Why Should I Care About Diversity in Engineering?

July/August 2020

Why Should I Care About Diversity in Engineering?

Cover PE Magazine July August 2020Months before protests and social unrest engulfed many cities in the United States, a group of concerned NSPE members began working to raise awareness, start a conversation within the Society, and contribute to the important dialogue taking place in the profession about diversity. Their question was simple but not easy to answer: What needs to happen to move NSPE and our profession forward so that we reflect the diversity of our communities?

The 10 members of NSPE’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee knew they couldn’t change the organization’s or the profession’s past—a past that has been largely white and male. Instead, they wanted to look forward, and they began plans for sharing their ideas in this issue of PE magazine. In late May, however, the conversation quickly took on a new urgency.

On June 2, NSPE President David Martini, P.E., F.NSPE, delivered a statement on the growing protests across the country and in his own state of Minnesota. He reminded all members that basic human decency and the NSPE Code of Ethics demand that “Engineers shall treat all persons with dignity, respect, fairness and without discrimination.”

He continued: “As professional engineers and leaders in our communities, we are committed to applying our talents and knowledge to make the world a better place for all. The events we are witnessing make us all painfully aware of the work that remains to be done to address the root causes of this societal ill and heal its wounds, and underline the imperative, as a profession, of putting our own house in order.”

For years, the engineering profession has addressed the issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion in reports, special programs, conferences, webinars, and in many other ways. The profession’s diversity challenge, however, can’t be viewed separately from the systemic racism that has existed in the US since its founding.

This societal ill is, of course, beyond the reach of traditional engineering problem-solving based on models and computation. Even so, professional engineers can, and should, contribute to solutions. The best engineers, after all, are team players, adaptable, tenacious when faced with the most difficult challenges, and dedicated to an ethical obligation that puts the public first.

The questions below, which were posed to committee members before protests began, may not reflect readers’ personal views but they are common. The responses should not be read as the last word, rather the committee members hope that they can be a start.

Why is NSPE focusing on a divisive issue like this now?

It’s a natural reaction to be uncomfortable when addressing unfamiliar issues, especially when it comes to personal interactions, and to assume the issue is divisive. Interpersonal relationships and interactions are difficult subjects for the members of any organization to navigate, whether they are the organization’s leaders or new graduates entering the professions.

The intent is not to be divisive but to examine where our profession stands in terms of its race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation. Just as great leaders have a healthy dose of self-awareness, NSPE should do the same for our profession—provide the leadership to become “self-aware” and prompt action among all engineering organizations and employers on the benefits of a profession that reflects today’s workforce. As the only organization that represents the entire profession, NSPE should lead the engineering community in the transition to a more diverse and inclusive profession. It is not an easy objective and taking action is uncomfortable, but it does not have to be divisive and will lead to a stronger profession where NSPE is the leading organization representing all PEs.

Why now? There are many reasons. To start, NSPE leaders recognized the importance of making a clear, explicit statement: Diversity, equity, and inclusion are necessary to build a stronger, more unified profession. They engrained the value of unity in NSPE’s strategic plan, which calls for “Diversity and inclusion, ensuring the profession is a reflection of society.” (Read more.)

And that society, demographic trends show, is changing. In the past, the profession was able to excel with an almost exclusively white, male workforce. When NSPE was founded in 1934, approximately 90% of the US population was white. By 2010, 72%. The US science and engineering workforce is also aging, spurring a sense of urgency that we are losing ground to other nations and heightening the need to prepare the next generation of our profession.

Furthermore, if NSPE values “Unity,” as stated in our strategic plan, we cannot look away from the country’s increasing diversity. If we want to be the best professionals we can be and build a strong, thriving profession, we must pull together while widening our reach.
Lead author: Joseph Rapier, P.E.

For professional engineers, our qualifications set us apart. We hire the best person for the job regardless of what they look like or where they are from. Why should we lower the bar just to meet diversity quotas?

