THE ENGINEERING WORKFORCE
President, National Academy of Engineering
Director of Technology Partnerships, Honeywell Corporation,
and Member of the National Academy of Engineering and the
National Science Board
It is my privilege
to introduce Bill Wulf, who is the President of the National
Academy of Engineering. I have had the privilege of working
with Dr. Wulf for the last six years or so on the governing
council of the National Academy of Engineering. In addition
to his role as president of NAE, he serves as vice chair of
the National Research Council, which is the operating arm
of the National Academies. He would like to see more of the
women and men here participate on our committees, and might
recruit you all to do some work on the studies. Dr. Wulf is
another one at this conference who is looking at people in
academia, government and industry, and he himself has worked
in all three sectors.
Dr. Wulf is currently
on leave from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville,
where he is an AT&T Professor of Engineering and Applied
Sciences. He had been the chair and chief executive of Tartan
Laboratories in Pittsburgh; spent time as an assistant director
at the National Science Foundation; and early on was professor
of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. While he has been
at the NAE, he has been a strong supporter of women in engineering
and science. The NAE has created Web sites for younger women
in K-12 schools and for women in engineering. Through Dr.
Wulfs efforts, NAE obtained funding for a summer program
for women in engineering. Dr. Wulf has also been a strong
supporter of the NRCs Committee on Women in Science
and Engineering, led by Dr. Jong-On Hahm (also a participant
in this symposium).
One of the things
we heard from a lot of speakers today is the importance of
having a partner that really supports what you do in order
to be successful. Dr. Wulfs wife is Dr. Anita Jones,
a well-known member of the University of Virginias computer
science department. She is also the vice chair of the National
Science Board, and, under the Clinton Administration, was
under secretary for research at the Department of Defense.
Bill and Anita cannot quite get their schedules together
when he is in Washington, she is in Charlottesville, but they
are managing to be at the same place.
So Bill brings
many sorts of experience with him today professional,
personal and practical to his talk today at this symposium
dedicated to the advancement of women in science and technology.
So I want to welcome you Bill, and tell you how pleased we
are that you came to join us.
OF SCIENCES THEN AND NOW
I usually start
these talks with a few words about the Academy because I have
learned that not everybody knows what it is. There are academies
of science and academies of engineering all around the world.
They are mostly honorific societies; that is, you cannot join
the Royal Society in London or the Academie des Sciences in
Paris; you have to be elected by the existing membership.
It is considered a very high honor to be so elected.
In the middle of
the Civil War, 1863, a group of American scientists got together
and decided that we ought to have one of those honorific academies,
too. They incorporated what is now a 501(c)3, not-for-profit
corporation in the District of Columbia called the National
Academy of Sciences. At the time, there was no city government
in Washington the federal government acted as the city
government. Consequently, the articles of incorporation of
this private corporation were actually a bill passed through
Congress and signed by Abraham Lincoln. We make a great big
deal of that now, but in the District of Columbia in 1863
it was standard operating procedure. However, what is a big
deal is that somebody inserted about 40 words into this otherwise
completely boilerplate charter. These 40 words say that the
Academy must provide advice to the federal government on any
issue of science and technology, and do so whenever asked
and without compensation. Thus, this charter has created an
entity that is unique in the world: we are both an honorific
academy and advisers to the nation.
Let me fast forward
to today. What started out as a single entity, the Academy
of Science, is now four entities (for their size, the academies
are the most complex organization that I have ever seen, so
I am going to simplify a little bit). Theres the Academy
of Sciences, the Academy of Engineering and the Institute
of Medicine; you can think of those three as the honorific
entities. The fourth organization, the National Research Council,
is the operating arm of the honorific societies that conducts
the business of providing advice to the nation.
When the government
asks us a question, we put together a committee of 10 to 20
people who are absolutely the best in the country, bar none,
on whatever the question is. This committee will have no conflicts
of interest, and any biases will be carefully balanced. They
will meet, usually, from three months to three years. (Actually,
weve done a study in one month and we have two groups
that have been going on for 50 years but three months
to three years is the usual range.) They will write what I
think of as a Ph.D. dissertation to answer the question: it
is 200-300 pages long (the last 50 pages are references);
the text is fact-based; there is no opinion; it is tightly
reasoned; and it is often dry as dust. But it is the definitive
answer to whatever the question was. Most of these questions
bear on important public policy.
