Imagine going out to eat and finding that every restaurant featured the same limited menu of meat and potatoes. Or scanning the radio dial only to hear the Beatles on every station.
Inconceivable? Check out your workplace, labs and campuses. How many associates look—or think—like you? As a 20-year aerospace-industry veteran and retired full professor from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo with Cherokee Indian and Mexican roots, my response often is this: none. And that lack of diversity should trouble engineering educators and industry professionals.
Differences in culture, language, gender, age, family income and experience fuel the creative process. Consider, for example, how a paraplegic engineer’s ideas on wheelchair usability might improve the team’s design concept. An employee’s passion for Formula One racing helped Southwest Airlines trim turnaround time between flights to 12 minutes—a fraction of the industry’s 55-minute average.
Diversity brings fresh eyes to old problems. Unless organizations learn to nurture and harness their human natural resources, they cannot hope to generate new approaches to today’s global challenges. ASEE’s Corporate Member Council deems diversity so important that it recently issued a proclamation calling on members to celebrate, respect and appreciate the cultural differences that enrich the engineering discipline. The council also urged ASEE to sponsor diversity-related workshops and enhance “the development of a competitive, diverse workforce.”
While most organizations recognize the value and importance of diversity, few rarely “walk the talk.” My employer, Northrop Grumman Corp., has an excellent track record of community outreach and sponsorship. It supports the Society of Hispanic Engineers and other minority professional groups, funds a diverse California math and science magnet school and hosts high-school interns. Yet, when I won the 2006 Award for Executive Excellence from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, my boss’s reaction, in effect, was “That’s great, now get back to work.”
The daily grind—and our lives—could benefit from a pinch of paprika or dash of Tabasco. Yet some organizations never open their well-stocked spice cabinets. Take the dean at a major research institution who mumbled when I asked about the minority engineering office director. The dean did not know the person’s name, nor, I suspect, much about the program.
Universities and corporations could foster broader brainstorming by doing a better job of tapping engineering’s vast diversity “ecosystem.” This symbiotic network includes assets ranging from historically black colleges to campus-based minority engineering offices staffed by members of the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates. Campus chapters of the Society of Women Engineers and other groups receive substantial industry support and offer opportunities for internships, tutoring and leadership training.
Diversity is not just smart PR. It’s smart practice. Squeezed by its graying workforce, the aerospace and defense industry faces a potential shortfall of 41,000 to 87,000 defense engineers by the year 2010, a recent study by Bain & Co. for Aviation Week & Space Technology predicts. Diversity programs can help companies cast a wider net and close that looming talent gap. Ford Motor Co., for instance, recruits at gay and lesbian conferences. Northrop, a perfect scorer in the latest Human Rights Campaign index of gay-friendly firms, extends health benefits to same-sex partners.
Diversity programs also can prime the engineering pipeline for underrepresented minorities. A multicultural faculty, for example, might encourage more Hispanic, black and Native American students to complete college. Studies have shown that adopt-a-school and other mentoring programs inspire higher levels of college enrollment—and higher educational aspirations—among participants.
Diversity need not be rocket science. In 1970, just 32 of MIT’s 1,231 undergraduate engineering majors were women. Today, 665 of 1,749 are. Females make up 14 percent of the engineering faculty—up from almost none in 1970. Minorities also have increased. MIT’s secret? High school programs, a smorgasbord of student interest groups, women on faculty hiring teams—and a sense that diversity is in everyone’s best interest. Salsa, anyone?
The writer is director of university technical alliances for Northrop Grumman Corp. and chair of the ASEE Corporate Member Council’s Diversity Special Interest Group.