female engineers discussing manufacturing project

In the US STEM employment has grown by 79% in the last three decades. However, diversity in the field hasn’t even remotely kept pace. While women do currently make up about half the overall workforce in STEM they’re centralized in occupations related to healthcare and underrepresented in other fields like engineering.

Although universities and schools across the country have been working to encourage a diverse body of students to research science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM), historically, engineering is a profession dominated by white middle- and upper-class men. The growth of women and minorities in STEM professions has been inconsistent and sluggish.

It’s clear that a better balance is necessary within STEM fields. Unless we include more women and underrepresented minorities in the engineering workforce, there will not be enough engineers to meet the growing demand!

Advantages Gained from Diversity

The future of engineering depends on a more diverse workforce for a variety of reasons. These reasons include:

Innovation

Research provides much credible evidence that diversity unlocks innovation and drives market growth. Great ideas do not materialize in a vacuum. Instead, they require thought, ingenuity, and immense creativity. Women and minorities are every bit as capable of bringing intellect and innovation to the field. An innovative brain is not dependent on race, gender, or social class.

Profitability

In any business, profitability is necessary to keep the business alive, and studies show that racial, ethnic, and gender diversity contribute to business success.

In 2018, McKinsey research found that gender diverse teams are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability. Similarly, ethnically and culturally diverse teams are 33% more likely to outperform those companies with less diversity.

A diverse organization can also influence customer purchasing decisions. In 2017, Deloitte found that up to one-half of customers’ purchasing decisions in the preceding 12 months were influenced by an organization’s support for equality in hiring.  

Shifting Demographics

In 2019, for the first time, nonwhites and Hispanics were a majority of people under age 16, a demographic shift expected to grow over the coming decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau figures.

The data also suggests that the 2010 to 2020 decade is the first in U.S history in which the white population declined. Since 2010, the white population numbers have declined in all 50 states.

Given these sweeping changes, it is clear that the engineering profession needs to diversify if the U.S. is to continue its position as a STEM leader in the international arena. Without efforts to diversify and change its overall perception, the engineering profession will likely suffer considerably from a lack of growth and innovation.

Engineering companies should strive to create pro-diversity hiring practices while engineering programs should offer incentives to encourage a more diverse pool of applicants.

Demographics of the Engineering Industry

Gender diversity is imperative to meet the demands of innovation and productivity in engineering. However, women are underrepresented in the field and the gender gap starts early. By middle school, more than twice as many boys as girls aspire to pursue a science or engineering related career.

Women are underrepresented in the more lucrative STEM fields of engineering and computer science. Overall, men earn 7% more than women in the engineering field. In 2020, the average salary for a man in engineering was $130,535 but only $122,180 for a woman in engineering.

The makeup is similar for African Americans and Hispanics, who also tend to be concentrated in less lucrative STEM jobs, widening the measured earnings disparity, particularly in jobs with professional or doctoral degrees. In 2016, (the most recent National Science Foundation published data), African American students received just 6.2% of U.S. science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, down 16% from 2004.

Research suggests that the widening representation gap among African American students is unique to the science and engineering fields. Numbers in engineering and the physical sciences began falling around 2000. According to the NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, African American students’ share of doctoral degrees in the physical sciences, math, and engineering also leveled off in the early 2000s, after growing sharply during the 1990s.

Challenges and Barriers to Minorities in Engineering

Society-related stereotypes and unconscious bias reinforce the perception that girls and minorities are not as good as white boys in STEM professions. Parents and teachers are often unconsciously likely to discourage girls and minorities from pursuing math and science-related activities. Furthermore, African Americans and Latino students are perceived as less academically competent than Caucasians. The double bias of gender and race puts women of color at a significant disadvantage when it comes to computer science and engineering.

A scarcity of role models and mentors reinforces stereotypes of engineering as a white field — women and employees of color see few role models and mentors in the field’s higher echelons and are getting the message that they do not belong as a minority. There are exceptionally few role models for women of color. Teachers and school counselors also tend to reinforce stereotypes tied to race and gender at the high school level, discouraging underrepresented students from pursuing technology careers.

