With employment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) expected to increase by 10 percent over the next three years, and thousands of unfilled positions reported in some STEM sectors, the dearth of African-American engineering graduates has been cause for alarm nationwide. Little known, however, is that gender is a major factor in the anemic growth in the percentage of African Americans among U.S. engineering graduates. Only 26.3 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans in 2011 went to women, despite the fact that African-American women outnumber African-American men nearly two to one as students in institutions of higher education.
A newly released white paper commissioned by the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) examines the unique challenges and opportunities black women experience in engineering. The paper, titled “Ignored Potential: A Collaborative Road Map for Increasing African-American Women in Engineering,” proposes investment in systems that value the contributions of women of color to STEM and recommends investment in the talent of African-American women throughout their academic and professional careers.
“As an engineering education researcher, working on this project gave me a unique opportunity to listen to leaders from organizations that are doing amazing work and witness firsthand their dedication to promoting change,” said Monica Cardella, Ph.D., one of the authors of the report. Dr. Cardella is an associate professor of engineering education at Purdue University and director of Purdue’s INSPIRE Research Institute for Pre-College Engineering.
“It was also exciting to work with a team of engineering education graduate students and faculty from Purdue to build on the initial framework that the leaders of NSBE, SWE and WEPAN developed to create this paper, and to think about the impact that our research could have,” Dr. Cardella continued. “Throughout the process, I was continually reminded of how engineering is enriched by the participation of African-American women. I know my own life has been enriched by the honesty, courage, passion and dedication of the female African-American undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff I have had the privilege of working with.”
The “Ignored Potential” paper was initiated in late 2014 by four current and former national leaders of NSBE — Sossena Wood, 2013–15 national chair; Sarah Brown, 2014–15 academic excellence chair; Virginia Womack, then a NSBE national advisor; and Adrienne Prysock, 2014–15 chair of NSBE’s Women in Science and Engineering Special Interest Group — along with leaders of SWE and WEPAN.
“NSBE’s leadership during my tenure as chair challenged the vision of this white paper,” said Wood. “Some could not see why we as an organization would have an acute focus on African-American females and not males. I, as well as others, knew the need for a paper like this one. I think the timing is right to release this document. Hollywood has opened the minds of many by releasing ‘Hidden Figures.’ Many leave the movie wondering how can we get more women of color to go into STEM, and I believe this white paper offers an excellent solution.”
Trina Fletcher, director of Pre-College Programs for NSBE, is a doctoral candidate in engineering education at Purdue and a contributing author of the “Ignored Potential” report.
“Contributing to ‘Ignored Potential,’ a paper that will help K–12 institutions, universities, policy makers and public and private organizations, is a personal and professional honor,” Fletcher said. “This white paper will allow those entities to take advantage of the potential African-American girls and women have as it relates to engineering and other areas of STEM. As we continue to become increasingly diverse as a nation, it is in our best interest to make the inclusion of groups that have historically been excluded a priority. This is especially true for women of the African diaspora, one of the most untapped human resources on this planet. I truly believe ‘Ignored Potential’ will help make that happen.”
“This paper tells an important story that was previously untold,” said NSBE’s current national chair, Matthew C. Nelson. “NSBE has set an ambitious goal of leading the U.S. to graduate 10,000 black engineers annually, with bachelor’s degrees, by 2025. Increasing the numbers of black women engineering majors and retaining them to graduation will be critical in achieving that goal.”
“To get to our 2025 goal, we must continue to challenge prevailing norms and remove barriers to ensure all groups can equally participate in and contribute to the burgeoning fields of engineering,” said NSBE Executive Director Karl W. Reid, Ed.D. “This white paper provides a roadmap to get us there.”
The “Ignored Potential” white paper is available online for downloading here: http://www.nsbe.org/getattachment/News-Media/NSBE-News/ignored-potential/NSBE_IgnoredPotential_Whitepaper_TXT-FINAL.PDF.aspx