Michigan Engineering News

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Prioritizing diversity to benefit the field of engineering

It’s part of our job.

This is the conclusion of our series about how increasing diversity is necessary to improve engineering.

Opponents of diversity initiatives often argue that it’s not the university’s job to try to fix big societal problems. Universities have been disagreeing for decades. For Michigan Engineering, with our priorities of education and research, we want a set of problem-solvers with more varied experiences so that they choose problems that serve more of society and develop better solutions. We have a responsibility to help build an engineering workforce that represents the population at large. 

The generation currently beginning their undergraduate studies is only 52% white. Yet our enrolled domestic student population Fall 2020 is 8% Latinx/Hispanic and 3.6% Black, compared to 25% Latinx/Hispanic and 14% Black in Gen-Z. Women make up 28% of the undergraduate class.

There is no single sure path to identity diversity, but the organizations that are most successful at achieving it have something in common, reports McKinsey and Company: They start by clearly defining why they need it. Then they build their strategy around it.

Once that value proposition is in place, it changes the lens on hiring. This is already playing out in the way that the College of Engineering looks for leaders. We expand the definitions of merit to include the skills and ideas needed to achieve goals that go beyond the technical parts of science and engineering.

“You’ve got to write down what you’re looking for and how you’re going to know it when you see it,” said Jennifer Linderman, the Pamela Raymond Collegiate Professor of Engineering and director of the U-M ADVANCE Program.

An organization’s broader vision can affect hiring at the entry level, as Scott Page, the Williamson Family Professor of Business Administration and author of the book The Diversity Bonus, explained.

“You’re not hiring people just to do today’s work. You’re hiring people to be senior managers down the road. So you might hire someone who will be good at the first level but will excel at the next level,” said Page.

And it’s not just hiring. The incentive structure within the organization needs to change too. The College is in the middle of this effort.

For faculty members like Linderman, Susan Montgomery (BS ChE ’84), the G. Brymer Williams Collegiate Lecturer, and Chad Jenkins, a professor of computer science and engineering, a change in incentives would recognize the work they are doing to support students and faculty—and to identify and correct barriers to diversity within the organization. The cultural change from a program designed to weed students out to a program designed to value and support students destigmatizes the need for help, Montgomery explained. Many students are marginalized in ways that are less obvious than skin color.

“Programs that help Black and women students ultimately help everyone who needs support,” said Montgomery. “A socioeconomic or mental health issue can suppress amazing talent. So we serve everyone better when we say, ‘How can I best help you succeed?’ rather than, ‘Maybe you don’t belong here.’”

As things stand, this kind of work takes away time from activities that are incentivized, such as writing grants and publishing papers. It is typically done as a labor of love, mainly by faculty of color and female faculty. They can win diversity and service awards, as Jenkins, Montgomery and Linderman have. But until the work is incentivized as part of ordinary duties, workload will remain concentrated among those with the most passion for it.

“If we, as faculty members, knew that we were going to be held to task for diversifying our field, I think it would change. I think it’d be a night and day difference within a few years,” said Jenkins.

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Kate McAlpine

Research News Editor