Before the events
of September 11, you may have heard discussion about the possibility
of new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. That
was provoked by a report we released in August. September
11 has swamped a lot of news coverage, but a report we just
released recently was requested by Christy Todd Whitman in
the EPA it was prompted by the Presidents rescinding
of the regulation requiring a reduction in arsenic in drinking
water. The administration does not like the report. It says
there is no simple model of how many parts per billion is
OK, and as far as we can tell, no amount of arsenic is good
We issue one of
these reports about every working day, 200 to 250 times a
year. All of this discussion is so that you to understand
that the Academy is two things. It is an honorific society,
and it is a trusted adviser to the nation. We are not part
of the government. We are private 501(c)3 corporation, but
we operate under a very special set of rules and obligations
resulting from the Congressional charter and a number of special
laws and executive orders.
the Engineering Workforce
OK, now let me
get to my main topic. I want to focus on what I consider the
absolute requirement for diversity in the engineering
workforce (I think a lot of what I am about to say applies
equally to the scientific workforce, but what I know from
a personal perspective is the engineering workforce). I embark
on this talk with a bit of trepidation, not because of the
message that I am trying to bring to you, but the nature of
the reasoning I am going use. This is the sort of thing that
might almost be better done with a tightly reasoned paper
than a talk, but youre going to get it anyway.
Some people talk
about diversity from the perspective of equity, the perspective
of fairness. I think that Americans, by and large, are very
sensitive to issues of equity, to issues of fairness. But
that is not the argument I want to bring forward here.
Other people promote
diversity from the perspective of simple numbers. The percentage
of the population that is white male is declining. Us guys
are going to become a minority fairly early here in the 21st
century. In order to have enough scientists and engineers
in the workforce, we are going to have to attract a more diverse
population. But that is not the argument I am going to give
either. I think there is an even deeper reason why it is not
just "nice" to have a diverse engineering workforce,
but why we absolutely require one!
In order to explain
why, I have to share the views I have about the nature of
engineering, which, frankly, are not the typical ones. Let
me give you the full argument in a nutshell to start out.
First of all, I
believe engineering is a profoundly creative profession.
Point two, the psychological literature says very clearly
that creativity is derived from an individuals life
experiences. As a result, if we dont have a diverse
workforce, we limit the set of life experiences that an engineering
team will have and, consequently, we limit the creativity
that could be brought to bear.
of engineers is not that they are creative folks its
pocket protectors, white socks and big glasses. But I think
that that stereotype is deeply, profoundly wrong. And so to
come full circle, I think we lack the diversity that we absolutely
need in part at least because of this incorrect perception
of the nature of engineering. We have worked ourselves into
a destructive negative-feedback cycle, and we need to break
When I use the
word diversity I certainly mean what you probably thought
I meant, namely a collection of folks who mirror the U.S.
population. I want to call that "collective diversity."
I also want to talk about "individual diversity,"
the breadth of life experiences that a single engineer has.
The Academy has
an annual meeting every year and the President is expected
to give a talk. I gave a variant of this talk at the annual
meeting a couple of years ago. There were a number of reasons
why I did it, not the least of which is the Academy is not
the most diverse organization you have ever seen. My members
do not own the problem of diversity in the engineering workforce.
I was trying to get their attention, but there were a number
of other reasons why I did it. Let me share just one with
peaked in 1983. It is down about 20 percent from that now.
Graduate enrollment has continued to go up, but that is largely
because of the influx of foreign students. The number of American
graduate students is declining at about the same rate as the
undergraduate population. Now lets step back. Lets
do a reality check. This decline occurs in the face of the
fact that starting salaries are about twice that for people
with B.A. degrees.
My economist friends
tell me eventually the situation will fix itself. I am not
so sure. I think we need to ask ourselves why is it that,
even though the salary differences are so great, our profession
is not attractive to women and underrepresented minorities?
Why is it that, in a society that is so dependent upon the
results of engineering, and where salaries are so high, somehow
engineering is a repugnant profession?
By the way, as
I am sure all of you know, the proportion of the total undergraduate
populations that are women or are underrepresented populations
is increasing. So its worse than the simple numbers
suggest engineering is losing market share. There is
something not right here. Whereas minority enrollment in engineering
had been slowly increasing, between 1993 and 1999 African
American enrollment fell 17 percent. Seventeen percent! For
women, enrollment climbed up to just under 20 percent but
now seems to be flat. Why is that? What is it that is wrong
with what we are doing?
This is not a worldwide
phenomenon. I toured Taiwan at the invitation of the Minister
of Education a few years ago and 35 percent of the undergraduate
population is in engineering. It is 8 percent in this country.
In mainland China, 46 percent of the undergraduates are in
A Creative Profession
Let me return to
my main argument, and start with creativity. My favorite quick
definition of what an engineer does is "design under
constraint." What an engineer does is design or
create solutions to human problems, but not any solution
will do. You have to deal with constraints of cost, size,
weight, ergonomic factors, environmental impact, reliability,
safety, manufacturability, repair ability, power consumption,
heat dissipation, and on and on there is an incredibly
long list of such constraints.
