Current industry efforts are failing to increase diversity in engineering. Instead of continuing to develop solutions that don’t work, we need to redefine what it means to be an engineer.
There’s a lack of diversity in engineering that no one seems to know how to fix. In 2018, as many as 8.6 million people made up the STEM workforce in the U.S., with the number of jobs consistently increasing more than in any other sector. But of those 8.6 million people, a whopping 84 percent were either Caucasian or Asian males. And while women make up the majority of undergraduate students in the U.S., only 21 percent of Bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering in 2015 were to female graduates.
It’s not that no one is talking about this issue — in fact, a large number of companies have begun to make it a priority. Organizations like Girls Who Code have made it their mission to close the gender gap in technology, while larger companies like Google have begun to release annual diversity reports and create roles like Chief Diversity Officer.
Business executives now acknowledge that diversity is a key contributor to their bottom line, with findings from a recent BCG study showing that more diverse leadership teams boost innovation and increase revenue by an average of 19 percent.
So if everyone seems to be on the same page about diversity in engineering, why aren’t we seeing improvements in the industry?
Why Current Engineering Diversity Efforts Fall Short
To understand why these discouraging statistics persist, we need to better understand the limitations of current efforts to fix the problem. When we take a look at the industry, there are hundreds of suggestions centering around the people being recruited and an organization’s approach to diversity. Articles with recommendations ranging from “set up mentorship and training programs” to “moving away from employee referrals could help increase diversity” are a dime a dozen.
But with these efforts producing lackluster results, it may be time to try something new.
Each of these solutions is based on a common assumption: that what it means to be an “engineer” is fixed and cannot change. As a result, all of our efforts naturally have involved finding and training more people to fit into the current paradigm.
But what if this assumption is a part of the problem? When an engineering skillset is highly specialized and restrictive, the field will inherently exclude a large number of people. What if instead of trying to fit more people into the traditional definition of what it means to be an engineer, we simply redefined what it meant to be an engineer?
The Future of Software is Configuration, Not Code
If we lower the point of entry to become an engineer, then the people in the industry will naturally begin to change — the engineering conversation automatically extends to more and different types of people. So what does this look like in practice?
For one, it requires a solution that will limit complexity to make building applications accessible to more people. It should put the power of engineering into the hands of people who have ideas, rather than simply the hands of people who have been able to learn the existing programming languages.
Overall, this means that people from all lines of business who might have formerly had to request product updates from developer and IT teams can be empowered to make these changes themselves.
Diversity for a Better Product
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that diversity isn’t just about a status quo or about furthering your revenue. By opening up software development to people from a wider range of backgrounds, you expose your application to new perspectives and create an inherently more well-rounded product.
Redefining what it means to be an engineer requires a unique solution, but it will make a critical difference. With companies and schools continuously struggling to find a way to diversify the engineering workforce, it’s never been more important to reexamine the skills necessary to be a developer. By changing the terms of engineering and prioritizing the ability to be logical and process-oriented rather than well-versed in programming languages, we can allow new voices to contribute directly to software development — new voices that the industry desperately needs.