As we celebrate National Engineers Week, it’s worth noting that engineers are the backbone of the undersized STEM workforce we hear so much about these days. So, when we talk about filling the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talent pipeline, National Engineers Week is as good a time as any to address the need for a more diverse pipeline, particularly one that is inclusive of young women.
Young women are one of the most dynamic elements of any modern workforce. Fueled by energy and diverse perspectives, we bring a unique value to any team of problem solvers, which is what the engineering field is all about. That diversity of thought is really championed among my peers and it’s thrilling to be a part of an innovation process that is centered on such diversity. But, it hasn’t always been this exciting to be a woman in the field of engineering. Teams have not always been so welcoming historically and the numbers still paint an alarming picture nationally.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, although women make up 47 percent of the labor workforce, they are vastly under represented in science and engineering fields. Only 7 percent of mechanical engineers are women. Minorities are similarly under represented.
The good news is, the value of women in the STEM workforce has been proven and in recent years, engineering companies are actively fighting over us and welcoming our contributions. That’s not to say breaking into the field and cracking the proverbial glass ceiling is or has been easy. But, the struggle is finally paying dividends, and when we envision engineers today, a more diverse picture comes to mind that is more representative of our population.
More companies are moving to collaborative team environments to drive innovation forward, and it’s working. Further, this approach requires diversity. It’s no longer only about speeding to a solution; it’s about making the investment to find the right solution or even multi-solutions. In my six short years as a professional engineer, I can tell you that the progress that women are making in my field because of this change in business strategy is palpable.
While the way we approach engineering and the people we recruit has changed, there is still a shortage. Attracting a more equitable number of women and minorities to the engineering field will go a long way in addressing our STEM workforce shortage. But, how do we bring more diversity into the field?
It starts with inspiring the younger generation – and young women specifically – to become engineers and to embark on career paths that they themselves must own despite any unique challenges they may face along the way. This starts long before college careers end and job searches begin. My own interest began in high school, when Mr. Wally Davis of Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis introduced me to physics.
Today, STEM subjects are being introduced at a much younger age, and thanks to innovative programs like Engineering is Elementary, students as young as first grade can be introduced to real-world problem solving through science and math. There are also many other hands-on programs at the local level that need our support to inspire even more of our students and young women in particular to become engineers. Lego Mindstorm and FIRST Robotics, for example, offer exciting challenges that can lead young minds to excellent career decisions. We must ensure that we’re pushing minorities as well as young men and women alike toward such activities to fill our engineering pipeline with the diversity it needs to truly innovate for generations to come.
Engineering can be an intimidating discipline to enter, and it wasn’t long ago, I was one of a few female students in my computer engineering class wondering if I was in the right field and if I would find a fulfilling career after graduation. A similar feeling followed me into Introductory Thermodynamics. Luckily, my stubborn nature kept me in the game long enough to develop a passion for engineering and mutual respect for my fellow classmates. Gender was – generally speaking – left at the door in my academic experience.
Beyond college, I was fortunate to find that none of the gender isolation from my college days followed me into my career. On the contrary, I was welcomed into my internships with open arms and ultimately found a rewarding position with my current employer with a chance to participate and lead programs supporting the recruitment and development of young professionals and new hires by providing opportunities for networking with peers and upper management, social activities, community outreach, and seminars for personal and professional growth.
Not just gender but diversity of ethnicities and backgrounds, as well as age, is needed for diverse innovation. Youth brings energy, enthusiasm and a determination to contribute, which can sometimes be perceived as impatience. Meanwhile, the experience and wisdom of our more seasoned colleagues can smooth our rough edges, while ensuring our teams avoid rookie mistakes, which can occasionally be mistaken for stubbornness or arrogance. Breaking through such misunderstandings can be critical to team success. It’s when all generations recognize their mutual contributions to the team that we find the best solutions for our customers.
We engineers tend to be a logical bunch focused on dedicating our lives to the fulfilling work of finding solutions for others. This week, let’s renew our commitment to innovation by renewing our commitment to diversity and fulfillment. The quickest and most direct path to creating or improving any solution is through diverse innovation, which starts with a more diverse workforce.
Krista Gumiela is a Senior Systems Engineer at Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems in Aurora, Colorado. She is also president of YESNET, Raytheon’s Young Employee Success Network, where she fosters and supports Raytheon’s young workforce.