Network ties created by professional relationships are critical to career opportunities and advancement. However, minorities in the workplace experience exclusion from important social groups  — this is especially true for women of color. Minority employees who break through barriers have been shown to counter this trend through strong mentoring relationships and strong networks. 

There is much literature on how workplaces are organized around and support white men’s work styles and life cycles in the workforce. Biases in hiring, promotion, evaluation practices, and salary levels are common. Organizations tend to evaluate people on the same criteria as the existing senior managers — thus, minorities and women become assessed in terms of “white upper-middle-class men” criteria.

Although we must overcome these challenges, we provide useful tools and resources to support this critical endeavor, later in this article.

Different Types of Engineering Careers

Engineering careers offer opportunities for creative thinking and innovative design and development. There are many engineering careers to explore if you’re interested in this area. Below, we list some of the most popular engineering careers, general job descriptions, and career paths.

Aerospace Engineers 

As the name implies, aerospace engineering professionals are involved in the building and maintenance of aircraft and spacecraft. Aerospace engineering has two main specializations:

  • Aeronautical Engineering – designing aircraft, jets, airplanes, and helicopters;
  • Astronautical Engineering – designing spacecraft, rockets, spaceships, satellites, lunar probes, etc.

Aerospace engineers are vital to technological advances in the 21st century by developing new flight technology and a thorough understanding of aerospace science.

Agriculture and Biology Engineers

For this discipline, students specialize in either food, agricultural, biological, or ecological engineering. Agriculture and biology engineers work in farming, including aquaculture (farming of seafood), forestry, and food processing. They ensure that we have life’s necessities, including:

  • Safe and plentiful food;
  • Pure water;
  • Clean fuel and energy sources;
  • A safe and healthy environment.

Agricultural engineers attempt to provide solutions in areas where natural resources can be engineered to be more productive for humanity while protecting them for a sustained and secure future.

Bioengineering and Biochemical Engineering

Bioengineers contribute significantly to human health and the environment by applying their knowledge of systems to solve various problems. They study the safety of food supplies and keep desirable organisms alive in fermentation processes. Bioengineering is also widely used to destroy waste and clean up contaminated soil and water.  

Biochemical engineers develop and conduct experiments to observe interactions of raw materials with each other and in specific environments. A biochemical engineer is responsible for developing new chemical products for a variety of applications, such as:

  • Agricultural chemicals for treating and developing foods safe for public consumption;
  • Petroleum-based products, including oils, plastics, paints, or other resins;
  • Fibrous products, such as papers or textiles;
  • Cleaning products like detergents, soaps, perfumes, and cosmetics.

Biomedical Engineering

A biomedical engineer’s focus is on the advances that improve human health and health care. Unlike other engineering disciplines that influence human health, biomedical engineers, biomedical engineers apply their in-depth knowledge of modern biological principles to their engineering design process.  

Biomedical engineering integrates aspects of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, materials science, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science and engineering with human biology to improve human health.

Ceramic and Material Engineers

Ceramics is a materials science that includes the study of the properties and uses of metals and plastics. Engineers in the ceramics industry often work as part of a team of engineers and require some knowledge of other engineering fields, especially electrical engineering. 

Ceramic and materials engineers use their creative and technical skills to develop useful products from ordinary and unusual materials (e.g., glass, porcelain, brick, and cement). We use many of these products every day, ranging from glassware and electronic components to nuclear reactors and linings for blast furnaces and jet engines.  

Chemical Engineers

Chemical engineering is an engineering discipline that applies chemistry, biology, physics, and math principles to solve problems involving the production or use of chemicals (e.g., petrochemicals, polymers), fuel, drugs, food, paper, dyes, fertilizers, and many other products.

Chemical engineers create ways to convert raw materials and intermediate chemicals into more useful forms. They develop processes and products that are energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, and profitable. Chemical engineering has improved nearly every product in some way.

Civil Engineers

A civil engineer oversees the construction of our buildings and infrastructure: highways, skyscrapers, railways, bridges, and water reservoirs. Civil engineers like to say that it’s architects who put designs on paper, but the engineers actually get things built.

Civil engineers are found in the aerospace industry, designing jetliners and space stations in the automotive industry, the shipbuilding industry, and many other construction facilities. 

