Are African-American Women Overachieving in Engineering?

Eric Iversen

Women in Engineering, by Demographic Group

 Lauren Irons,  used by permission

Lauren Irons, used by permission

Not only are African-Americans in engineering notably under-represented, but their graduation rates have in fact gone down in recent years. Rates for African-American women in engineering, though, present some intriguing questions. Could it be that, relative to other demographic groups of women, they are overachieving in engineering?

     Looking at women by race and ethnicity, African-Americans are the most likely to get an engineering degree. And white women are the least likely. Earning 26.8% of all African-American engineering bachelor’s degrees in 2012, African-American women exceed the rate of women in all other demographics in their share of degrees, as broken out by sex.

  1. African-American, 26.8%
  2. Asian or Pacific Islander, 23.0%
  3. Hispanic, 22.5%
  4. American Indian, 22.3%
  5. White, 17.4%

Degree Ratios, Women:Men

Percentages, of course, can indicate many things. For example, these graduation rates also point up how many more African-American women than men attend college. Indeed, another list that African-American women top is the ratio of women getting undergraduate degrees to men getting them.

  1. African-American, 1.92:1 (113,601/59,267)
  2. American Indian, 1.57:1 (6,561/4,182)
  3. Hispanic, 1.56:1 (107,568/69,131)
  4. White, 1.28:1 (635,766/496,923)
  5. Asian or Pacific Islander, 1.19:1 (64,348/53,913)

In other words, African-American women earn about two of every three African-American undergraduate degrees, about 65%. White women earn about 11 of every 20 white degrees, or 56%. Because there are so many more of them to start with, relative to men, African-American women would be expected to get a higher portion of all degrees within their cohort than women in demographics more evenly divided by sex.

How Things Might Look with Full Representation

The question, then, is, how much higher a portion would they be expected to get? (Note: Please excuse the math to follow, but, hey, this is engineering we’re talking about—math is part of the deal.) Using the first set of percentages in combination with the ratios of women to men can help us understand what African-American and white women’s engineering degree rates would be if they earned degrees in engineering at the same rate as they do overall.

  • Suppose "full" representation in engineering meant African-American women earned 65% of engineering degrees, just as they do overall. Their real 26.8% share, then, is 41% of their theoretical, "full" share (26.8/65).
  • For white women, 56% of engineering degrees would be "full" representation. Their real 17.4% share is 31% of their "full" share (17.4/56).

To be sure, none of this is cause for celebration. Women remain, on all fronts, significantly under-represented in engineering. But seen from this angle, at least, African-American women seem to be completing engineering degrees at a higher rate than white women. (As it happens, only Asian or Pacific Islander women exceed African-American women’s 41%, with 23.0% registering as 42.6% of their full representation rate of 54% of all degrees.)

The Bigger Picture Is Still Dim

As noted above, African-Americans overall have been earning a shrinking share of undergraduate engineering degrees in the last 10 years. ASEE data show African-Americans earning 5.1% of 2004 degrees and 4.2% in 2013. While raw totals have increased ever so slightly – by less than one percentage point (3,718 to 3,923) – this change must be seen against a backdrop of substantial increases overall in engineering graduation rates.

     Since breaking out of a 20-year lull in 2009, engineering has been booming. Going from 74,387 in 2009 to 93,360 in 2013, undergraduate engineering degrees have become, dare we say, modish. But if engineering has become modish, African-Americans are being left out.

Diversity an Ongoing Challenge

Increasing diversity in engineering is a venerable topic. It’s of such duration that NSF went to the trouble last year of funding a workshop and report, “Surmounting the Barriers,” that looked, in part, at the history of approaches to it. Going back over 40 years, the project found a common set of recommendations for how to bring more students from under-represented groups into engineering. To wit:

  • Provide academic preparation and support for students.
  • Improve the quality of teaching available to them.
  • Make the institutional climate more welcoming.
  • Give them money for schooling.
  • Conduct more, better outreach.
  • Study what works and spread best practices.

If these recommendations are long in the tooth, they’re no less worth implementing. As Bevlee Watford, a discussion leader at the workshop and longtime leader in engineering diversity efforts, noted, “We know what needs to be done. Why is it not happening?” (p. 3, “Surmounting the Barriers”).

The Story with African-American Women

Which brings us back to the suggestive 26.8%. What is happening with African-American women to make them more likely to get an engineering degree than most other women? Research into assumptions and values associated with STEM fields and gender, or “gender-STEM stereotypes,” suggests some answers.

     Led by Laurie O’Brien of Tulane University, a team of researchers examined multiple studies of African-American women in STEM fields at colleges and universities. It’s been widely understood that assumptions about what is or is not appropriate for girls to study and do end up driving the choices girls make about what they actually study and do. Among many others, the AAUW’s 2010 study, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” looks in detail at this phenomenon of “stereotype threat” as it relates to girls in STEM.

Weaker STEM Stereotypes

For their part, O’Brien and her team found African-American women held weaker gender-STEM stereotypes than white women. In other words, they did not see studying STEM fields as a “masculine” undertaking to the degree that white women did. The primary fault line apparently had most to do with perceptions of independence, self-reliance, and gender. Researchers measure such perceptions using tools like the Harvard implicit bias test.

Higher STEM Participation

African-Americans seem to value independence and self-reliance more highly in women than whites do. A corollary to this phenomenon apparently results in higher rates of interest in STEM fields and, at least in engineering, higher rates of graduation, too. It’s worth noting that African-Americans and other minorities tend to finish degrees overall at lower rates than whites, among those who intend to major in STEM as well as non-STEM fields. How this tendency specifically manifests among African-American women in engineering would be interesting to learn.

More to Learn, Clearly

So what do we make of all this? Improving levels of diversity in engineering will clearly require a deeply nuanced understanding of factors shaping the choices that all under-represented groups make about study and work. This understanding would inform engineering outreach and retention programs in ever-more refined ways, as we keep learning about the specific reasons that lead to under-representation across the demographic spectrum. What’s been your experience in this area? Let us know your thoughts about increasing diversity in engineering.


Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com