Disparities persist in Science & Engineering education and employment for women, minorities, and persons with disability

May 13, 2021

As support for efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) continue to ramp up at organizations in sectors across the country, policy-makers and program designers must carefully consider the dynamics underlying the persistent disparities faced by women, minorities, and persons with disability in obtaining education and employment in science and engineering (S&E). A recent NSF report begins to explore these dynamics, finding persistent disparities in S&E education and employment for women, minorities, and persons with disability.


According to NSF, diversity in undergraduate and graduate enrollment has continued to increase over the last decade. However, not every minority group experienced increasing enrollment. Specifically, the share of Black or African American students enrolled in the nation’s colleges and universities decreased despite gains by other racial and ethnic groups. While the share of women enrolled in all academic programs has broadly increased across all racial and ethnicity groups, the report reveals that these gains were not spread evenly across S&E disciplines. Women lost representation in the bachelor level mathematics and statistics field from 1998 to 2018 (moving from 46.8 percent of all earned bachelor’s degrees in 1998 to 42.3 percent in 2018), and gained very little ground in engineering (rising from 18.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in 1998 to 22.2 percent in 2018) and several physical sciences sub-fields (such as physics which saw women’s share of earned bachelor’s degrees rise from 19.3 percent in 1998 to 20.8 in 2018). These figures also point out where women remain largely underrepresented (e.g. engineering and physics) despite total gains across all S&E fields. The report provides a robust set of data on these various groups, and includes a section dedicated to intersectionality. The report serves as a good starting point for those interested in conducting deeper analysis on the overlapping and coexisting elements of inequity in S&E education.


According to the report, while the unemployment rate for all S&E workers was lower in 2019 than for the total U.S. workforce (approximately 2.6 percent for women and men in scientist and engineer occupations compared to 3.7 percent for the total U.S. labor force), unemployment rates for Black or African American (4.7 percent) and persons with disability (5.3 percent) in scientist and engineer occupations were higher than the unemployment rate for the total U.S. workforce in 2019. This disparity is also seen in wages with women, Hispanic or Latino, and Black or African American workers earning less than their white male counterparts in S&E occupations. The report points out that these groups are typically overrepresented in lower paying skilled technical jobs and underrepresented in higher paying occupations such as tenured academic faculty and supervising scientists and engineers.

Persons with Disability

Another notable element of the report is its inclusion of persons with disability as a study group throughout the report. This segment of the population is often overlooked but accounts for an estimated 10.5 percent of the total working-age population. The report points out several difficulties faced in tracking and interpreting data on this group, including the number of persons with disabilities naturally increasing with age, issues in self-reporting disability, and the drastically changing definitions and understanding of disability and associated medical conditions.

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