Are Black Women Engineers On the Brink of Extinction?

Are Black Women Engineers On the Brink of Extinction?

Amidst all the recent media hype about women of color having a moment and changing the world (all of which is true, by the way) comes alarming news about black women engineers.

Despite the fact that engineering jobs are well-paying and plentiful, and twice as many black women are enrolled in college as black men, black women receive fewer engineering degrees than almost any other group—just 1% in 2015, according to the American Society for Engineering Education—and that number has declined since 2011.

What’s worse? ‘”Women of Color in the Engineering Workplace” a joint research study just released by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), found that one in four black women leaves the profession within the first five years. Coupled with abysmal entry rates, these early exits can sound the death knell for diversity in the engineering profession if something isn’t done to prevent it.

SWE and NSBE conducted the study in an effort to identify strategies to diversify the engineering profession and ensure that the needs of this subpopulation of engineers are encouraged to stay in the workforce.

“With fewer than 5% of working engineers being women of color, more attention and support could help to increase diversity in the engineering profession,” said Roberta Rincon, manager of research at SWE.

Representation Matters, and More

Through one-on-one interviews with a critical but small sample of women, several clear patterns and major takeaways emerged:

  • a lack of role models
  • disillusionment with their potential to make meaningful impact
  • dissatisfaction with salary and benefits, and discovered gaps when compared with others
  • unfair or unhelpful performance evaluations
  • difficulty obtaining professional development
  • isolation caused by the relocation that engineering jobs often require
  • difficulties managing gender and racially biased treatment and stereotypes

More than 90% of the women interviewed are members of a professional engineering association and researchers were particularly interested in understanding how such networks can better support women of color to help increase their retention. Recommendations offered to help these organizations better support their members in those first critical years in the workforce, include:

  • helping women of color find mentors
  • better support of women after a job relocation
  • accommodation of women’s busy schedules and dispersed locations so they can maintain an active membership
  • increased age diversity of organizations’ leadership
  • diversifying events and workshop topics

Ideally, employers would incorporate these recommendations in the workplace as well.

“We conducted this study with SWE to gain a greater understanding of the experiences that discourage women of color from entering and staying in engineering careers,” said Karl W. Reid, NSBE executive director. “What we learned was both painful to hear and extraordinarily helpful in providing good direction to the cause of engineering diversity.”