Civil engineering is a rewarding profession because you can actually see your work results at the end of the day, whether this is a completed bridge, a high-rise building, a subway station, or a hydroelectric dam.

Computer Engineers

Computer engineering is the area of engineering that integrates electronic engineering with computer sciences. Computer engineers design and develop computer systems and other technological devices and components such as processors, circuit boards, memory devices, networks, and routers.

With the integration and widespread use of computers in our everyday lives, it’s difficult to separate the knowledge an electrical engineer needs and the knowledge a computer engineer needs. As a result, many universities offer a dual degree in both electrical and computer engineering.

Electrical Engineers

Electrical engineers design and develop new electrical systems, solve problems, and test equipment. They study and apply the physics and mathematics of electricity, electromagnetism, and electronics to process information and transmit energy. They work with various electronic devices, from the smallest pocket devices to large supercomputers.

This largest branch of engineering encompasses the macro (e.g., huge power grids that light up cities), as well as the micro (e.g., a device smaller than a millimeter that tells a car’s airbags when to inflate). An electrical engineer works on robotics, computer networks, wireless communications, or medical imaging—areas at the forefront of technological innovation.

Environmental Engineers

Environmental engineers study ways to protect the environment. Most people care deeply about stopping pollution and protecting our natural resources. They develop solutions to environmental problems using engineering, soil science, biology, and chemistry principles.

Environmental engineers make a real difference in our planet’s survival. They seek ways to clean our oceans, rivers, and drinking water, develop air pollution equipment, design more effective recycling systems, or discover safe ways to dispose of toxic waste.

Geological and Geophysical Engineers

Geological and geophysical engineers utilize the science of geology to study the earth using engineering principles. They seek and develop natural resources and design foundations for large buildings, bridges, and other structures.  

Geological engineering applies mathematical and geological principles to analyze and evaluate engineering issues, including the geological evaluation of construction sites, the analysis of geological forces acting on structures and systems, and the analysis of potential natural resource recovery sites.

Industrial Engineers and Supply Chain Management

Industrial engineers determine the most effective ways to utilize people, machines, materials, information, and energy to make a product or provide a service. As the engineering discipline that focuses on improving production processes in industries such as manufacturing, industrial engineering is closely related to a business and finance major, supply chain management, which has become an essential part of the engineering curriculum.

Briefly, supply chain management is the movement of physical products from place to place. In supply chain management, you develop strategies to move products efficiently that minimize costs, satisfy customers, and maintain the desired service level.

Manufacturing Engineers

Manufacturing engineers are responsible for developing new means of making things. Literally any consumer good or industrial product, from high-tech devices to everyday household items, depends on a production system. Modern production often involves robotics, machinery, and smart factories along with supply chains that efficiently connect raw materials and goods to assembly lines, manufacturing plants, and other systems that turn the parts into finished goods.

Manufacturing engineers have a part to play throughout the supply chain. That can mean building all new systems, devices, and even individual parts in order to make production possible. Through the use of computer numerical control (CNC) machining systems, manufacturing engineers can precisely control lathes to shape cylindrical components, or CNC milling systems and gear cutters to produce other shapes and types of parts. They may also leverage injection molding to create custom items made from molten glass, metal, plastic, or other polymer materials. To make mass production of any new item possible, someone has to first develop prototypes and machinery to facilitate manufacturing — this is the realm of the manufacturing engineer.

Marine and Ocean Engineers

Marine and/or ocean engineering can be thought of as a specialized subset of mechanical engineering focused on oceanic vessels, tools, and systems. Marine engineers may design or develop new ships, or be employed in the construction and operation of an underwater laboratory, or even a platform like those used for oil drilling underwater. The harsh environment and unique ecosystem of the ocean can create a litany of unique engineering challenges, making specialists in this type of engineering valuable for a variety of occupations and functions in or around the water.

Mechanical Engineers 

Mechanical engineering involves working with simple machines and moving parts. That can involve anything from gears and systems as minute as a watch to the engines in modern vehicles or even medical devices. Mechanical engineering is so all-encompassing that as a discipline it can overlap and interface with virtually any other type of engineering, especially when it comes to working with manufacturing engineers to coordinate the design and creation of custom parts and machines to facilitate mass production or the creation of new tools and products. While the mechanical engineer might design the system, the manufacturing engineer would work to help build it to specification.

