We must commend the College of Engineering for achieving gender parity in its enrollment. The engineering college is the last of Cornell’s constituent parts to reach parity, and in doing so, it positions itself as a national leader among institutions of higher education. We hope that our peer colleges take note of the decades-long concerted effort undertaken by Cornell to achieve this milestone; parity neither happened overnight nor on its own.
Because things need to change. Somehow, in the year of our lord 2018, women only make up 22.9 percent of engineering students nationwide. And until that number rises significantly, women will continue to operate at structural professional disadvantages in the engineering field. So while Cornell is right to celebrate its own achievement, it must recognize the fight is far from over, and that the methods employed by Cornell over the past decade must be exported across the country. Twenty years ago, only 21.6 percent of Cornell engineering students were women. That we are today is proof that things can change.
And we shouldn’t stop there. Underrepresented minorities still enter engineering (and STEM fields more generally) at lower rates, and often have not seen the same growth as have female undergraduates. For instance, according to the latest data from the National Science Foundation (from 2014), the share of black students awarded undergraduate engineering degrees has largely remained stagnant (and even decreased slightly, from 4.5 to 3.8 percent) over the past two decades. In 2017, Cornell reported that 17.5 percent of engineering undergraduates were underrepresented minorities; according to the National Science Foundation, in 2014 underrepresented minorities made up 25 percent of bachelors in engineering awardees. So there’s clearly room for Cornell (and the nation) to grow.
Cornell should embrace the approach of Prof. David Bindel, computer science, who served as admissions chair for Cornell’s computer science PhD program this spring, and whose Twitter thread on his outreach efforts went viral in May. Bindel’s final report, “Diversifying Cornell CS Ph.D. Admissions” is worth a read, and perhaps the University should consider taking some of his approach to graduate admissions and applying it to undergraduate as well.
So yes, celebrate the achievements we make, but let us not forget that there is much work yet to be done.