Finding a solution
to a human problem that elegantly solves the problem and satisfies
the constraints is one of the most creative activities I know
of. Notice I used the word "elegant;" let me dwell
on that word for a minute. All great engineering achievements
I dont care whether its Post-It notes or
the Golden Gate Bridge are elegant. Theyre human,
theyre spare, theyre aesthetic. In Einsteins
words they are as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Let me tell you
a personal story about myself that bears on this question
of creativity and elegance. My father and my uncles were all
engineers, so in some sense I was programmed to be one, too.
But nevertheless, I can tell you the exact moment when I got
hooked on engineering. Between my freshman and sophomore years
in college I was working for the Teletype company in Chicago.
I was a draftsman, inking on vellum. If anything could turn
you off engineering, its inking on vellum! However,
the group that I was working with was, among other things,
designing an automatic telephone dialer. It was a little gadget
that took a punched plastic card and, with little fingers
that would "feel" where the holes were, would dial
a telephone number. Well, this wasnt the biggest problem
that the group had, believe me, but these cards would occasionally
bind as they went through the reader.
One day I looked
up from my drafting table, looked at that dialer and saw the
problem. I knew what was wrong and saw an elegant way to solve
it. I mocked up the solution with some cardboard and drafting
tape. It worked. We manufactured the parts for about a penny.
It was just a wonderful
moment, that moment of creativity, that moment of seeing the
right solution the elegant solution.
I got praise from a bunch of the older engineers. I got a
bonus in my paycheck. I still think back on the fact that
there were thousands of people who used that darn dialer who
never had a card bind. All that was nice, but what hooked
me on engineering was that creative moment when I saw the
elegant solution. Looking back over my career, Ive
had the opportunity on a number of occasions to have those
kinds of wonderful moments, and I can remember each one very,
One of the members
of my academy, Sam Florman, wrote a book in the middle of
the 1970s called The Existential Pleasures of Engineering.
It is a great book, and he makes the point very well. He talks
about the joy of creation. It is that joy of creation
that I think makes engineering an interesting profession.
In the book, Sam cites an earlier psychological profile of
engineers: "intelligent, energetic, unassuming people
who seek interesting work." Interesting work! Not pocket
protector stuff. Interesting work! Creative work!
Teaching at the
University of Virginia, a strong liberal arts school, I find
more in common with our friends in the fine and performing
arts than we do with those in the sciences. Again Sam Florman:
"the artist is our cousin, our fellow creator."
Another one of my members, Bob Frosch, brought me a quotation
from Ladislas Rita, who was the editor of the Codices of
Leonardo DaVinci. Rita was commenting on the impact that
he hoped that the Codices would have and said, "At
last people will start believing me. DaVinci was an engineer
who occasionally painted pictures when he was broke."
The point is that
engineering is not poles apart from the creative arts.
Quite the contrary, it is of the same cloth. Indeed, almost
the definition of what makes one a human, as distinct from
one of the other primates, is the use of tools to modify your
environment. That is engineering. In many ways I think engineering
is among the most humanistic of the disciplines.
is also a dull, analytic side of engineering. There is an
innate conservatism in engineering that has to do with our
responsibilities to the public. It is just like the medical
doctors: first do no harm. So, following our most creative
moments, we immediately turn around and analyze the bejeebers
out of what we have just designed. We try to find all the
ways in which it can possibly fail. The more innovative, the
more creative the solution you design, the more you suspect
I think it is that
analytic side, that cautious side, which has become the stereotype
of engineering. Instead of celebrating our creations, we try
to find their flaws. No one seems to think that painters are
dull people, but if you think about how many years Michelangelo
spent lying on his back painting the Sistine Chapel, or about
the brute strength that it took to put that plaster up on
the ceiling from that position, it doesnt sound so creative.
I have a good friend
who is an Emmy award-winning director in Hollywood. A few
years ago, he arranged for me to spend a weekend with some
Hollywood filmmakers and I was just overwhelmed. They talked
the whole time about how dull it was to make films. The amount
of time they spend actually shooting a film is miniscule.
They then spend months sitting in a darkroom editing the stuff,
and apparently it is really dull. Yet that is not the public
There is a creative
side to engineering. There is a creative side to painting.
There is a creative side to filmmaking. There is a creative
side to a lot of professions. And there is also a dull side
to all those same professions. Somehow only the dull side
is in the stereotype of engineering.
OK, so message
number one, engineering is creative.
Individual and Collective
Now talk about
diversity. Lets begin with a simple assertion: ones
creativity is bounded by ones life experiences. The
psychological literature is almost unanimous in concluding
that creativity is not something that just pops out of a vacuum.
Creativity is the result of making unexpected connections
between things you already know. As a consequence, ones
creativity is bounded by what you know and hence by your life
I want to emphasize
that individual diversity, the breadth of experience that
a single individual has, is essential to good engineering.