Mechanical engineers combine mastery of physics, chemistry, math, and materials design and optimize moving systems. It is an ideal field for those who appreciate diversity and wish to collaborate with other experts and professionals to solve unique problems and develop novel tools and devices.

Mining Engineers

Mining engineering is preoccupied with extracting minerals, metals, and other earthen materials from the ground. They are often involved in solving problems related to locating, identifying, and developing the means to access and remove important minerals or materials deposited in the ground. This field can be so specialized and in-demand that mining engineers can specialize in a particular material like platinum or coal, making a career out of helping apply modern technology and scientific resources to the creation and operation of a mine.

Nuclear Engineers

There are two applications of nuclear physics that dominate the field of nuclear engineering:

  • Fusion — which involves combining the nuclei of atomic particles;
  • Fission — which involves breaking nuclei apart.

Nuclear engineers develop systems, tools, and applications for harnessing or extracting energy from these nuclear events. The most popular examples involve nuclear energy production as well as nuclear weapons, but there are also applications in medicine (such as in radiation imaging and diagnostics) and other industrial uses. Nuclear engineers may work directly in researching and developing new uses for radioactive energy sources, or supervise and manage operations, including the creation of safety protocols and even testing materials for radioactivity and ensuring their safe disposal.

Petroleum Engineers

Hydrocarbons, including oil and natural gas, are used in a host of industrial processes, from fueling vehicles and transportation to the production of plastics and other goods. Petroleum engineers work all along the supply chain of hydrocarbons, from mining and extraction, through processing and transportation of raw petroleum, to the processing and production of petroleum-based materials and goods. They may be responsible for discovering new sources and natural deposits, coming up with new ways to safely and efficiently extract them, or manage wells and extraction sites.

Robotic Engineers

Robotics engineers operate at the intersection of computer engineering and programming, mechanical engineering, manufacturing, and many other disciplines. They are responsible for designing, constructing, assembling, and innovating every aspect of a robotic device, from the shape and function all the way down to the circuitry and programming.

Robotics engineers may use computer-aided design (CAD), artificial intelligence systems, or even other manufacturing robots in order to build, repair, and redesign new robotic systems, parts, and devices.

Training, Education, and Skill Development

Whatever type of engineering you wish to pursue, you will typically need a strong foundation in mathematics and science. Technological literacy and the ability to work with computers, software, and similar devices are essential to both pursuing formal education and a career in any type of engineering.

Usually, the minimum education required to start an engineering career is an undergraduate or Bachelor’s degree, though it is common for graduate education, including a Master’s degree and/or additional certificates to be expected by employers, especially in highly complex or specialized fields or positions.

In the United States, there is no mandatory licensure or certification requirement for most engineering professions at the federal level, though most states have their own laws and standards governing this. You can find more information about your state and engineering field by visiting the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) website here. The NCEES is a nonprofit organization responsible for coordinating the examination of engineering professionals and licensing them in most states.

Financial Resources

There are many engineering jobs that require higher education. In order to help facilitate pursuing or furthering education, there are financial resources available for women and minorities to support them in this endeavor.

Scholarships and Grants

There are scholarships targeted toward minorities and/or those interested in engineering. Some opportunities include:

Engineering Competitions

Improving representation can be a matter of both visibility and community. Engineering competitions offer unique opportunities for networking as well as building a resume or professional portfolio of distinction, potentially opening doors as well as creating a legacy that can help encourage future generations of young engineers to enter the field. Some offer cash prizes in addition to the social benefits of participating. The following are just a few of the many such competitions either dedicated to engineering, or open to engineering students:

  • American Society of Engineering (ASME) Competitions: The ASME offers a variety of competitions highlighting different engineering disciplines and practical challenges including robotics, design, and manufacturing. Events like the Human Powered Vehicle Challenge and the Student Design Challenge give students a unique platform to showcase their skills and knowledge, as well as to meet other like minded students.
  • EngineerGirl Writing Contest: This writing competition offers cash prizes to girls in three different categories based on age and school level (Elementary, Middle, and High School students are eligible to contribute). Each year there is a new prompt focused on some aspect of engineering, society, and the role that women in engineering can play in serving their communities.
  • MakerBot Student Virtual Prototyping Design Challenge: This contest is open to students of all ages, from elementary to college level, and offers winners the opportunity to share their design with their peers, as well as winning prizes for their teachers. The whole contest is built around virtual learning, and celebrates innovation in supporting remote education.
  • American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)’s Student Design Competition: This competition allows teams of student members to compete to showcase their designs for solutions to practical problems. Each year the organization presents a new “problem statement” and invites students to submit their innovative solution, which must include an operational prototype.
  • Society of Women Engineers Collegiate Competitions: The SWE offers a variety of competitions throughout the year to showcase different engineering disciplines and create opportunities for women engineers to meet, collaborate, and celebrate creative problem-solving.

Engineering Internships

Internships can be a valuable way to acquire professional experience, particularly considering that any variety of jobs may require or request experience in the field. Companies that offer internships include:

  • Apple: Apple internship curriculum requirements may vary depending on the internship. Apple has paid internship opportunities around the world, but relocation may not be covered by the program. 
  • Boeing: Boeing internships are paid, and eligibility requirements can be found on the job listing. Boeing also offers international opportunities. 
  • Dell: Dell offers engineering internships to undergraduate or graduate students who major in computer science or a similar area. There are international opportunities, but relocation may not be covered by the program. 
  • Google: Google internships eligibility requirements will vary from internship to internship. All internships are paid, and there are international opportunities. 
  • Mayo Clinic: The Mayo Clinic offers engineering internships to both graduate and undergraduate students. Students are required to give a final presentation at a division meeting, and this may be in addition to any academic requirements. 
  • Microsoft: Microsoft offers tech internships for undergraduate, graduate, and doctorate students. They have opportunities around the world, both paid and unpaid. Students must plan to return to their University for at least one term after the internship period to be approved. 
  • UPS: UPS offers engineering internship and co-op programs to college juniors, seniors, graduate or recent graduate students. They have opportunities across the United States, and they offer both paid and unpaid programs.

Associations, Networking, and Mentorship

While pursuing higher education can help you build the core skills and competencies you need for a career in engineering, actually finding work and building a professional portfolio can still be a challenge, especially for women and minorities. One of the most valuable ways to get a foothold in your field can be by finding and working with a mentor who understands the unique challenges you face in the world of engineering.

You may be able to find such a mentor through your university, but there are also professional associations and organizations that exist to help improve diversity in engineering and STEM fields, and which can support new professionals at every stage of their careers.

  • National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME): This organization is best known for its scholarship programs designed to help underrepresented minorities attain education in pursuit of STEM careers. However, they also provide a career center, and partner with both universities and corporations across the country to provide networking and material support to young engineers.
  • Society of Women Engineers: The SWE is an advocacy organization dedicated to improving the representation of women in engineering fields, and helping create a more positive culture for women at all levels, from kindergarten to the professional sector.
  • Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN): WEPAN is a networking organization and educational advocacy group. It serves as a resource for connecting women working in engineering, as well as advancing professional development, higher education, and other initiatives for women in schools and workplaces.
  • National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE): The NSBE is an organization focused on improving recruitment and supporting the academic and professional success of African American engineers and other minorities in the STEM fields. While their focus is on schools, they also offer professional networks and corporate partnerships to support members.
  • Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE): The SHPE is the largest association of Hispanics working and studying in STEM fields. Chapters around the country serve to make education attainable for more students, while professional networking and career development programs offer support to graduates trying to start or develop their work both in academia and the field.

Additional Resources for Minorities and Women Interested in Engineering

  • Women in STEM Knowledge Center: This is a curated repository of thousands of resources, including academic annotations, bibliography data, and web materials all related to, created by, or aimed at women in STEM.
  • Intrepid Museum’s GOALS for Girls Program: a free STEM summer program for 8th- and 9th-grade girls that provides opportunities to meet, develop skills, and deepen girls’ interest in STEM activities and occupations.

National Girls Collaborative Project: An organization dedicated to sharing resources and encouraging girls’ participation in STEM activities, education, and careers.