A Wider Welcome Mat

Achieving a diverse workplace should be more than a token gesture--and it may be easier than you think

6 min read

Engineering is no longer the all-white, all-male bastion it used to be. In the United States, about 20 percent of all engineering master's degree recipients are women, up from 2 percent in 1975. And African-American, Latino, and American Indian students now make up 11 percent of U.S. engineering graduates, according to the National Action Council for Minority Engineers (NACME), in White Plains, N.Y.

That said, the numbers of women and minorities who study engineering and work as engineers still don't reflect society as a whole. First-year enrollment of minority students intending to major in science and engineering actually declined significantly between 1992 and 1998--proof that creating true diversity in the workplace remains an uphill climb. And it's only going to get steeper; according to U.S. Census Bureau projections, minorities are expected to make up close to 40 percent of college student bodies by 2020. How many of them will choose engineering?

The good news is that you can help foster change at your firm now. Here are ways to add more women and minorities to your company's roster--and to improve the general outlook for those already there.

Think of the bottom line. Diversity isn't just a feel-good proposition--it's good business, too. Much growth in high tech is coming from emerging markets in places like Central and South America, and companies need to reflect this global customer base. "You want to mirror your marketplace," says Jim Sinocchi, IBM Corp.'s spokesman for diversity, "not only in terms of the people you employ, but in the solutions you provide."

One good example is signal processing. "For a long time a lot of the work was aimed at defense applications, but no longer," says Leah Jamieson, professor of electrical and computer engineering and an associate dean at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. "Now there are massive consumer applications, particularly in devices like DVDs, MP3s, and cellphones. If your market has changed, or you'd like to broaden it, you need designers who are thinking about your product the way your potential customers will. Otherwise, you've lost a business opportunity."

Even in more traditional scenarios, "the literature says that if you have five people with similar backgrounds and educations, you're going to get a fairly uniform set of perspectives," Jamieson says, citing an influential 2000 study of transnational teams by business professors P. Christopher Earley of Indiana University, in Bloomington, and Elaine Mosakowski of the University of California, Los Angeles. To innovate, you have to stretch, she adds, "and if the group at the table isn't diverse enough to really walk around a problem in many different directions, there will be ideas that you'll never explore. That's not how you create better things."

Start recruitment early. A 1998 Harris poll conducted for the American Association of Engineering Societies and cosponsored by IEEE-USA painted a bleak picture of engineering's public image. Less than 30 percent of respondents thought that engineers care about the community, and only 20 percent thought that engineers improve our quality of life.

You can help mend that public relations problem even as you recruit future engineers. By helping kids--especially girls and underrepresented minorities--connect engineering to a better world, you also tap into a whole new base of future engineers. One way to do so is to foster partnerships with museums, schools, and community and not-for-profit organizations.

Intel, for instance, targets kids as young as kindergarten age. "I put on a clean-room bunny suit and go out to elementary schools and explain what a silicon wafer is," says Intel's director of enterprise platforms, Diane Bryant. "The further up the pipeline you can reach kids, the better." Intel also sponsors after-school Computer Clubhouses in 18 countries, where children in underserved communities work with adult mentors--including Intel engineers--to explore technology.

Photo: Jordan Hollender

Engineers can also volunteer for community organizations, such as A Better Chance, the Urban League, and the YMCA, all of which sponsor programs that encourage kids to stay in school and pursue a career. "Outreach has to be something you believe is important, because you want to help eliminate barriers, many of which are perceived but not real," says John Slaughter, an IEEE fellow and president and CEO of NACME.

To reach students further along the pipeline, many corporations nurture relationships with universities that boast good records of attracting and retaining minority students. For Intel, the University of Washington is a good bet. "They've demonstrated a 75 percent retention through their four-year bachelor's program, and a 27 percent retention rate among Native Americans, which is exceptional," says Bryant. Another outlet, she says, is Cornell University, for its "strong ties" to the all-women, African-American, and Hispanic engineering societies. Slaughter also gives kudos to Georgia Institute of Technology's encouragement of minority engineers; a list of universities that have committed to increase minority representation in engineering is available on the NACME Web site (https://www.nacme.org).

Broaden your job-posting strategy. When it comes to hiring, a lot of companies post ads just in the places that have worked before. "Then, when no African-Americans or persons of Hispanic origin apply, the conclusion is that there's nobody out there," Slaughter says. "That's wrong. If you're serious about it, you'll have to bring the position to wider attention." So in addition to advertising in publications like IEEE Spectrum, he suggests contacting historically black colleges and universities and advertising in magazines like the Black Collegian and Black Issues in Technology . Other good options include publications of the Society of Women Engineers, the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. For higher-level positions, consider hiring recruiters that specialize in diversity searches, such as Heidrick and Struggles or Diversity Employment Solutions.

Photo: Jordan Hollender

Take a hard look at your work environment. "People may believe that their organization is above discrimination, but what is it that your recruit sees when she walks in the door?" asks IBM's Sinocchi. Does she get the sense that this is a place where people can, say, put up pictures of gay partners, dress a little differently, be themselves? Is it equipped to accommodate a devout Muslim who prays five times a day?

Consider bringing in a diversity consultant; both DiversityInc.com and the American Institute for Managing Diversity (https://www.aimd.org) maintain lists of qualified professionals. A diversity consultant can help you look at your office with fresh eyes. What do the pictures and magazines on display say about your company? Do sports figures and pinups figure prominently? If your staff is already somewhat diverse, these pros may suggest that you consult a representative group of employees about such seemingly simple things as what kind of food they'd like for a staff lunch or where they'd like to go for that weekend retreat.

Mobilize--but don't overburden --your minority employees. More companies are realizing that it's helpful to listen to their minority employees' viewpoints, as well as asking them to recruit. Intel, for instance, encourages all its employees to recruit when they attend conferences--sweetening the pot with a bonus if a woman or underrepresented minority is hired. IBM has companywide task forces for different constituencies--including African-American, Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transsexual (GLBT), and people with disabilities--that advise upper management on relevant trends. Employees who volunteer to lead these groups get enviable face time with IBM's World Management Council, some of whom are senior vice presidents.

A problem can arise, though, when minority employees are trapped in a "special person" slot. As the tokens, they're assigned to every committee and invited to every meeting. "Organizations will appoint one person to represent all minorities' points of view," says Sharon Gadberry, a partner in Power Transitions, an executive coaching firm in San Francisco. "That individual then has two jobs, their own job and that of a figurehead, because everyone's looking at them."

Photo: Jordan Hollender

Don't ignore the glass ceiling. Yes, the glass ceiling still exists, and not just for women and underrepresented minorities. Asians, for example, are more than twice as numerous in the IBM workforce as they are in the U.S. population at large, but they are severely underrepresented in IBM management. The challenge for the company's Asian Task Force is to combat both internal and external stereotypes about who's capable of what, Sinocchi points out.

Executives, too, need to make sure that women and minorities are progressing through the ranks at the same rate as their peers. At Intel's annual performance reviews, for instance, "we look at the data in a zillion different ways to make sure pay increases and promotions are proportionately allocated and a system of meritocracy is applied," Bryant says. "This process raises awareness across the management team." Another Intel program identifies top-performing women and minorities and considers them for key opportunities.

The ultimate goal, Slaughter says, is not simply to diversify your staff but to create an environment in which all members of the organization have an equal chance. "Engineering has opened up," he says, "but you don't want all the senior people to be white males and the lower-ranking people all to be women and people of color. That's not equity." It's worth the extra effort, he and others say. If capable people aren't invited in and made to feel valued, the engineering profession as a whole loses.

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