Why is Diversity in Engineering a Major Opportunity?

Friday, October 9, 2020 - 1:45pm

Universities and schools have been working together to encourage a diverse group of students to explore science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) across America. While the growth of women and minorities in STEM professions has been inconsistent and often sluggish, diversity programs are—slowly—doing the work they were designed to do.

Diversity recognizes that great ideas do not happen in a vacuum. Certainly, they take thought, ingenuity, and fearless creativity. But innovation thrives when teams find unexpected connections that were previously unseen. This kind of development requires a wide variety of perspectives and experiences.

Let us explore how diversity in STEM is so important to the growth of the engineering profession.

Defining Diversity in STEM Today

According to the World Economic Forum, lack of gender diversity in research fields persists across every developed economy to one degree or another. Across the globe, for example, fewer than 30% of professional researchers are women.

“According to research, there are a number of reasons why minorities and women have a harder time accessing STEM educational paths and find it harder to persist through graduation,” said Germán A. Cadenas, assistant professor of counseling psychology at Lehigh University’s College of Education.

“Most of the reasons are systemic barriers that are outside of their control,” he said. “These include systemic racism and sexism, lack of mentorship that is culturally responsive, financial pressures, challenges in navigating higher education as first-generation college students, and inequities in the level of preparation they receive when attending underfunded schools that largely serve minority students.”

As early STEM opportunities for minorities and women increase, the likelihood that they would participate in future STEM careers increases as well. Photo: Pew Research Center

In the United States, women account for more than 55 percent of all college students. Yet the gender disparity in postsecondary STEM education is pronounced. In 2016, women in STEM earned just 35.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 32.6 percent of master’s degrees, and 33.7 percent of doctorates, according to research from Catalyst, a nonprofit that improves workplaces for women. Although women hold close to 60 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology-related fields, in others — such as engineering and computer sciences — their representation ranges from 18.7 percent to just over 30 percent, respectively.

Research Focus: 
Science, Technology, Arts and Math Teaching Practices
Field of Expertise: 
Culture, Identity/Marginalization and Resilience