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How Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Support the Persistence of Women in STEM

Leading up to SWE’s Congressional Outreach Days in March, we will regularly share tips and ideas for how you can advocate for the rights of women and girls in STEM.
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SWE seeks to fuel the economy of the United States in advocating for the advancement of women in STEM. In order to address the talent shortage in engineering, it is especially important that women who are from rural and economically disadvantaged populations and those who are underrepresented minorities in STEM have pathways to excel within the profession. Understanding Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action are necessary to pursuing these goals

In 2009, SWE published a General Position Statement on Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. This document is helpful in understanding SWE’s position on Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action and why both are vital to the persistence of women in STEM.

While you have likely heard these terms, you may be unfamiliar with their definitions, applications, and differences. To help, we have linked primary sources and defined them for you in brief below:

  • Equal Employment Opportunity: Prevents discrimination based “on race, creed, color, or national origin” as first introduced by an Executive Order signed by President Kennedy in 1961. This directive enforced by President Johnson through Executive Order 11246, which required all government contractors and subcontractors to take affirmative action to expand job opportunities for minorities; this order was amended to include women in 1967 (through Executive Order 11375).
  • Affirmative Action: Seeks to counter historic decimation and institutional basis based gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. As defined by federal regulators, affirmative action is: “…those actions appropriate to overcome the effects of past or present practices, policies, or other barriers to equal employment opportunity.” (29 CFR 1608.1)
  • What is the difference? Equal Employment Opportunity, as it currently stands, means individuals cannot be discriminated against based on sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, and age. Affirmative Action can be utilized as a practice or plan to fulfill Equal Employment Opportunity regulations to ensure federally funded institutions are non-discriminatory in their hiring and selection practices.
  • What is SWE’s Position? As noted in the General Position Statement, The Society of Women Engineers supports policies and legislation that strengthen the U.S. STEM workforce by ensuring equal opportunity for women in STEM education and careers.

Women Remain Critical to Fulfilling the Increasing Need for Engineers

Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action are still vital to ensuring women have equal access to employment opportunities and to addressing a critical need for talent in many sectors within the United States Economy.

Women and certain minority groups (including African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans) remain underrepresented in engineering in both four-year university degree attainment and within the workforce. For example, women comprise about half of all employed college graduates but only 12% of women with four-year degrees are working in engineering occupations (Corbett & Hill, 2015). While the number of women entering college and the workforce continues to grow, only 18.4% of those receiving engineering bachelor’s degrees are women (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Among underrepresented minority (URM) groups, graduates from engineering bachelor’s programs receive less than 16% of total degrees earned (National Science Board, 2016).

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014), job growth from 2014 to 2024 in engineering will yield over 500,000 open positions. While the field of engineering is growing, there is not a strong pipeline of domestic employees with STEM knowledge to fill the labor gap (Litzler, Samuelson, & Lorah 2014; Jiang & Freeman 2011). In addition, underrepresented groups constitute about 25% of the workforce but will grow to over 50% of the available total workforce by 2050 (Cole & Espinoza 2008; May & Chubin 2003). Given the economic promise associated with careers in engineering, combined with the importance of STEM to the success of the United States in the global network, there is great interest to increase the representation of women and URM in engineering.


In this General Position Statement, SWE made the following recommendations to support equal opportunity for women in engineering:

  • Policy makers should enforce existing laws and, when necessary, enact additional legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex in employment, pay, and education to promote equal opportunity in the preparation for and pursuit of STEM careers.
  • Employers should scrutinize hiring procedures and career progress of male and female employees in order to identify and mitigate inequities. Personnel policies and procedures should provide all employees the opportunity to achieve their career goals and balance the demands of work and personal life.
  • Voters and state legislatures should continue to support programs that ensure equal opportunity for women and men to pursue STEM education and careers, including where necessary affirmative action programs to address existing inequities


Cole, D., & Espinoza, A. (2008). Examining the Academic Success of Latino Students in

Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Majors. Journal of College Student Development,49(4), 285-300.

Corbett, C., & Hill, C. (2015). Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in

Engineering and Computing (pp. 1-141, Publication). Washington, DC: American Association of University Women. ISBN: 978-1-879922-45-7

Litzler, E., Samuelson, C. C., & Lorah, J. A. (2015). Breaking it Down: Engineering

Student STEM Confidence at the Intersection of Race/Ethnicity and

Gender. Research in Higher Education, 55(8), 810-832.

National Science Board. Science and Engineering Indicators, 2016. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2015, Tables 325.45.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2014). Employment by detailed occupation. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from


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