STEM Equity

'Ignored Potential': Report Urges Schools to Encourage African-American Girls to Pursue Engineering

'Ignored Potential': Report Urges Schools to Encourage African-American Girls to Pursue Engineering 

In 2015, less than 1 percent of all U.S. engineering bachelor's degrees went to African-American women. Of the 106,658 engineering bachelor's degrees awarded that year, 937 went to African-American women, just a third of the number that were achieved by African-American men. That gap, among others, represents "ignored potential," according to a new paper put out by Purdue University, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Society of Women Engineers and the Women in Engineering ProActive Network.

As the report noted, STEM jobs are expected to increase by 10 percent by 2020. To address industry demand and achieve national goals of enrollment and graduation in engineering, "Increasing the numbers of black women engineering majors and retaining them to graduation will be critical," suggested NSBE National Chair Matthew Nelson in a prepared statement.

Systemic factors that are holding back participation by African-American women, according to "Ignored Potential: A Collaborative Road Map for Increasing African-American Women in Engineering," are flavored by both racism and sexism. Factors include a dearth of role models; the predicament of "stereotype threat" in which people feel "at risk of confirming to negative stereotypes about their social group; the perceived necessity of a "bicultural life" to fit into an environment that's predominately white; negative perceptions tied to tokenism; feelings of isolation; and pay inequities.

As the paper explained, overcoming those barriers will require a two-pronged approach: investment in systems that value the contributions of women of color to STEM and encouraging participation of African-American women "throughout their academic and professional careers."

Among the many recommendations suggested:

  • Targeted programming by professional organizations to highlight how the "multiple identities of African-American women can coexist" and sharing success stories of members in networking events, awards and articles;
  • Within industry, encouraging mentoring to "create stronger feelings of belonging among employees" and doing diversity and inclusion training that helps employees "recognize their own stereotypes and biases"; and
  • Making diversity a priority within higher education and leveraging professional societies and organizations to help build "sustainable communities of women of color"; and working with community colleges and K-12 to "ensure smoother transitions and a more cohesive K-16 learning experience."

"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," said Sossena Wood, former national chair of NSBE, who was part of a group that initiated development of the paper. "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 whitepaper offers an excellent solution."

Trina Fletcher, director of Pre-College Programs for NSBE, a doctoral candidate in engineering education at Purdue and a contributor to the report, said she hopes the paper will help K-12 institutions, universities and others "take advantage" of the potential of African-American girls and women in 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," she noted. "This is especially true for women of the African diaspora, one of the most untapped human resources on this planet."

The "Ignored Potential" report is openly available on the NSBE website here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.