Women and minorities seeking a good career may want to consider engineering. It’s a fairly lucrative profession, with a median annual wage of $81,440 in May 2019, compared to only $39,810 for all occupations in the economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And there was plenty of demand with job growth, at least pre-COVID, that was expected to be “about as fast as the average for all occupations,” according to the BLS. But there’s one wrinkle in that rosy outlook: women and minority groups generally don’t seem to be getting a sizable share of the pie. Educational institutions and businesses in New Jersey, however, are trying to change that.
The raw numbers are bleak, although women account for more than 50% of total bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. – across racial and ethnic lines – they’re proportionately under-represented when it comes to engineering and engineering technologies degrees. Women, for example, account for 21% of engineering degrees at the bachelor’s level, 26% of master’s degrees and 24.5% of engineering PhDs, according to an August report on women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) from Catalyst, a global nonprofit research organization.
For women of color, the STEM numbers are dismal. In 2017–2018, at the baccalaureate level, Asian women earned 5.3% of STEM degrees, Black women earned 2.9%, Latinas accounted for 4.3%, and American Indian/Alaska Native women made up 0.1% of graduates.
But some companies, like Langan – an engineering and environmental services firm – are beating the averages. “We have long recognized that there’s a shortage of engineers in America, and adding women and minorities to our industry is a great way to help fill our ranks,” said Langan President and Chief Executive Officer David Gockel. “Within Langan, our own D&I Committee has proactively engaged our employees on the subject of diversity and inclusion through a variety of means and methods. The results have been rewarding and remarkable.”
Langan is “ahead of the industry average for women in architecture, engineering and construction firms,” he added. “This year nearly 40% of new hires were female. Similarly with minorities, Langan is 20 percentage points above the AEC average. And in 2020, 31% of new hires represented minority groups.”
Within Langan, our own D&I Committee has proactively engaged our employees on the subject of diversity and inclusion through a variety of means and methods. The results have been rewarding and remarkable.
— David Gockel, Langan president and CEO
As the company celebrates its 50th year, it’s also marking the fifth anniversary of the Women@Langan initiative. “Started by Langan Principals Cristina Gonzalez, Michele O’Connor, and Caryn Barnes, “W@L fosters an atmosphere of support, mentorship, and advocacy to empower the women of our firm to achieve career and personal success,” Gockel said.
Paradoxically, he added, “the pandemic has helped Langan evolve its outreach capabilities to women and minorities, which pre-COVID presented some physical challenges in terms of time and travel. Now we can host programs in the virtual space that directly engage with women and minorities at any point in their education and career.”
T&M Associates is also doing its part. “We have a diversity and inclusion committee that explores ways to attract more minorities and women,” said Gary Dahms, president of the firm, which provides consulting, environmental, engineering, technical services and construction management services. “We talk to middle school-age students about what engineers do, and we’re involved with STEM activities at colleges.”
A long journey
Even when Jean Zu was a child growing up in mainland China, “I was always interested in concepts that could be turned into something tangible, rather than just abstract ideas,” said Zu, the Dean of Stevens Institute of Technology’s Schaefer School of Engineering and Science. “It helped that I was also good in math.”
Her parents encouraged Zu to be independent, though they also wanted her to honor tradition. “I carried on both,” she said, “as a professional and a mother [her children are adults now].”
But it wasn’t easy.
“Growing up in China, and then when I later moved to Canada, I didn’t see many women engineers,” Zu recalled. “I was determined to make it, even though it required some sacrifices. When my children were young, I was determined to do both jobs – motherhood and engineering – well. So as an engineer, I was used to being efficient, and I carried that over to my personal life — giving up TV, for example, so I could spend more time with my kids. My parents never tried to set a specific direction for me, but my dad did say I should pursue a career, and my mom said I should strive to be financially independent. I guess it all worked out.”
The key is to “educate people about engineering while they’re still in school, which is when many decisions start,” he noted. “Things they learn about at an early age will help to affect the decisions they make about their coursework in high school and college. We reach out to teachers and students, and engage in outreach programs like holding a class at a construction site.”
T&M also sponsors Project Lead the Way – a national nonprofit organization that provides resources and educational aid to students who wish to enter the STEM fields – programs in Long Branch and Colonia High Schools. “We also provide classroom presentations and organized field trips for this program and in other schools and communities throughout New Jersey. Classrooms that we cater to are diverse in many ways,” Dahms added. “Last February, I was able to take a pledge through the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion Coalition to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.”