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are not about lowering the standards for the professional practice of engineering. NSPE’s vision makes that clear: “A world where the public can be confident that engineering decisions affecting their lives are made by qualified and ethically accountable professionals.” So, too, does the Society’s value statement on qualifications, which calls for “Professional standards and qualifications across the engineering team” and “Commitment to the PE as the standard of practice for professional engineering.”

To continue progressing as a profession, however, we need to change the idea that hiring anyone who is not like me, or anyone I don’t perceive as “good,” will result in lowering the bar. Subjectively setting the level of “the bar” makes inclusion more difficult because our natural biases will unavoidably seep in. However, by making hiring processes objective and measurable, we’re able to naturally set the bar at a point where successful hiring and performance will be inclusive of all qualified individuals, regardless of whether they are “different” than you.

Diversity, along with other traits of successful high-performing teams, such as technical skill, positive communication, and honest conversations, requires intentional planning. It’s important to recognize that all individuals have some level of unconscious bias based on their past experiences, environment, and upbringing. These experiences create the individual’s criteria of what “good” looks like.

One particular case of unconscious bias is instructive. Many studies have shown that automobile design as well as safety policy are biased toward the average male body, resulting in a greater chance of injury or death to female car occupants. Regulators and some automakers have taken modest steps to remedy the problem, but more significant advances have not developed.

The bottom line is that it is false to correlate increased diversity with lower engineering standards
Lead Author: Vatsal Shah, P.E.

Companies should focus on profitability, so why do they need to be concerned about the diversity of their workforce?

We can look at this question from the philosophical standpoint and also as a business case.

Let’s start with the philosophical. In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie wrote, “Some people [who read this chapter] are going to say: ‘All this talk about getting interested in others is a lot of damn nonsense! Sheer religious pap! None of that stuff for me! I am going to put money in my purse. I am going to grab all I can get—and grab it now—and to hell with the other dumb clucks!’ Well, if that is your opinion, you are entitled to it; but if you are right, then all the great philosophers and teachers since the beginning of recorded history—Jesus, Confucius, Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Saint Francis—were all wrong.”

The 11th century philosopher Algazel implied that engineering is noble and praiseworthy, because it is subservient and indispensable to the public. If the nobility of the profession is tied to that subservience, and the demographics of the public are rapidly changing, why must we so arrogantly believe that we don’t need to recalibrate our thinking toward diversity and inclusion? The engineer has fallen so far away from nobility that the general public doesn’t even understand our role anymore (and as a result our nation’s infrastructure has become a footnote on a never-ending to-do list).

Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argues that scientific revolutions don’t occur due to accumulations of facts and theories, but rather, due to discovery of anomalies and “paradigm shifts.” If the engineering community remains so insular and focused on accumulating profit, the paradigm shifts and innovations that can be gained through a diverse workforce are lost, and the entire industry stagnates.

Profitability is, of course, necessary to keep any business alive, and studies show that racial, ethnic, and gender diversity contribute to business success. A McKinsey & Company study of 366 companies revealed a statistically significant connection between diversity and financial performance. The companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median, and the companies in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median.

Profitability is best achieved when the skill sets of each individual are used efficiently, regardless of race or gender. By viewing all personnel from this perspective, the right individual will receive promotions and equity will be automatic. The company will display demographics (even in leadership roles) that are representative of society and, therefore, will appeal to a wider demographic of clientele.

Also, keep in mind, that profitability can be measured in many ways. For example, the confidence gained by engineers placed in responsible charge of a project that best uses their skills cannot be measured in terms of profitability. However, when a conscious investment is made into the engineer’s future with the company, it’s likely that their productivity and quality of their work will soar.
Lead authors: Zohaib Alvi, P.E., and Jacquelyn Brooks, P.E.

How can we have a focus on diversity in engineering when there is a lack of gender and racial diversity in engineering schools and in certain parts of our nation?

