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Minorities in the Engineering Workplace: Overcoming Barriers to Success

Engineers discuss the various obstacles young minorities still face at the turn of the century.

By Richard Carranza

The efforts to eradicate discrimination and foster equality among all in the workplace have a long history. They began with the Eisenhower administration, which made strong efforts to support the Civil Rights Movement and continue today amidst the controversial issues of affirmative action. Despite the tremendous energy exhausted in the push for equality, it seems there is still an arduous path ahead, and for many young engineers, much to be prepared for.

In her publication, "The glass ceiling in science and engineering," Joyce Tang states that "...the odds of being a manager for black males are significantly lower compared to white males... Asian males in science and engineering fared even worse in occupational status... There is no support for the assimilation thesis that, controlling for birth status and recency of immigration, Asians would enjoy the same opportunities as whites to be a manager. Making adjustments for differences in human capital (education and training) does not close the racial gap in occupational status... ."1

Juan Gonzales

Juan Gonzales

Juan Gonzales, a civil engineer with Nicor, Bellwood, IL: "Within the first year of my career as a professional, I realized the difference I had with my Anglo counterparts, for instance, the lack of a mentor or even a sponsor. The career development and grooming given, as regards special projects and assignments, do not usually come our (Hispanics) way often. Even at the social gatherings, you can see the cultural differences in the topics that are discussed, such as golf and skiing. It can make you feel out of place."

Ivan Favila, a mechanical engineer and assistant director of the Minority Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, adds, "It would be na´ve to say that once someone receives their engineering degree, their personal and professional problems are solved. There are issues that all graduates have to deal with: corporate politics, access to positions of power, appropriate mentorship, and avenues for growth and recognition. It is also naïve to say that these issues are unaffected by social and racial preferences."

Ivan Favila

Ivan Favila

The barriers that minority engineers must overcome to attain racial and economic parity in the engineering workplace are many. Some of these barriers include, the lack of role models and the failure of affirmative action. Nevertheless, attempts are continuously being made to help minorities hurdle these barriers, such as minority network workgroups and diversity awareness programs.

Role Models

Role models, mentors and familial relations in the engineering field are of crucial importance in helping minorities succeed in the engineering workplace. Freeman Hrabowski, an African-American and president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that "the only role models that they (minorities) have are physicians". He further states that it is important to eliminate the perception in the minority community "that it's not cool to be smart."2

It is often not realized that the best mentor is a family member. Following in the footsteps of a father or brother in the engineering field is certainly easier than following a career path that has no such adult figure to emulate. However, for many recently immigrated minorities, this can be a great barrier.

Donald Thomas, Thomas HV/AC Contracting Inc., Stone Mountain, GA, an African-American, claims that it is very difficult for blacks to succeed in the HVAC industry because the industry is predominately white. "There are fewer families in it to hand the business down to their sons and daughters. It helps, as most contractors know, to have a family member already entrenched who can show you the way", Thomas says.3

Tang states that having friends and family in the business is a form of "Social Capital." Tang adds, "Besides human capital, other forms of capital are also important for career advancement. Social capital in the form of social ties as well as formal and informal professional networks are crucial for socioeconomic advancement. Being part of the 'old boys' network, for example, can increase one's information and knowledge of the labor market. Studies have shown that minorities are less well connected than whites in the mainstream labor markets. Getting ahead in science and engineering may depend on 'what you know' as much as 'who you know'. However, due to their recent entry to these professions, minorities and women have not developed extensive networks."1

Hector Navar

Hector Navar

Hector Navar, an electrical engineer with Lucent Technologies, Naperville, IL, notes, "Growing up as a first generation Mexican in the United States, it was tough to learn the language. I had to learn the 'ropes' on my own. The best advice I can give anyone from my 12 years of professional experience is educate yourself, work hard, and network with people. Get to know them and let them get to know you. I believe that these three things are vital in attaining and sustaining any successful career."

The Failure of Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is federal initiative and part of the Civil Rights Act (1964) which bars employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. President Johnson was a great advocate for equality and equal opportunity in employment. Affirmative action was advanced significantly during his administration.

Mairin Brennan, in the article, "Reshaping affirmative action," notes that "In 1996, however, with the enactment of Proposition 209, California dealt a fatal blow to the state's affirmative action programs. This legislation prohibits preferential treatment in state and other public entities on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin."4 Brennan also points out that there has been a sharp rise in the number of laws suits being filed by whites claiming reverse discrimination in state university admission procedures. Therefore, "federal law still allows affirmative action... but state legislation and lawsuits are changing the landscape."

However, even at the federal level, support for affirmative action is beginning to wane. For several years, the US Dept. of Transportation (DOT) has supported a program called the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE). Mark Murray, in the article, "Affirmative action, on the mend", adds, "Signed into law in 1983, the DBE program established a goal that 10 percent of all highway and transit construction contracts be given to firms owned by minorities or women. States and localities that did not meet the goal had to explain why. And if their explanation did not pass muster, they risked losing their federal funds."5

But, on January 29, 1999, DOT made several significant changes to DBE at President Clinton's urging. The changes are definitely steps that are reversing the strides made by affirmative action:

  • The DBE program cannot use quotas any longer.
  • State and localities are encouraged to meet the 10% rule, not required.
  • Disadvantaged whites now qualify for the DBE program.

