In 1919 two engineering students from the University of Colorado, Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts, began a student association for the most marginalized members of science and engineering: women. Up until then, the female population was not allowed full memberships to student associations within their departments. These women decided to change the rules and start their own organization. They sent letters to several American universities asking for information on other women who were enrolled or had been in the past. Sadly, while several deans and professors did send them a list of the one or five students on their program, most of the responses were flat out discouraging.
One of these answers came from William G. Raymond, the dean of the College of Applied Science from the State University of Iowa, who wrote:
“You ask for information or suggestions. I have only this to say, that I suspect the number of women who have undertaken general engineering courses is so few that you will hardly be able to form an organization.”
While it’s certainly blood-boiling to read these accounts, almost a hundred years later we could be optimistic and say that things have changed for the better. But how much have they really evolved? In the 2013-2014 academic year, out of the 108,969 bachelor’s degrees provided in the United States for engineering and engineering technologies, only 20,031 were given to women. The number becomes even more disparaging for graduate and doctoral programs.
Still women are not the only marginalized group when it comes to STEM. Racial minorities are also few and far between, both in academia and in the workforce. At 39%, Latinos make up a large portion of the Californian population. Yet, according to the 2016 Report of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, regarding Diversity in High Tech, Hispanics are about 8% of the workforce. Obviously, this is a problem that needs to be addressed from different fronts, starting with early education programs, college funding and scholarships, as well as implementing diversity programs for businesses. But how can all these institutions be incentivized to strive for inclusivity? Well, competition might be a good way to go.
The Hispanicize Media Group has recently announced that they will be releasing a list regarding diversity in Silicon Valley. This means that high tech companies will be evaluated based on how diverse their workforce is. One of the people who is leading this initiative is Claudia Gonzalez Romo, co-chair of Hispanicize, who recently received the Rainbow Push Coalition Multicultural Leadership Award. Through this report card, the public will be able to see which business are actually doing the effort of diversity versus those who are still not quite there. In her words:
“Including Latinos as core to the Silicon Valley story will have very strong and positive implications for America in general.”
Nobody is singling out Silicon Valley as the sole culprit in the lack of diversity in high tech. In recent years, diversity funding for colleges, including Hispanic-Serving Institutions, has diminished. A 2010 White House Fact Sheet on Education explains that,
“The lack of STEM representation is even more prevalent among Hispanics, who although accounted for 16% of the US population in 2010, only earned 8 percent of all certificates and degrees awarded in the STEM fields between 2009 and 2010.”
Yet, maybe when the industry is more interested in diversity, the educational sector will start to catch up. Perhaps this is a boost that will result in an improvement for equal opportunity on all levels.
Back in 1919, when those two engineering students decided to create what would later become the Society of Women Engineers, they were met with plenty of raised eyebrows and scoffs. In fact, one of the responses that came from the Department of Civil Engineering at Stanford was answered with the same disregard for current diversity programs:
“Now as regards to the formation of a separate engineering organization which you contemplate, I must confess that I am not in favor of such a move if you can get the young men in your institution to take the proper step which, in my opinion, consists in admitting you to full membership in the existing organization.”
We’ve all heard this argument before. Why do we need equal opportunity goals and initiatives? Why not just let everyone have the same chance? Well, the truth is that most minorities don’t have the same opportunities. There’s not enough educational funding or programs that ensure every child has the same access to STEM. If anything, diversity programs create a landscape where everyone has a chance.
So hopefully in a hundred years, diversity in STEM won’t even be a thing anymore. Perhaps we’ll regard it in the same way as we do those letters written to Melton and Counts. However, instead of a slow progress, as we see in the case of women in science and tech, this initiative could be the start of a shift in the industry. Because, as Gonzalez Romo said,
“When a company’s workforce is diverse, it is more innovative, creative and impactful.”
Illustrations by Rachel Ignotofsky