|Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
National Society of Black Engineers
Black Women in Science and Engineering
Women in Science and Engineering
Special Interest Group
National Society of Black Engineers
Back in 2007, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), coined the phrase “the quiet crisis” to describe the growing gap between the nation’s demand for engineers and scientists and the inadequate pool of skilled talent to meet the demand. She argued that our nation’s failure to provide students from all backgrounds with an adequate education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) explains why we’re not keeping up with the growing demand for technical talent. And given that Dr. Jackson’s concerns were raised nine years ago — at the dawn of both the mobile and social media revolutions, to name a few — the quiet crisis is no longer quiet!
NSBE 2025 and the Engineering Crisis Among Blacks
It’s now commonly known that the percentage of engineering degrees awarded to African Americans in the U.S. is on the decline, from 5.4 percent of all engineering degrees awarded in 2003 to 3.5 percent in 2014, according to the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). This decade-long retrenchment is why the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) has announced its strategic plan goal to nearly triple the number of black engineers this country produces annually, from 3,500 in 2012 to 10,000 by 2025.
Invariably, many NSBE members and other stakeholders ask the next obvious question: How do we get to 10,000? In addition to our published plans to expand and scale-up our programs and partnerships in all segments of the educational pipeline, one recent study suggests another clear path to 10K.
A recent book edited by John Slaughter, Yu Tao and Willie Pearson Jr., “Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience,” suggests that the engineering crisis among blacks in America is a black woman crisis. In other words,the percentage of African Americans is declining in engineering largely because fewer African-American women are earning degrees in the field.
Another Quiet Crisis Is Simmering
In one chapter, Shirley Malcom and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux paint a sobering picture. African-American women have a two-to-one advantage over African-American men in overall undergraduate enrollment and degrees awarded (problematic statistics in their own right), however, black men enrolled in engineering programs outnumber women by three to one. “Since 1977,” they write, “the female advantage that African American women experience in college enrollment and earned bachelor’s degrees does not translate to large numbers in the field of engineering.”
To put this in perspective, Monique Ross of Purdue University, in a recent study, summarizes it this way: although black women comprise 6.4 percent of the general population, they make up only 1.2 percent of undergraduate engineering enrollment and 0.77 percent of all engineering degrees awarded! It’s hard to become more underrepresented than this.
The researchers make it clear for NSBE that the path to 10,000 must proactively include black women. According to Malcom and Malcom-Piqueux,
If African American women earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering at the same rate as their male counterparts, this would yield more than 3,500 additional African American engineering bachelor’s degree holders annually.
Gender parity will double the number of black engineers this country produces and get us two-thirds of the way to our 2025 goal.
What Do We Do?
We need to be intentional about increasing black girls’ and black women’s interest in, awareness of and self-efficacy with regard to engineering. Here are a few ways we can collectively make this happen.
Change the conversation about engineering. The National Academy of Engineering’s efforts to “change the conversation” about engineering shift the focus from hard, technical descriptions located in disciplinary silos such as “electrical engineering” to a more contemporary reality that engineers solve cross-disciplinary problems that benefit people’s lives, a message that has resonated with young people, and especially young women.
Increase interest. Fewer black women are expressing interest in engineering at the onset. According to the National Science Foundation, only 3.2 percent of African-American freshmen women express interest in majoring in engineering, compared with 14.6 percent of black males. Engineering must be made more accessible by aligning the discipline with the interests of girls and young women. For instance, demonstrating how engineering is being used to improve the quality of lives for countless communities and people may make it more appealing.
Create more mastery experiences for girls. Developing self-efficacy (confidence) early in math and science for girls (and boys, too) is key to turning the trends around. Providing girls with exposure to engineering problems and opportunities to be successful in solving them is an important path to 10,000. NSBE’s all-girls and co-ed SEEK (Summer Engineering Experience for Kids) programs provide elementary school students with an opportunity to learn and apply engineering principles to build and present toys, all while boosting their math skills, affirming their identity and building self-confidence.
Showcase role models. There are innumerable examples of black women who have achieved academic and professional success as engineers. For instance, women make up 40 percent of the pre-collegiate, collegiate and professional membership of NSBE, a number that is double the national average of women in the engineering workforce. By having access to formal mentorships and being exposed to the personal and professional accomplishments of female engineers, more young girls could see that a career in engineering is possible. NSBE’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Special Interest Group and the Houston-based Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE) organizations provide great opportunities for women to network virtually and in person, while offering a great source of brilliant role models for those who are inspired to follow in their footsteps.
The path to 10,000 must engage more black women to pursue engineering. This is a call to action. By changing the conversation about engineering, creating more awareness and access, and leveraging existing networks, we can equip more black women to solve the increasingly complex problems of the 21st century, problems that engineers’ technical training and innovative mindsets are uniquely positioned to solve.