Dahms said that T&M’s D&I Committee was officially established in the spring of 2019 “with a clear mission/vision and goals, and has hosted several well-attended open meetings with employees to start the conversation. We also engaged a D&I consultant who is actively helping us achieve our goals.”
During the company’s annual meeting, a guest speaker delivered a stockholder presentation focusing on “bias and the positive impact of a diverse workforce,” he noted. “Also, our young professionals’ group, NextGEN, have been active participants holding cultural potlucks and hosting their own meetings on topics such as managing a multi-generational workforce. I’m proud of our efforts but there is no doubt that our industry has a way to go.”
New Jersey-based educational institutions are also pitching in. “Historically we were one of the first on the East Coast, in 1897, to accept women students (in 1897),” according to Moshe Kams, dean of New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Newark College of Engineering. One woman graduate, Beatrice Hicks, was elected as the first president of the Society of Women Engineers in 1950, he noted.
NJIT’s Murray Center for Women in Technology promotes a “university-wide network that connects women students and faculty to each other and to the resources they need to succeed,” NJIT previously announced. Pre-COVID, “Our pre-college program brought in students from Newark and elsewhere,” added Kam. “We reach out to under-represented groups instead of just waiting for them to apply.”
Other institutions, like Stevens Institute of Technology, have their own outreach programs. “The iSTEM@Stevens initiative is an entrepreneurship training program that identifies students who have talent but may not have the grades,” according to Jean Zu, dean of Stevens’ Schaefer School of Engineering And Science.
It’s a mentor-intensive, four-stage program, where students start with small, hands-on projects and gradually build on their vision — with Stevens providing some funding during each program stage — until their final year when, “[s]tudents learn the legal mechanics of starting new ventures and raising capital, while building toward a career as a founder, researcher or a star employee,” the institution previously announced.
Students who went through the program have created enterprises worth more than $36 million, according to a Stevens announcement. One of them, DexterityDB, “is a database system written from the ground up and optimized for data analytics at hyper speed. Launched in 2016, the company has now developed plugins for MySQL and MariaDB, and raised seed funding.”
Another Stevens initiative, the A. James Clark Scholars Program, provides financial support and enhanced learning opportunities to “exceptional undergraduate students who are underrepresented in the engineering field,” according to a Stevens announcement.
Zu believes the “stereotype of engineering as a male-oriented career,” helps to discourage some women and minorities from pursuing it. “But more role models in the field can dispel this negative, ‘nerdy’ impression.”
Zu herself is an example, according to a Stevens spokesperson, who noted that “In 2017, when Jean Zu joined the Charles V. Schaefer Jr. School of Engineering & Science (SES) as dean, she also became the first tenured or tenure-track female faculty member in SES’ Mechanical Engineering department.”
Today, according to the spokesperson, “there are four tenured and tenure track female faculty in the department. Further, in 2017, SES had a total of 21 tenured and tenure track female faculty members across all departments. Today, there’s a total of 30 across all of the SES departments.”
Rutgers University is also trying to demolish stereotypes, according to Patrick Szary, associate director at the Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT). “We are always encouraging our students to enter into the fields of engineering and transportation through opportunities to work with our researchers and faculty who tackle the most pressing challenges in the industry,” he said. “We give students the hands-on experience they need to maintain their interest in engineering.”
CAIT also supports The Academy at Rutgers for Girls in Engineering and Technology (TARGET) program run through the Rutgers School of Engineering. “TARGET helps middle school and high school age girls learn more about career opportunities for them within engineering,” said Szary. “It was designed to get rid of the negative stereotypes commonly associated with women’s ability to pursue engineering-related careers, and to increase awareness of opportunities that the profession has to offer.
TARGET offers different week-long programs over the summer that include a variety of workshops, hands-on activities, networking, and lab projects. To support these efforts, CAIT helps bring in professional female engineers to speak with and offer advice to these aspiring young women.”
As of fall 2018, there were 3,991 undergraduates, 579 master’s, and 482 Ph.D. students enrolled in the Rutgers School of Engineering, he added. “Of that, 26% of undergraduate and 28% of graduate students were women, and 20% of undergraduate and 6% of graduate students were underrepresented minorities. We look forward to seeing these numbers continue to grow.”