Ask any hiring manager and they’ll agree that recruiting and retaining top talent in the engineering sector isn’t easy. Pursuing a diverse workforce as an objective can make the hiring process even more difficult. We can and should, however, strive for diversity.

But how? It’s no secret that parity is missing in gender, ethnicity, and racial diversity in engineering schools, as well as in certain parts of the US. While there has been a slow increase over the last two decades, only about 20% of engineering graduates are female. Likewise, ethnic and racial diversity remains significantly underrepresented in engineering at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

So, how do we navigate this imbalanced landscape and modify hiring processes and procedures to improve the diversity of our engineering talent? If you’re willing to embrace change, it can be done!

For starters, when was the last time you evaluated your company’s culture? Does everyone have an opportunity to contribute to your company’s culture? Is it relevant to a diverse talent pool? Do you walk the walk, or do you merely provide lip service to what is printed on the poster in the lobby?

Change is already upon us, even in rural areas. Newer generations are different and have their own ideas. Studies show, for example, that the majority of individuals under age 30 value company culture more than a high income when compared to individuals over age 45. Given today’s competitive market for talent, perhaps it’s time to develop a culture that welcomes all.

Are you hiring from the same schools and from the same area year after year? Most new graduates are mobile! They want to experience new cities as they integrate work and life. Start recruiting from a variety of new schools.

As we all navigate this “next normal,” Karen Horting, executive director of the Society of Women Engineers, recently noted, “We are going to do what’s right, not what’s easy.” Embrace this new mantra and continue improving diversity in your workplace.

Keep in mind that hiring is just one step in the process. There are many others for those who prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Lead author: Kerrie Greenfelder, P.E., DBIA

Maybe the pendulum has swung too far, and we are now discriminating against white males.

White males are very much in the majority in engineering schools and the engineering profession, especially in leadership positions. The composition of the engineering classroom and the profession has slowly changed over the decades, however. Compared with previous decades, today it’s increasingly common to see women and minorities in the engineering workforce.

But does this change mean society is now discriminating against white males? Research suggests that it feels like it to some people. A 2011 study by researchers at Tufts University and Harvard Business School showed that both black and white respondents generally agreed that racism against blacks has decreased over time, although whites believed it has declined faster than blacks do. At the same time, whites believed that racism against whites has increased significantly as racism against blacks has decreased. On average, whites rated anti-white bias as more prevalent in the 2000s than anti-black bias by more than a full point on the 10-point scale.

Other studies have shown that the perception, however, does not match reality. Last year, Scientific American published an article about experiments that directly measured discrimination in cases where merit was not an issue. Whether the study covered job applications, apartment rentals, emails from students to professors, or Airbnb hosts in search of renters, the findings clearly showed discrimination against blacks.

Further, a 2017 meta-analysis of 24 studies of the level of hiring discrimination showed that since 1989, whites receive on average 36% more callbacks than African Americans, and 24% more callbacks than Latinos. There was no change in the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans over the preceding 25 years, although there was modest evidence of a decline in discrimination against Latinos.

At the end of the day, we follow the NSPE Code of Ethics: Engineers shall treat all persons with dignity, respect, fairness and without discrimination.

We encourage management to develop a culture within their organizations in which everyone feels valued, included, and accepted. We also encourage all engineers to consider new strategies for actively welcoming and respecting all engineers regardless of race or gender. It could be as simple as ensuring someone is not alone at the office and consciously making an effort to include them in group discussions. Some call this “being politically correct”; however, it is simply a recognition that some workplace behavior is hurtful to others and that we should take steps to be respectful.
Lead author: Jacquelyn Brooks, P.E.

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the intent here is to start a conversation and raise awareness. Some readers will be convinced, or were already convinced, of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. Others will not and, perhaps, never will be.

To progress, however, the profession cannot shy away from its most difficult questions because they make us feel uncomfortable. To progress, PEs need to focus on “putting our own house in order,” as President David Martini said, and make the profession a more welcoming place for all.

If you would like to share your comments about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the engineering profession, email them to president@nspe.org.