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Spotlight on the Women of Color Engineering Collaborative (WCEC)

October 5, 2022

The Women of Color Engineering Collaborative (WCEC) is a collective entity of over twenty leading STEM-focused organizations dedicated to providing organizations with resources to create a supportive, encouraging, and inclusive environment for women of color in engineering.

The WCEC was founded by the Society of Women Engineers, in collaboration with the National Society of Black Engineering (NSBE) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineering (SHPE), thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. The core project team has grown to include the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and WEPAN.

Roberta Rincon, Society of Women Engineers and a member of the WCEC leadership team, discusses WCEC’s history, mission, and goals.

Why did you feel it necessary to create the WCEC?

As a professional organization focused on gender equity in engineering, we recognize that women are not monolithic. Research has emphasized the importance of disaggregating data across varying identities (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) when addressing issues of equity. Inequities can be overlooked when we do not consider intersectionality in our work.

Women of color (Latina/Hispanic, Black/African American, Native American/American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Asian/Pacific Islander/Asian American/Native Hawaiian) are severely underrepresented in STEM, and particularly so in engineering. For example, while 23 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women in 2020, less than 8 percent of degrees were awarded to women of color. In the workforce, women of color comprise less than 6 percent of all engineering professionals. Given how few women of color are entering the engineering profession, it is imperative that we do all we can to retain them.

Women engineers may belong to multiple professional societies, but most focus on one specific area. At SWE, we focus on women engineers. NSBE supports Black engineers, SHPE supports Hispanic engineers, and AISES supports American Indian engineers. ASCE is discipline-specific, supporting members in civil engineering. This often results in women of color having to choose one or two societies to belong to, often feeling that neither one really embraces their full, authentic selves. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine stated this best in their 2020 report highlighting the challenges that women of color face. Specifically, they stated that “programs intended to serve women disproportionately benefit white women, and programs intended to serve minorities mainly benefit minority males.”

The Women of Color in Engineering Collaborative was created to help address this issue. Organizations join the WCEC because they want to do more to support women engineers of color. They recognize that what they offer is not enough, but by working together with other organizations, the WCEC can provide the support that women of color in engineering are seeking to reach their personal and career goals.

Why are there such high attrition rates for women of color in engineering in the workforce?

There are several factors that researchers have found are contributing to the attrition of women of color in the engineering workforce. Stereotype threat, lack of role models, mentors, and sponsors, and feelings of isolation and exclusion are some of the issues that women of color face.

Considering the intersection of race and gender in engineering, women of color face what many term as the “double bind” when they encounter both sexism and racism in the workplace. Biases and discrimination in hiring, performance evaluations, and compensation decisions can hold women of color back, as research has shown that they are often held to higher standards than their White counterparts. In many cases, organizations recruit women of color without really addressing the systemic barriers that are keeping them from advancing and being successful in their chosen career path. Hence, the retention of diverse talent has become a significant issue for many engineering employers.

What is one thing companies can do to improve their climate/culture for women of color?

One thing that we believe companies and other organizations can do to improve the climate and culture for women of color is to value their experience and expertise in engineering. The WCEC wants to help organizations increase the visibility of women of color in conferences, technical talks, webinars, committees, review panels, awards, etc. Women of color are often overlooked or just not considered when organizations are looking for individuals for these opportunities. By bringing more visibility to women of color in spaces where engineers and leaders from all backgrounds are looking to learn and collaborate, we believe that women of color will be seen as less of a novelty. We want everyone in engineering to understand and appreciate the value that diversity brings to our workplaces.

Your strategic plan looks great! Why was it important for WCEC’s success to create one, and how did you decide what priorities and goals to include?

Thank you! We are very proud of this plan. We received a grant from the National Science Foundation (Award HRD-2040634) in late 2020 to support the creation of the WCEC and the development of this strategic plan. The WCEC includes 29 professional STEM societies and industry partners. Over the course of one year, representatives from these organizations worked to identify the barriers that we felt the WCEC was best positioned to address in the next few years. Agreeing on the barriers, the goals, and the strategies required a great deal of communication and collaboration, meeting multiple times over many months before final agreement was reached in early 2022. Throughout the year, we maintained our focus on the five barriers, reminding our WCEC partners that we had to create realistic goals and adopt strategies that we were equipped to implement.

While we recognize that increasing women of color in the engineering workforce will require greater attention to recruiting women of color into engineering college programs, our focus remains addressing the systemic barriers that women of color face in the workplace. Through strategies aimed at elevating women of color and working with organizations to create inclusive working environments, we believe that the WCEC can have a significant impact on the retention and advancement of women engineers of color.

What are the WCEC’s short-term goals for the next six months/year?

Right now, we are focused on putting in place our communication strategy to maintain engagement across the collaborative. Our WCEC members are already doing great things. We can share those programs and events across our networks. We also want to get the word out and help others learn about the WCEC. We are inviting people to join our WCEC community and organizations to consider becoming WCEC members, helping to implement our strategic plan.

Is it possible at the moment for individuals to become involved with the WCEC (i.e. someone who isn’t part of a professional organization)?

Absolutely! We invite anyone interested in connecting with the WCEC to join our WCEC community by visiting our website (https://www.womenofcolorengineers.org/) and filling out our Contact form. This will allow individuals to begin receiving our email communications and newsletters. We will share with the WCEC community new programs, offerings, and events that the WCEC and our member organizations are offering.

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