If engineers were really as dull as the stereotype, theyd
be lousy engineers! Let me say that again. If engineers
were really as dull as the stereotype, theyd be lousy
engineers! They wouldnt have the breadth of life experiences
with which to be creative and hence with which to do good
the kind that we usually mean, is just as essential for good
engineering. At a very fundamental level, men, women, racial
minorities and the handicapped have different life experiences.
From the perspective of creative engineering, those differences
are the fodder for creative, elegant engineered solutions.
They are a "gene pool" for creative engineering.
To the extent we
limit the gene pool for creativity, we limit the set of creative
solutions that we will produce. I believe that my profession
is diminished and impoverished when we use a design team that
It does not take
a genius to see that in a world of globalized commerce, our
engineering designs must reflect the culture and taboos of
an extremely diverse customer base. But it is a lot deeper
than that. You can get the marketing department to tell you
that women are shorter than men. You can get the marketing
department to tell you that there are certain things you do
not do in Muslim society. But the important point is that
if you limit the set of life experiences on a design team,
you limit the set of options that will be considered. The
elegant solution may not be found.
There is a real
economic cost to that. It is unfortunately an opportunity
cost. It is a cost measured in might-have-beens, things that
did not happen. Opportunity costs are very hard to measure,
but they are also very real. Every time we approach a design
problem with a pale male team we run the risk of not finding
the elegant solution. It is hard to prove that, but I can
give you some anecdotal stories.
Until very recently
I still had two graduate students. I am now totally a policy
wonk, a total creature of Washington but until last
spring I had two graduate students, both of whom happened
to be women. One of them also happened to be Chinese. We were
working on computer security and she came to me with a potential
dissertation topic. I told her it was an impossible problem
it couldnt be solved.
The problem was
to run a program on a hostile computer and guarantee that
the program either had not been tampered with or we would
know that it had been tampered with. By a hostile computer
I mean a computer owned by "the bad guys." The bad
guys had complete control of the computer, they could pull
a plug out of the wall, they knew what all the code was, they
had all the passwords, they had anything that they might need
in order to compromise the program she was trying to run.
Moreover, this program had to run virtually indefinitely.
So the bad guys had as much time as they wanted to do whatever
they were going to do.
As I said, I told
her thats impossible. Darn it, she found an elegant
solution. I dont mean just a solution, but a truly elegant
solution. I dont honestly know whether it is because
she is a woman or because she is Chinese, but her set of life
experiences let her see a solution that I would never, ever
have found. My Western, male, linear, left-brain would never
have seen the solution. By the way, after she told me what
the solution was, and I marveled at it for a while because
it was so elegant, I was the one who was able to generate
the proof that it worked the nice linear, male, left-brain
So let me pull
the threads of creativity and diversity together. I believe
that not the only but a central problem with declining enrollment
in engineering, especially among women and underrepresented
minorities, is our image. I cant see any other explanation
for why it is that such an interesting profession, which has
had such an enormous impact on the quality of our lives, and
which compensates its practitioners so extremely well, is
not attractive. In fact the image is actually repulsive.
It is not a correct
image, but it is the one that the public seems to have, at
least in this country and most of the rest of the West. It
is not the image in China, believe me. More than half of the
ministerial posts in the Chinese government are occupied by
In this country,
the image of engineers was in fact positive from the 19th
to mid-20th centuries. During this period there were films,
plays and novels in which engineers are the heroes. Walt Whitman:
"singing the great achievement of today. Singing the
strong light works of engineers." Robert Lewis Stevenson
writing about the engineering of the transcontinental railroad:
"If it be romance, if it be contrast, if it be heroism
we require, what was Troy to this?"
It is not ordained
that engineers must have the image of narrow, dull nerds!
It is not ordained that the contributions of engineers to
society be discounted. It is not ordained that we have an
image that is repulsive to the diversity that we require in
order to engineer well.
Let me sum up.
Diversity is essential to good engineering. We have to face
the fact that for some reason or other, the diverse population
finds engineering repulsive, repugnant. That they do is evident
in the enrollment numbers. There are many reasons for that,
and I have touched on only one. You have been talking about
lots of others. The lack of mentors. The lack of role models.
Poor counseling. The nature of K-12 education, where teachers
tend to turn students off particularly women and minorities
of science and mathematics.
But among the list
of things I think we need to get on the table is this incorrect
caricature of what ones life as an engineer is like,
and what engineers contribute to our society. The stereotype
does not have to be that way. It has not been that way in
the past in the United States, and it is not that way in other
places in the world.
There is no silver
bullet that is going to fix this problem. It takes a change
in attitude. That is not an easy thing to affect. But symposia
like this are one of the ways that that is going to happen.
And so, I cannot applaud enough what Bryn Mawr is doing. This
is a problem that we must solve.