Who Engineering Includes Impacts How Engineers Work: Diversity Challenges and Design Thinking Solutions

Who Engineering Includes Impacts How Engineers Work: Diversity Challenges and Design Thinking Solutions

Stephen Secules, Alexandra Coso Strong, Trina Fletcher
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 25
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4745-8.ch008
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This chapter focuses on the persistent lack of diversity in the engineering profession along intersections of race, gender, and other key demographic categories (e.g., sexual orientation, socioeconomic status). After outlining specific circumstances that have influenced the lack of diversity in engineering, the chapter outlines particular challenges related to this lack of diversity and suggests a design thinking approach to resolving those challenges. Drawing on research from engineering education, design thinking, and workplace practice, the authors provide both familiar and novel strategies for addressing diversity in engineering as well as in other professions.
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Although many view engineering as a purely technical domain, it is fundamentally social, as it is always working with and in service of people (Bucciarelli, 1988; Hynes & Swenson, 2013). Every stakeholder connected to a project is a person: the client and organization, the design team, other consultants, impacted members of the public, government regulators, shareholders or other investors, and representatives of other concerns such as the environment. In an increasingly global and interconnected society, the people with whom and for whom engineers must work have become increasingly more diverse and interconnected. To be an engineer is increasingly to communicate with, empathize with, and design for the problems of a wide variety of individuals spanning diverse demographics and perspectives.

Engineers have largely not increased their diversity parallel to the wider diversity of their stakeholders. Engineering has historically and persistently been a field that is dominated by certain demographic groups (Secules, 2017b). Since its formal organization in the 19th century, engineering has been predominantly white, male, straight, middle-class, and western-centric. This exclusion was formalized through educational pathways and professional societies through the 20th century. In the late 20th century, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements paved the way for the moral imperative and progress for diversity in professions like engineering. Nevertheless in the 21st century, trends for demographic shifts in engineering have stalled in the United States.

This exclusion of other groups from engineering has meant that engineering solutions are often designed with a bias towards the same exclusive demographics as the engineers themselves. As progress on diversity stalls and the challenges engineers must respond to increase, we see and advocate a set of solutions grounded in design thinking (Brown, 2009) that 1) changes who engineers are by designing diversity into the profession, and 2) changes how engineers work within their existing and future professional settings (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Changing who engineering includes will impact how engineers work


Authors’ Perspectives

The authors of this chapter come from an engineering education research perspective. Each of us have experience with educational and professional engineering contexts, and our perspective is informed by the knowledge that these are interconnected systems. In our current roles as engineering educators and researchers, we are cognizant of the ways that education is creating or reinventing the engineering profession of tomorrow, and the ways that our educational system can be bound up in the current and eventual realities of the engineering profession. By focusing our attention on the lack of diversity and opportunities for change in the engineering profession, we hope to encourage further collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas about diversity challenges from educational contexts to industry work settings and vice versa.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Bias in Engineering Technologies: Engineering technologies that create inequity between different groups in society, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Human Factors: Components of engineering design that focus on the aspects related to human users and operators.

Intersections of Oppression: The co-existence of systems of power and oppression, such as gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and socioeconomic status.

Idea Generation: A component of design thinking focused on generating possible solutions to a given engineering design problem.

Business Case for Diversity: A case for the importance of diversity that is grounded in profit-oriented rationales based on creativity, meritocracy, and diversity of ideas.

Design Thinking: A set of activities that an individual may employ to understand a problem and potential user population, generate ideas, prototype and test, and engage in an overall iterative process.

Prototyping: Implementing and testing out ideas in an iterative way.

Social Justice Case for Diversity: A case for the importance of diversity that is grounded in the historical inequities and exclusions associated with a given profession or national environment.

Problem Definition: A component of design thinking focused on formulating the scope and boundaries of an engineering design problem.

Underrepresented Racial Minority (URM): A racial/ethnic group that is under-represented in the engineering profession relative to their representation in the US national population, e.g., African American and Latinxs.

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