Is the Black Engineering Crisis a Woman Problem?

Written by:

Karl W. Reid, Ed.D
Executive Director
National Society of Black Engineers
Erika Jefferson
Black Women in Science and Engineering
Valerie Thomas
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.


Using Water Filters Effectively

By Naomie Baptiste, Director, National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Environmental Engineering Special Interest Group

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides tap water standards under the Safe Water Drinking Act, which provides guidance on public water systems, protection of underground sources of water, emergency powers and general provisions. The EPA defines more than 80 regulated contaminants in drinking water, including arsenic, E. coli, chlorine and lead.

For areas with contaminated water supplies, such as Flint, Mich., water filters may be a solution. NSF International, previously known as the National Sanitation Foundation, is a safety-based risk management provider. Consumers can search for certified drinking water treatment units and water filters on the organization’s website.


For consumer transparency, the site provides a database of service cycle, flow rate and reduction claims for water filters and filtration systems.

A water filter that eliminates every contaminant known to man does not exist. It’s best, first, to know which contaminants your household needs to target. Community water systems are required to provide an annual drinking water quality report to the consumers they service, by July 1 each year. The report, named a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), tells consumers where their water comes from and what’s in it. If you haven’t received your CCR, you can find the information here. The report tells you what’s in the water in your area. However, to know what’s coming directly through your pipes, you must conduct a test on the water coming from your tap. The EPA’s Safe Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791 can help you find a state-certified laboratory to test your tap water.

Residents of Flint, Mich., should refer to Section 1417 of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which establishes the definition for “lead-free” as a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead calculated across the wetted surfaces of a pipe, pipe fitting, plumbing fitting, and fixture and 0.2 percent lead for solder and flux. The Act also provides a methodology for calculating the weighted average of wetted surfaces.

Consumers must use water filters appropriately as defined by the manufacturers. Filtration systems must be changed regularly. Most filters use carbon, charcoal or a bend to reduce contaminants either by mechanically trapping them in the pores of containments or by absorbing the contaminants to the surface of the filter media. The frequency with which consumers should change their filters is dependent on the service cycle: the useful life of the filter. Manufacturers define the service cycle as a specific number of gallons or an estimated number of months of use before the consumer should change the filter. Choosing the right replacement cartridge is critical as well. Consumers must use the certified cartridge recommended by the manufacturer to remove the specific contaminants in their water, to ensure that the water is safe for drinking or other uses.

Keep in mind that although the best water filters are designed to remove/absorb many contaminants from water, human error must always be taken into account. Please carefully review the manufacturer’s instructions on how to install water filters and replace cartridges.

For more information, please join the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Environmental Engineering Special Interest Group (SIG) to continue the dialogue about Flint’s water crisis.

Research References:
Environmental Protection Agency:
Green America:
NSF International, The Public Health and Safety Organization: