Recently completed studies in Harvard Business Review provide compelling evidence that workforce diversity unlocks innovation and drives market growth. This is especially true in engineering — one of humankind’s most creative processes.
Engineering subtly links inherent and acquired diversity with physical boundaries to form the perfect union of innovation. Inherent diversity involves traits a person is born with: gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Acquired diversity is a result of the traits a person gains from life experience, such as working in another country or selling products to women only.
Harvard Business Review refers to companies whose leadership exhibits at least three inherent and three acquired diversities as having two-dimensional diversity, naming this as “the key to unlocking innovation by creating an environment where ‘outside the box’ ideas are heard.” In the process, two-dimensional diversity avoids opportunity cost.
“We live in an increasingly complex, connected world with challenges that require new ways of thinking to solve our problems,” said Patricia A. McDonald, a 1987 Oregon State graduate in chemical engineering and Intel Corporation’s vice president of human resources and director of talent, transformation, and diversity. “Customer insight and creativity are critical to serving a diverse global market that looks, acts, and thinks very differently than the customers of even ten years ago.”
At Intel, McDonald’s experience is that a diverse, inclusive workforce creates a competitive advantage for the company. Unique experiences, thoughts and ideas — formed by gender, ethnicity, culture, travels, and life lessons — make a rich environment where innovation can thrive, she said.
“I work with employees from all over the world who represent a multitude of backgrounds, yet each person has one thing in common: a commitment to creating market-driven products and technology designed to make a difference,” said McDonald. “When you tap the promise of those different perspectives and turn it to such a singular purpose, the results are truly amazing.”
Besides attention to corporate recruiting and hiring a diverse workforce, it is also important to educate and prepare diverse graduates from educational institutions. “Research all around shows that when you have diverse design teams, they are more effective,” said Ellen Momsen, director of the Women and Minorities in Engineering program at Oregon State University. “The goal is for industry design teams to reflect the diversity in the general population and that is currently not the norm.”
As Oregon State’s enrollment has consistently expanded in recent years, university leaders are continuing to seek ways to cultivate its diversity. As Oregon’s largest educational institution, its current student population consists of 20.6 percent ethnic U.S. minorities and an additional 10.2 percent of international students. Gender is nearly evenly split.
“Diversity is more than a value. It is an imperative in meeting OSU’s land grant mission,” said Kate Peterson, assistant provost for enrollment management. “Having a broadly diverse student body is critical to providing a compelling higher education experience and preparing graduates for an increasingly diverse global society and workforce.”
Across the country, engineering has traditionally been a male-dominated career path. “When I hear about many of our women and ethnically-diverse students withdrawing from our engineering programs in the U.S., I want to reach out to them and say, ‘Wait, don’t quit! Intel needs you! You can do this. It will be worth it, I promise,’ ” said McDonald. “The high-tech sector is in rapid expansion with new disciplines and specialties being created all the time. There is so much opportunity for creative people who want to make an impact.”
Efforts at increasing diversity within Oregon State’s College of Engineering are reaping rewards amid burgeoning enrollment. “Since 2007, we have seen a 180 percent increase in female engineering students and a 250 percent increase in traditionally underrepresented minority students,” said Momsen. “This fall, we have a 31 percent increase in female students over last year.” Twenty-one percent of first-year engineering students are women this year, well above the national average of 16 percent.
The success of diverse enrollment and retention within the College of Engineering is due, in part, to the efforts of Momsen’s staff to make these students a part of the engineering “family” from the very beginning of their college experience.
“Students who participate in our summer bridge programs for minority students have much higher grades and retention rates than students who do not,” said Momsen. “The program really helps to get them connected before they even start.”
While some bridge programs may focus on remedial work to help students prepare for the rigor of college coursework, Oregon State’s LSAMP program (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation) and engineering bridge program focus on building connections within the university community. They link students to minority mentors who can help them define a career path from the beginning, which has been a key to retention and success, according to Momsen.
This success is music to the ears of industry leaders who are seeking young engineers and are firmly convinced that workforce diversity creates breakthroughs across the entire spectrum, from new products and marketing to manufacturing and supply chain solutions.
“Embracing unique points of view presents opportunities to see our work through a different lens and enables us to surface blind spots and find creative solutions to address them,” said McDonald. “I think oftentimes, in corporations, we focus on diversity and inclusion as the right thing to do when really, it is just the smart thing to do. We need the ideas, passion, and energy of employees from all walks of life to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing market.”
— R. Nickelsen