Why diversity is key to the future of engineering

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By Sharon L. Walker
Interim Dean, Bourns College of Engineering
Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering

It should come as no surprise that the field of engineering has a diversity problem. Historically an area dominated by white, middle and upper-class men, that legacy remains primarily unabated. Indeed, statistics from U.S. News & World Report paint a troubling picture. The source found that, as of 2014, just 24 percent of the overall engineering workforce in the U.S. was women, which actually marks a slight decline from the previous three years. Furthermore, in terms of racial diversity, the research indicated that African-Americans and Latinos make up a small fraction of the engineering field – amounting to some 12 percent of total workers. The study detailed that engineering continues to be primarily populated by white and Asian individuals, with these two demographics representing 87 percent of the total engineering workforce combined.

The statistics are concerning for a number of reasons. In addition to being a pressing ethical concern nationally, achieving higher levels of diversity in engineering can actually be beneficial to the field in a number of ways. Before an examination of why this is so, it is important to take a closer look at what exactly is meant by the term “diversity.”

What is diversity?
As detailed in an article by Kenneth Gibbs Jr., published in Scientific American, the term “diversity,” in its simplest terms, refers to the presence of difference – in any sense. When employed in this context, however, the word “diversity” signifies difference in terms of people and the identity categories widely used to represent them – categories based on race, gender, sexuality, nationality and so on. As outlined above, the engineering field has a diversity deficit, as men, whites and Asians comprise the majority of the workforce. There is a distinct shortage of women and racial minorities, such as blacks and Latinos.

Attracting women and racial minorities to enter the field of engineering is a challenge, for an array of nuanced reasons that are too complex for complete scrutiny in the article, but it is clear that more needs to be done to bring diverse professionals into the field.

As mentioned, the future of engineering depends on a more diverse workforce, for a number of reasons. They include, but are not limited to:

1. Innovation and talent
One of the most compelling reasons why the field of engineering suffers due to a lack of diversity, is, quite simply, the deficit of talent and loss of potential innovation. As Gibbs makes clear, the capacity for success in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics is not in any way curtailed innately by race or gender. In other words, women and minorities are no less capable of bringing intellect and innovation to the field. The reason for the lack of participation from these groups is societal and structural, with many unable to access educational opportunities that would make success in this area possible. Additionally, the reputation of engineering as a “man’s field” remains a deeply engrained social assumption, and likely deters many women from pursuing a career in the industry.

As Gibbs noted, his success in the sciences can be attributed to access to resources, a solid education and hard work. If more women and minorities were able to train in the way that so many white men do, they would no doubt be able to contribute enormously to the field in terms of talent and innovation. The lack of diversity, therefore, signals a large absence of the potential for growth and innovation in engineering. As William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering explained it, in a speech entitled “The Importance of Engineering in Diversity,” a lack of diversity leads to a countless number of missed opportunities – ideas and potential innovations that are never able to come to fruition on account of barriers determined by socially constructed identity categories. The lack of diversity then, in essence, is a disservice to the field and a disservice to the individuals who have the capacity to succeed as engineers, but are unable to do so.

Diversity in Engineering

2. Profit
With greater diversity comes greater economic success, across an array of industries, and engineering is no exception. Indeed, Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering pointed to a study conducted by McKinsey in 2007, which found that businesses with a high number of female executives tend to perform better financially. The study also noted that companies with a larger number of women among their ranks witness higher job satisfaction ratings among staff. The results are unsurprising. Greater diversity brings a range of perspectives to the table, and with an expanded number of outlooks comes an increase in the likelihood of innovation, growth and subsequent financial success.

3. Shifting demographics
The U.S. is continuing to witness an overall change in its demographic composition. As Gibbs explained, citing a study from the U.S. Census Bureau, a majority of infants born today now fall into the “non-white” category. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that, as of 2011, some 50.4 percent of children under 1 year old were non-white. This statistic points to a future society where whites are no longer in the majority and the workforce is no longer dominated by white males. As Gibbs also noted, this is not to mention the obvious fact that half of the population will be female. Given these radical changes, it is clear that engineering as a profession needs to diversify if the U.S. wishes to continue its position as a STEM leader on the international stage. Without efforts to diversify and indeed change its overall perception, the engineering profession will likely suffer considerably from a lack of growth and innovation.

4. Fair treatment
Perhaps the most obvious yet no less compelling reason why the engineering field needs to diversify is that, simply, it makes ethical sense. As the U.S. and many other nations continue to make strides toward racial and gender equality, engineering as a profession needs to work to represent an inclusive society and offer fair treatment to those who are qualified. The Royal Academy of Engineering argued that engineering companies should work hard to create pro-diversity hiring practices, while institutions of education should offer incentives for STEM students to encourage a more diverse pool of applicants.

Consider University of California Riverside
As Gibbs and others have said, when it comes to the field of engineering, efforts to diversify the industry are not just the right thing to do, they are integral to future growth, success and innovation in the field. If you are interested in adding your talent and voice to this exciting industry, consider applying to the University of California Riverside’s online Master of Science in Engineering program. With six concentrations to choose from and a flexible approach that allows you to study at a time and pace that suits you, the UCR MSE program is an ideal fit for your already hectic schedule.

Furthermore, UC Riverside prides itself as an institution that works tirelessly to promote and increase diversity, both within the faculty and the student body. Ranking as the eighth-most diverse institution of higher education in the country, in terms of ethnic make up, UCR has a number of programs, academic courses and resources designed to help its diverse student body get the very most from their educational experience. Important resources include, but are not limited to: Middle Eastern Student Center, Women’s Resource Center, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center, African Students Programs, Chicano Students Programs, Asian Students Programs, Native American Students Programs and many more. For more information about diversity initiatives at UC Riverside, click here.

And for more information about UC Riverside’s online Master of Science in Engineering program, click here.