One may wonder why the president and the federal government would have such a lack of enthusiasm for a program as noble as affirmative action... .

One may wonder why the president and the federal government would have such a lack of enthusiasm for a program as noble as affirmative action. Earl Mitchell, Professor, Oklahoma State University, an African-American, "believes that much of the current sentiment on affirmative action has arisen from abuse of federal set-asides for minority-owned businesses. ...the federal program has been badly abused, he says, by both minorities and whites who managed to fraudulently obtain these monies."4

It could even be argued that affirmative action has been misused to the point of helping woman at the expense of racial minorities—those for whom the program was originally intended. Catherine Didion, executive director of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), says, "In terms of overall numbers and success, women have benefited more from affirmative action than minorities. ... In fact, women have benefited so much from affirmative action that a consensus is emerging that white women no longer need affirmative action to get into college or pursue most post graduate degrees."4 Helen Davies, president of AWIS, adds that affirmative action was a civil rights initiative and that "women were added as an afterthought."4

The attacks made on affirmative action prove one thing: the situation for minorities will not get better until people's attitudes change. The laws are only as good as the people's resolve to uphold them—that goes for whites and minorities. Favila notes, "There are strong anti-minority initiatives being passed throughout the US. Now, possibly more than ever, we need support and guidance for young students to follow paths towards the possibility of studying engineering. With the percentage of minorities in the US increasing, it is very important that pro-minority programs be given support and strengthened."

Luis Nunez

Luis Nunez

Luis Nuñez, a Ph.D. chemist doing chemical engineering research at Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL, concludes, "Progress has been made by the many years spent promoting equality. With respect to engineers, once in the workplace the Hispanic professional slowly gets better and more rewarding assignments. However, getting into upper level management is still a major hurdle. Therefore, we must continue to support affirmative action and equality in the workplace".

Solutions... Networking and Diversity Awareness

Despite the barriers impeding advancement for minorities in the workplace, the picture is not all gloomy. Many companies, although more are needed, are making strides in helping minorities achieve workplace parity.

Many firms are starting minority employee network groups. These groups help minorities find each other within a firm. The group facilitates the development of contacts and helps employees discuss issues that are of importance to them. In many organizations, management sponsors the networks; thus, providing a direct link to decisions makers and avenues for change.

In his article, "Common Ground", John Borchardt points out that "Minority employee network groups are flourishing at a growing number of companies. These groups provide leadership in resolving diversity issues and offer opportunities for minority employees to grow professionally."6

Many businesses operate diversity awareness programs that simply make all employees aware of the value and benefits that can be derived from all cultures everywhere. Programs usually declare a particular month "Hispanic Month". Various speakers are brought in for company gatherings such as hispanic war veterans, educators, businessmen, and politicians. Such programs help all ethnic groups, including whites, to know, appreciate and understand each other.


Without question, minorities in the engineering workplace have a formable challenge ahead of them. Firstly, many do not have the social capital required to help them compete with whites, many of whom may be descendents from those who landed with the Mayflower. Having family and friends as role models and business contacts is of great importance; however, a little more time will be needed to allow this condition to evolve as a reality for minorities.

Secondly, many whites, such as Linden Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower, have, with good intentions, created and supported programs like affirmative action in an effort to level the playing field for minorities. Unfortunately, the resolve of many in society, whites and minorities, has been too weak to put any teeth into such programs. Though it is the law of the land, affirmative action will be nothing more than a strawman if we the people do not make it a force to be reckoned with.

And lastly, and perhaps, more importantly, no one can really help minorities unless they help themselves first. The place to start for every minority is with himself. Gonzalez says it best, "The more I further my career, the more I realize that the cultural difference and the glass ceilings will always be there in my lifetime. So, my attitude is to be Mr. Positive and seek out a mentor even if they do not necessarily belong to my race or gender. For the minorities that come after me, I will be there for them. So my advice is sell your ideas, maintain a good demeanor, and be a good team player. I know that sometimes we tend to feel that our mistakes are magnified compared to our Anglo counterparts; but, we must concentrate on building relationships and learning from our mistakes. Get to know your colleagues and managers, even if it means learning how to play golf. In the end, I think that what seemed like large obstacles in your career will appear more like small speed bumps".


1. Joyce Tang, "The glass ceiling in science and engineering," The Journal of Socio-Economics, July-August, 1997.
2. Mairin Brennan, "On the road to diversity," Chemical and Engineering News, September 14, 1998.
3. Ed Bas, "Diversity: Is it missing the ranks of contractors," Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration News, June 16, 1997.
4. Mairin Brennen, "Reshaping affirmative action," Chemical and Engineering News, July 20, 1998.
5. Mark Murry, "Affirmative action, on the mend," National Journal, February 20, 1999.
6. John Borchardt, "Common Ground," Graduating Engineer and Computer Careers Online.

Richard Carranza is a Mexican-American writer who has worked as a professional chemical engineer and consultant to the chemical process industries since 1990.


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