Diversity in Engineering: Partnering for a Change

Gary S. Downing, P.E.
Engineering Section Supervisor
Sarasota County Public Works
Sarasota, Florida
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

How many different squares (of any size) are in this figure? That seems like a simple question; however, some may see anywhere from 12 to 20. I'll provide the correct answer at the end of the article (puzzle provided courtesy of Stickels Brain Teasers). This month we celebrate National Engineers Week from February 19-26. Therefore it is important to be aware of the initiatives, challenges and changes associated with the changing workforce in engineering. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) have provided some recent insights for the inclusion and improvement of diversity in engineering.

Recent studies by the National Science Foundation, Engineering Workforce Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Society of Women Engineers, and others, have stressed the seeming intransigence of the low numbers of women and under-represented minorities in the natural sciences and engineering. Engineering remains a worst case with women representing less than nine percent of the workforce and minorities less than ten percent. There are various root causes behind these low numbers, such as public unfamiliarity with engineering, the loss of girls and minority students to the math and science talent pool, and the slow advancement in careers that results in more women and minorities leaving engineering than white males. What is evident, also, is that engineering is not inherently a subject that is of primary interest to white males. These interesting factors take on a new urgency, when, as the Innovation Summit concluded: The primary factor to slow or block economic growth in the United States within the next 25 years is the strength and the diversity of the workforce.

William A. Huff, former NAE President, stated, "Every time an engineering problem is approached with a pale male design team it may be difficult to find the best solution, understand the design options, or know how to evaluate the constraints...and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented."

AAES convened an action-focused summit on diversity in engineering on April 2-3, 2003. Response to the summit was overwhelmingly positive. Participants felt that their diversity programs would be more effective as a result of the information presented and the connections made at the meeting, and they asked for assistance to maintain those connections. Two priorities for action were identified: A common vision or policy statement and increased leadership commitment are needed to bring the engineering community together on diversity issues.

A survey of current diversity program activities sent to engineering societies prior to the summit showed that all of the participating organizations view diversity as a high priority and are interested in potential collaborations. The level of activity and amount of resources devoted to diversity programs varies widely. Diversity programs at the disciplinary societies are primarily aimed at their membership, while the minority-focused organizations have more programs focused on college and pre-college students. The summit was designed as the first step in an ongoing effort to increase the impact of engineering society diversity programs through education and collaboration. A follow-up to this conference was held September 16-18, 2003, during which AAES Executive Director Tom Price provided the following information from the first conference:

  • Engineering societies have diversity in their top five priorities.
  • Engineering societies focus efforts internally.
  • Minority-focused groups focus efforts externally.

In addition to these results, Price offered the following as a possible solution to the problem: Determine your areas of interest; find other organizations with which to partner; set goals; use data and research to design and fund programs; and utilize rigorous measurement tools to measure outcomes.

Regardless of whether you are a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society of Women Engineers, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, National Society of Black Engineers, or any other organization associated with engineering, Price stated it very simply: "You are the leader of your society in this area, to change; you must cause that change because this is your responsibility."

I started this article with a simple question, about looking at squares to see how many there are regardless of shape or size. This is similar to the engineering profession; after all, the laws of gravity, physics and other sciences are not gender-based or discriminatory. So, how many different squares did you see in the simple puzzle? The correct answer is 19. If you didn't get it right keep looking for all the participants, not just the obvious.

Gary S. Downing, P.E., can be reached at (941) 861-0878 or gdowning@scgov.net.