to get there.”
Assistant Director of the
Directorate of Engineering
National Science Foundation
The National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative Engineering for Us All is directed at a slightly younger demographic. It provides an engineering curriculum to dozens of high schools across the country, mostly in urban settings, with the goal of getting diverse students interested in the profession at an earlier age. Susan Margulies, assistant director of the NSF’s Directorate for Engineering, notes that she chose engineering in college because she liked math and science, but she didn’t know or understand what engineers really did.
“We are being creative about how to raise awareness about what it means to be an engineer and the multiple pathways you might take to get there,” Margulies says. “You might start with two-year technician training. You might have an undergraduate degree. Or, increasingly, campuses are realizing they need to create post-baccalaureate training for those who didn’t select an engineering major as undergrads but entered the engineering workforce via an engineering graduate degree.”
The push to increase diversity in the engineering pipeline has gained momentum in recent years, but the journey to achieving real progress is far from over. With continued commitment and investment, the engineering industry can create a more equitable and inclusive future for all.
Beth Braverman is a business writer based in New York.