Pratt Dean: The U.S. Needs More Women and Minorities in Engineering

Dean Kristina M. JohnsonDean Kristina M. Johnson of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering told an International Women’s Day audience March 8 that the nation needs more women and minorities in engineering so they will be able to help solve some of the increasingly complex challenges she said the world will face in years ahead.

“Simply put, unless we bring more women and minorities into science and engineering fields, we will not have the intellectual capital to address the global economic, environmental, health, energy and security problems we will face,” Johnson told an audience at Nortel Networks in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“What was once a moral obligation to promote diversity by providing equal opportunity for interesting high paying careers for all citizens is now an international imperative,” she said.

Johnson, first woman to head engineering at Duke and a member of the Nortel Board of Directors, said women have the kinds of strengths -- such as being able to multi-task, integrate and organize information and visualize solutions -- that will be required to help solve the problems engineers will face in the future. She said successful women in technology seem to share three traits: “focus, commitment, and enthusiasm and passion for their jobs.”

“Indeed, we have the right stuff and we’ll need to continue to inspire and educate the next generation of inventors and technologists.” Johnson said. “This will be a major challenge. The reason for this is the number of individuals graduating with technology degrees has decreased over the last 20 years.”

She said the United States graduated around 80,000 engineers each year in the mid-1980s, and today the number is closer to 70,000. Johnson noted, however, that those figures do not include information technology graduates, which would increase the number to about 100,000 graduates per year.

Women constitute less than 20 percent of the graduates of schools and colleges of engineering in North America, and minorities account for fewer than 15 percent of engineering graduates, Johnson said.

“We need to ensure that groups currently underrepresented in science and engineering and technology are attracted to careers in these fields. In today’s competitive global environment, we cannot afford to lose the human capital they all represent.”

International Women's Day has grown from a movement in the early 1900s to become a global day of recognition and celebration. The United Nations began celebrating International Women's Day in 1975. This year’s theme, as established by the United Nations, is “Ending Impunity for Violence against Women.”

Johnson, who joined Duke as dean in 1999, is a member of the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. She was a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Colorado from 1985 to 1999, and was co-founder and director (1993-1997) of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Optoelectronic Computing Systems Center. She is a pioneer in the applications of liquid crystals, including micro displays for high-definition projection television, and has 44 patents or patents pending.