Working Toward Better, More Inclusive Engineering
By: Hayley Hanway, Communications Specialist, University of Michigan
In industry and in academia, engineering is known for failing to achieve sufficiently diverse, inclusive, and equitable environments. Women and those who identify as Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and/or Indigenous are severely underrepresented and often report discriminatory and exclusionary climates.
For instance, women are 51% of the U.S. population, but account for only 13% of engineers in the workforce. 30% of women who have left the engineering profession cite “organizational climate” as the reason. Similarly, Black students pursuing a graduate degree in engineering continue to report facing hostile and racist environments that actively drive them from the program and field.
Those who identify as disabled or LGBTQ+ face similar barriers. Lynn Conway, former Associate Dean of Engineering and Professor Emerita of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan, is recognized as a pioneer of computer engineering who revolutionized Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) design, but that didn’t stop IBM from firing her simply for being transgender. It took them 52 years to apologize.
While many institutions and universities have long expressed commitments to addressing these issues, some have been more effective than others. For instance, Black students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are more likely to pursue STEM degrees than Black students at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). In fact, 25% of Black doctorate students in science and engineering earn their bachelor’s degree from HBCUs even though only 15% of all Black undergraduate students attend an HBCU.
Like many other departments, Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at the University of Michigan (U-M) has striven to find effective solutions to foster an equitable environment for all students. Below are key areas we’ve selected to focus on and the strategies – both old and new – we’re implementing to address the inequality present in our department.
Pipeline: It’s not uncommon for institutions to blame their lack of diversity on the “pipeline.” The responsibility of inspiring and empowering underrepresented minorities (URMs) to pursue STEM is tossed onto K-12 institutions, despite a lack of resources and funding. U-M is currently working to expand their outreach programs targeted toward middle and high school students to both inspire marginalized students and provide them with needed resources to pursue STEM education. ECE has specifically worked to make our own outreach programs more accessible.
- Our Electrify Tech Camps are non-residential summer camps held on our campus that give high school students hands-on engineering experience taught by our top U-M Engineering faculty and graduate students. In 2019, we added a fourth camp held at the Michigan Engineering Zone in Detroit, with the goal of giving Detroit-area students greater access to our programming.
- This summer, we will launch Continuum Online Learning for high school students. The goal of Continuum is to provide a strong technical understanding of a variety of ECE-related topics, such as machine learning. Because the course will be held online with significant instructor support and is flexible to the student’s personal schedule, we hope it will prove successful and engaging for students of all backgrounds.
Recruitment: So long as PWIs continue to prioritize other PWIs for recruitment campaigns, the diversity of the applicant pool will remain limited.
- ECE hired a Student Recruiter a few years ago, and in addition to investing in more events and marketing for URMs, our recruiter also helps facilitate partnerships with HBCUs. This includes supporting the Michigan Dual Degree in Engineering program, where students from the Atlanta University Center Consortium (Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College) are able to earn two bachelor’s degrees: one in LSA from their home university and one in Engineering from U-M.
- Our Exploring ECE Graduate School Workshop is a program designed to increase the size of a diverse pool of domestic applicants to ECE graduate schools. Attendees learn about the benefits of an advanced degree, gain insight into developing and preparing their application materials, and network with current U-M faculty and students.
- When it comes to faculty recruitment, each faculty serving on the search committee is required to undergo the U-M STRIDE faculty recruiting training workshop, which is designed to reduce hiring bias and ensure a diverse pool of candidates.
Climate: If URM students, faculty, and staff feel erased, disrespected, or excluded from the community, then it’s not only a failure of the department to support them, but it will discourage other URMs from joining the organization. ECE has established communication channels to identify these issues, and we host many events designed to promote community, cultural exchange, and compassion.
- On our student resources webpage, we provide multiple avenues for people to contact the department, college, and university. This includes an anonymous comment box for people to submit feedback or alert us of behavior that is contrary to our goals for an inclusive and compassionate department.
- In response to the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests for racial justice, ECE and our sister division, Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), developed a formal, continuing dialogue with our students who are members of the Graduate Society of Black Engineers and Scientists (GSBES). As part of a commitment for greater transparency, ECE and CSE released public reports on demographic data as well as a commitment going forward to track, discuss, and improve on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues over time.
- Our Committee for an Inclusive Department is a team of faculty and staff who develop initiatives to create a culture and environment that values diversity and inclusion in all its affairs. It is chaired by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lead faculty member, who is the point-person for concerns regarding support for URMs.
- We host several events that are specifically designed to provide platforms to those whose voices are traditionally silenced. These include a Juneteenth Celebration and the Dr. Willie Hobbs Moore Distinguished Alumni Lecture, as well as Spirit Day activities to support the LGBTQ+ members of our community.
- In an effort to make the department a home away from home for our students, we acknowledge and celebrate many cultural events and holidays from around the world, including Lunar New Year, Iftar, Nowruz, and Diwali. These events serve to empower cultural exchange, understanding, and respect.
- This year, we began the ECE Culture Club. Once a month, a student, staff, or faculty member gives a presentation on where they grew up. It often features an overview of the history, culture, and traditions of the area, as well as the presenter’s favorite foods and places to visit or things to do.
Other universities have implemented similar programs. For example, Georgia Tech created a Diversity & Inclusion Council for the School, and the University of Texas at El Paso received a grant from the NASA Minority University Research and Education Project to develop a future coalition for increasing degrees awarded to Hispanics in ECE and increasing the number of Hispanics engaged in the NASA enterprise workforce. NC State faculty crafted a Community of Scholars Statement to serve as a touchstone to drive every engagement or activity in the department and foster a welcoming, supportive, and respectful environment.
Creating more diverse, inclusive, and equitable environments in engineering isn’t just the moral and ethical thing to do – research teams that are ethnically diverse produce better results. Addressing inequalities and institutional discrimination is essential to achieving the university’s mission to serve both students and the field of study.