The numbers are worrying.

Of the nearly 1.7 million prime-age (25-54) engineering workers in the United States in 2019, only 14% were either Black or Latinx (a gender-neutral term for the Latino community) despite making up almost one-third of the U.S. adult population. And only 3% of engineers in 2019 were Black or Latinx women. The report, Mission Not Accomplished: Unequal Opportunities and Outcomes for Black and Latinx Engineers, issued by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, also found that 15% of all engineers were Asian while 66% were white.

As a category, women in general are also underrepresented in engineering, the report finds. Only 16% of the engineers in 2019 were women, even though they constitute almost half the prime-age working population.

These numbers tell the story of the underrepresentation of minorities and women in engineering, one of the most prestigious occupations in the U.S. labor market, according to the CEW.

“We are not yet at the level where we can adequately say that Black/African American and Latinx workers in engineering are close in numbers to what their percentages are in the larger population,” says Nicole Smith, Ph.D., co-author of the report and a senior economist at the CEW. That underrepresentation presents stark inequities, according to the report.

The salary gap

To add insult to injury, Black and Latinx engineers also earn less than their white and Asian counterparts, the report finds. “White and Asian workers with a bachelor’s degree in engineering earn 61% and 71% more, respectively, than the average for all bachelor’s degree holders, while Black/African American and Latinx engineering majors earn just 15% and 18% more, respectively,” the report states.

To close that salary gap, Black and Latinx engineers must hold graduate degrees to earn close to what white and Asian engineers with undergraduate degrees do.

The civil engineering perspective

The CEW report found that civil engineering had the lowest earnings on average ($76,000) of all the engineering subdivisions pursued by Black and Latinx engineers. The impact of gender on Black and Latinx civil engineering salaries isn’t specified in the report. However, “we know that one in six civil engineers are women and that women on the whole are paid 10% less than men in (engineering),” Smith says.

The 2020 ASCE Salary Survey report found that white respondents earned the highest median income at $114,670. Hispanic and Black respondents earned median incomes of $103,500 and $100,360, respectively.

The missing pieces in the equation

The CEW report states that in the two decades leading up to 2019, the total number of Black and Latinx students who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in engineering increased by nearly four times. The percentage of overall degrees earned by Black students stayed at 4% while the Latinx equivalent increased from 3% to 13%.

The numbers reflect the challenges in the pipeline. Minority students often have less access to the types of high school courses necessary to gain admission into engineering programs. Some progress is being made on this front. The robotics program at the University of Michigan, for example, is turning its curriculum on its head by moving the calculus courses to later years while allowing college students to start with linear algebra, a natural progression from what most students learn in high school. Black and Latinx students typically cannot access calculus in high school as easily as white students can. As a result, white students often forge ahead in college.

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(Courtesy of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce)

“At Michigan Robotics, we believe that talent is uniformly distributed but opportunity is not. To enhance accessibility in our new (undergraduate) program, we reexamined long-standing assumptions on prerequisites, such as how much calculus students need to begin solving realistic problems in engineering,” says Jessy Grizzle, Ph.D., the director of the Robotics Institute at the university. “We found that we could fill an entire first-semester, year 1 course with topics grounded in linear algebra and programming, plus we could tie everything to relevant exciting projects such as map building for mobile robots, machine learning for climate data, and feedback control for stabilizing a Segway,” he says.

Such an approach makes the discipline more accessible to all students through project-based learning models too.

While such programs offer rays of hope, inequities in wages and representation persist even after students graduate, as the CEW report found. At the current rate of growth, achieving representation in engineering that is a true reflection of the population at large will take 76 years for Black and Latinx workers combined and 256 years for Black professionals alone, the report states.

The inequities loom large, but transparency about pay scales is the first step in leveling the playing field somewhat, Smith says. “It helps everybody to know what everybody else is making, what the market can bear,” she says.