Demographics of Science and Engineering: Are We Improving?

By: Yendi Neil

According to a report released by the National Science Foundation (NSF; 2017), the enrollment of historically underrepresented groups (e.g., women, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and individuals with disabilities) in undergraduate institutions is increasing. However, enrollment trends differ across demographic groups. Hispanics, Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, and American Indians or Alaska Natives are more likely to enroll in public 2-year colleges than other racial groups. Blacks and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders are more likely to enroll in private, for-profit colleges, compared to other racial groups. Whites, Asians, and students who identify as multi-racial are more likely to enroll in private, nonprofit colleges (NSF, 2017). Additionally, people with disabilities have similar acceptance rates to the college of their choice compared to individuals without disabilities. Lastly, more women are enrolling in college than men. Taken together, these data suggest that the landscape of higher education is changing, and although certain types of institutions may still see a lower representation of minority racial groups, representation of women and individuals with disabilities has significantly improved.

The data suggest that over the past 20 years, women have increased in participation across all scientific fields of study. Women account for at least 70% of the graduates in psychology (at the baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral levels), but only about 20% of degrees in physics. Engineering, computer sciences, economics, and mathematics/statistics also see a fairly low representation of women at all levels. Women of underrepresented minorities have higher rates of enrollment at all degree levels across science and engineering (S&E) degrees, than men of underrepresented minorities.

Roughly half of the S&E workforce is white men, white women and Asian men each account for about 15% of the S&E workforce, Asian women account for 7% of the workforce, and men of other racial groups account for 8%, while women of other racial groups account for 5%. Underrepresented racial minority scientists are more likely than others to be employed by the government, while women, regardless of race, are more likely than men to be employed by educational institutions.

Overall, the data in this report suggest that although the representation of women, minority racial groups, and individuals with disabilities has broadly increased across all levels within S&E, there are particular areas that might benefit from intervention to further increase enrollment and retention of these groups. Specifically, interventions could target more narrow domains of S&E (e.g., physics, computer science) that are struggling with the enrollment of women and underrepresented minorities. Interventions could also target transition points (e.g., from undergraduate to graduate programs, from school to the workforce), helping to ensure women, particularly women of underrepresented minority groups, transition successfully, at rates equivalent to other groups.

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