Collaboration Nets Major Support for Women of Color in Engineering

An NSF grant worth $5M seeks to help organizations support women of color from college to career.

By Marsha Lynn Bragg, SWE Associate Editor

Colleges and companies face recurring challenges to retaining women in STEM disciplines, particularly women of color, who make up less than 6% of all engineering professionals in the workforce.

Given how few women of color are entering the engineering profession, it is imperative that efforts focus on retaining those who do. Research shows women leave the profession at higher rates than men, a consequence of bias and discrimination in hiring, promotion, and compensation, which adversely affect women of color even more.

The Society of Women Engineers seeks to tackle these issues with a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation Equity for Excellence in STEM program. The grant will build upon and expand the work begun by SWE’s Women of Color in Engineering Collaborative, or WCEC, which received an NSF planning grant in 2020 to develop a strategic plan and identify partners committed to increasing the representation of women of color in engineering.

The WCEC launched with almost 30 major STEM-focused organizations and industry partners dedicated to working jointly to provide the resources that organizations need to create supportive, encouraging, and inclusive environments and extend opportunities to boost women of color in engineering.

The WCEC’s primary focus includes but is not limited to women engineers and technologists who self-identify as Latina/Hispanic, Black/African American, Native American/American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian and whose racial and ethnic identities shape how they experience and navigate the professional landscape.

Although many professional societies, academic institutions, and industries have established programs for women engineers and engineers of color, “women of color engineers are often left underserved by these efforts,” said Roberta Rincon, Ph.D., SWE director of research and principal investigator of the new grant.

“Organizations join the WCEC because they want to do more to recruit and retain women engineers of color. They recognize that what they offer is not enough, but by working together with other organizations, the WCEC can help organizations provide the supports that women of color in engineering are seeking to reach their personal and career goals,” Dr. Rincon said.

 “We are excited to begin implementing the strategies to address the unique challenges that women of color face in the engineering workforce.”

— Roberta Rincon, Ph.D.

In addition to Dr. Rincon, co-principal investigators are Dayna Martínez, Ph.D., of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; Stephani Page, Ph.D., of the Women in Engineering ProActive Network; Tiffany Smith, Ph.D., of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society; and Rochelle Williams, Ph.D., of the National Society of Black Engineers.

The grant is part of the NSF Eddie Bernice Johnson INCLUDES Initiative, or Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science, a comprehensive national strategy designed to enhance U.S. leadership in discoveries and innovations by focusing on diversity, inclusion, and broadening participation in STEM at scale. Johnson, a recently retired congresswoman from Texas, championed STEM education and was the first woman and first Black person to chair the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. During her tenure in Congress, she contributed to historic legislation including the CHIPS and Science Act. (Johnson died in December. See In Memoriam)

“We are excited to begin implementing the strategies to address the unique challenges that women of color face in the engineering workforce,” Dr. Rincon said.

One of the goals of the grant is to increase the number of member organizations to include more partners from government, industry, higher education, and professional STEM societies that will systemically support and impact women throughout their STEM journey — from college to career to promotion in their networks in the public and private sectors. Their work also aspires to answer the overarching question about the effectiveness of certain practices in retaining women of color in the engineering profession.

In response, the WCEC will share case studies of innovative solutions and promising practices with its member organizations, support women of color in their pursuit of professional development opportunities, and increase access to existing programs and services by women engineers of color and the organizations with which they engage.

WCEC will measure the impact of these efforts through participant feedback, increased awareness and perspectives, stronger relationships, and more effective leadership. WCEC will share project resources through the WCEC website, podcasts, webinars, and conferences.