Engineering a better world will require, quite logically, engineers, and good ones at that. Attracting the world’s greatest minds to the field means not closing doors for people based on things like race or gender, yet disparities remain in engineering and other STEM-related fields. Promoting interest and showcasing inclusivity, particularly amongst the next generation of potential engineers, will pay long term dividends for the industry and mankind as a whole.
The Importance of Diversity in Engineering
The US Bureau of labour projects an increased number of engineering jobs in coming decades,1 a situation that will surely be mirrored in other nations. Throughout human history, engineers have played pivotal roles in medical, industrial, and technological revolutions, and the future will be no different. The climate crisis, disaster response, and pandemics are just a few of the fields that will require contributions from the most innovative among us.
Untapped talent exists in the form of both women and ethnic minorities who continue to be underrepresented in the field.1 Not only are these groups less likely to pursue a career in engineering but, when they do, they are more likely to exit the industry. Atkins research shows that 55% of engineers who are ethnic minorities abandon their careers, compared to just 39% of white people.2
Highlighting Careers in Engineering to Youth
One factor preventing more women and minorities from succeeding in the world of engineering is a simple lack of awareness. Exposure to the field is often lower at public schools than it is at private schools and many children fail to visualize themselves in the field.
“When I was 13 years old, if someone said to me, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I don’t think engineering would’ve been on the list,” says GE CMO Linda Boff. “Not because it isn’t a great career; I just think the awareness of it amongst young people is not what it needs to be. People want to see what an engineering role model looks like.”3
Presenting role models to the underrepresented groups presents something of a catch-22; there aren’t enough engineers because there aren’t enough role models, and there aren’t enough role models because there aren’t enough engineers. It’s a cycle that Alan Cameron of the Specialist Engagement Team of Scotland and Northern Ireland would like to see broken.
“We need to recruit enough engineers and technicians from diverse backgrounds in the first instance, to let young people meet or see appropriate role models who match a wide variety of backgrounds,” says Cameron.4
Investing in education and career development is part of the answer. Scholarships and mentorship programs can contribute to diversification in the industry, which, in turn, will help inspire others to pursue a future in engineering.
Social Media, Games, and Engineering
While schools and the corporate world have a role to play in the promotion of the industry, more organic help has been coming to the forefront in the form of influential social media personalities.
One such person is 28-year-old fashion designer/engineer Cameron Hughes, whose popular TikTok account showcases dresses that inhale, exhale, rotate, or even print receipts. Incorporating engineering into such a fun craft provides a great way to create interest amongst potentially talented youngsters.
“My ability to make these designs is rooted in skills I learned while working as an industrial designer and engineer,” says Hughes.5
While the designer took some engineering classes while earning a BFA from Syracuse University, he says that he learned even more from YouTube videos and blogs.
“The interesting thing is that there are quite a lot of engineers that actually go into sewing and making fashion in general. It is just a different medium—fabric and thread instead of injection molded plastic and screws,” he says.5
Another gateway to engineering may come in the form of games such as Minecraft, SimCity, and Garry’s Mod, which involve elements of design and construction, mirroring the tasks facing engineers each day.
Finding Problem Solvers
Young people, particularly women, are motivated to participate in fields that feature an element of social change, which makes the need to highlight the link between engineering and real-world progress even more of an imperative.
“This (gender gap in STEM) is even more troublesome when we realize that STEM jobs are at the heart of the sustainability revolution needed to combat climate change,” says Audrey Moores, Association Professor in McGill’s Department of Chemistry.6
Ultimately, making sure that engineering becomes a more representative environment is not only the right thing to do, but a must for society.
“There’s of course the altruistic mission of making sure that everybody is included,” says Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College in Atlanta, where more Black women have graduated with doctoral degrees than any other school in the U.S. “But there is a self-interested reason why companies should be interested in diversity: It’s because it makes them better companies.”7