Black Women in Engineering: Beating the Odds?

By Theresa Sullivan Barger

In relation to their ethnic group, black women are earning a higher percentage of engineering degrees and are enrolling in these programs at higher rates than are white or other women.

Black women earned 822 undergraduate engineering degrees in the U.S. in 2011, according to the National Science Foundation and the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). This represents more than 25 percent of black candidates who earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering that year. The same year, white women earned 8,504 undergraduate engineering degrees, a much larger number but one that represents only 17 percent of the white engineering graduates in that category.

“I’m absolutely delighted with the progress of African-American women in engineering and with degree attainment,” says Irving P. McPhail, Ed.D., president and chief executive officer of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. (NACME). But whereas the numbers of black women look excellent in this particular light — at 37 percent above parity — the story is the opposite for black men. So few earned engineering degrees that they hit 8 percent below parity. Put another way: more than five times as many white men receive engineering bachelor’s degrees as white women. Fewer than three times as many black men earn undergraduate engineering degrees as black women.

Dr. McPhail gave another reality check: the number of engineering degrees awarded to African-American women has steadily decreased over the past 14 years, slipping from 1,110 in 1999 to 809 in 2011, according to NACME. (ASEE’s figure for 2011 is 822, cited in the second paragraph above. ASEE attributes the difference between its figure and NACME’s to reporting error.) The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-American engineers of both genders combined has been fairly flat since 1997. That year, 3,202 African Americans earned engineering bachelor’s. The number peaked at 3,756 in 2005 and dipped to 3,635 in 2010, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission.

What’s Going On? The sources we consulted say several factors contribute to the academic success of African-American women in engineering and in higher education overall. In the African-American community, says Dr. McPhail, girls and women are more academically successful as a group than are boys and men because of how they’re raised, their parents’ and teachers’ expectations, their internal sense of responsibility to their community and their intrinsic persistence, self-discipline, self-confidence and willingness for self-sacrifice. NSBE’s national chair, Sossena Wood, concurs. Black girls are brought up with a strong sense of self-reliance, which may drive them into higher education and fuel them through the challenges, she says. “You’re raised to stick it through, no matter the circumstances.”

Studying engineering “is pretty brutal,” and it weeds out a lot of would-be engineers, Wood says. Some of her black women classmates who found engineering too difficult stayed in college and got a degree in another subject. Or, if they left for financial reasons, they finished their engineering degree elsewhere.

Many of her black male classmates, on the other hand, dropped out and didn’t complete any degree if they found the course load too grueling or that their parents couldn’t afford that university.

Broad Disparity

Educational attainment of African-American men has long been troubling. In 2011–12, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to black men in the U.S. lagged behind the number conferred to black women by almost 48 percent: 63,610 for the men, 121,908 for the women. Many sources attribute this well-known educational gap to a slew of factors that collectively chip away at the numbers of black boys who are ready for college.