Ending Missed Opportunites

A future-focused profession needs full participation from all people to reach its potential.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a major theme interwoven throughout the National Society of Professional Engineer’s strategic plan. It was also recently enrolled into the NSPE Code of Ethics1. It is increasingly a strategic imperative for any future-focused, proactive profession or professional society. But it can also be a lightning rod for polarizing mischaracterization. So, what exactly is it that we are actually talking about?

Diversity simply means recognizing all the ways in which people differ. It must also recognize that individuals identify with and share multiple characteristics.

Equity is fair treatment and access to the opportunity for advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups in the past.

Inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group feels welcomed, respected, and supported enough to fully participate.

Or, as the University of Michigan’s Robert Sellers more pithily put it: “Diversity is where everyone is invited to the party. Equity means that everyone has the opportunity to dance. Inclusion means everyone gets to contribute to the playlist.”

And these things matter. A 2015 study by McKinsey and Company documented that companies in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above industry norms. Top quartile companies in gender diversity are 15% more likely to outpace financial returns of less diverse players in the industry. Other studies have only reinforced these findings.

But understanding these matters requires a degree of self-awareness.

So, for the record, I am a white, male, over the age of 55, heterosexual, Christian, with no physical or mental disabilities; a natural-born American, college-educated, professional, who was raised in and continues to enjoy a comfortable economic life situation.

All of these attributes, and numerous others I could mention, contribute to who I am; none of them, taken individually, adequately capture my identity, that elusive but real thing that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently characterized as “the content of…character.”

Many of you may share one or more of the personal characteristics I opened with, but no two of us possess the exact same combination. An analogy to DNA comes to mind. The salient point is that each of us, whether or not we are aware or recognize it, are affected by our own, entirely unique combinations of them in how we think, act, behave, and form judgments.

Some of those characteristics are apparent or can be inferred by observation; many of those characteristics are hidden, and you wouldn’t know that about me unless I explicitly shared the information. Most important to this discussion, however, is that we all make assumptions based on the limited information that is available to us, and those inferences can be entirely wrong. How many of you, perhaps subconsciously, assumed that “Golden” meant Jewish, when in fact my family line back to at least the fifth century is Irish Catholic? It would be possible, if not particularly useful, to wear ribbons to declare what is hidden, but that’s not the point. We are all, each of us, a product of the sum of all of our individual characteristics, whether apparent through observation or hidden.

Let me further offer two concepts prone to being too simplistically understood. Both of these concepts are fraught. They can be and too often are weaponized for political purposes with destructive consequences. But they are nonetheless not only valid, but critical to these discussions.

First, unconscious bias.

Each of us, in any given situation, is driven by biases that are generally hidden and foreign to the other and even to ourselves. (Hence, the use of that modifier, “unconscious.”) And since, in any given situation, each of us is a unique combination of experience and natures, no two of us are influenced by the same set of biases. That is neither good nor bad, it merely is.

The second term is privilege.

Each of the characteristics that make up who I am and that covertly influence my behavior carries with it an accumulation over time of powerful societal and social consequences. These, again, will manifest differently for each of us.

And it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that my particular catalog of identities is disproportionately rich in such privileges. That doesn’t take anything away from my personal accomplishments. Again, it merely is.

So, those are conditions on the ground: influences and consequences present in all our interactions and behavior, whether we wish to acknowledge them or not. It would be intellectually dishonest to deny it.

Barriers to women’s participation in the engineering profession are not new. Women now make up over half of the US population but constitute less than 20% of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering awarded in 2017. The number of women who enter the engineering education pipeline but never advance and enter the profession has remained stubbornly high, and the needle hasn’t moved much in decades. In NSPE’s membership, only approximately 10% are women.

The same can be said of underrepresented minorities. African Americans and Latinos constitute barely 12% of the engineering workforce (both licensed and unlicensed), compared to 35% of the total US population. In NSPE’s membership, approximately 17% fall in this category.

And from a membership perspective, attracting and engaging the next generation of engineers is a persistent problem. Approximately 60% of our membership is 50 years or older. What ominous signals does that send for our future?

But numbers and labels are merely the measurable attributes. Much as those of us in the engineering and scientific community love to reduce things to neat and formal systems that can be rationally manipulated and solved, diversity, equity, and inclusion must not be approached reductively. Therein lies the moral jeopardy at the root of some of the most horrific episodes in human history, when people—who, deep down, I truly believe are basically and fundamentally good—collectively made real evil a part of human society. It happened by reducing characteristics to equations that were coercively applied.

We are a product of history. None of the inequities, whether trivial or profound, at work in our lives came about overnight. Small injustices compounded over time and became institutionalized and even sublimated into our unconscious collective and individual biases.

It is important to recognize that, as a society (and for the most part, as individuals), we have made real progress, rising to the challenge and attacking the most pernicious effects of bias head on once we became aware of them at work around us. We have reduced but, alas, not eradicated them completely from their place in our unique personal and shared collective experiences. All of them continue to have some potential or actual continued influence and effect, even if their most ugly manifestations and oppressive elements have been eliminated. Anti-Semitism did not begin with the Nazis, nor did it vanish from us when that regime was crushed. Racial prejudice did not begin in the Jim Crow era in the second half of the last century, nor, alas, did it end with civil rights legislation.

But progress is possible and has been made; this too we must acknowledge.

And the trigger to positive further progress is awareness. We need to see and acknowledge the costs and missed opportunities that the biases at work in our personal, professional, and societal lives impose before we can address them.

Which brings me at long last to the National Society of Professional Engineers strategic plan’s inclusion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. What are the factors that needlessly inhibit or prevent some of the individuals who are vital to the future of the profession and our professional society from achieving full participation in that future? This is a question of both justice and self-interest. Where are the social and professional assets that are being left behind, assets that could be productively invested in our shared mission? And what can we do to unlock that potential?

We have progressed at least so far as to identify the challenge as it persists today and will manifest in our future. The positive reception that NSPE’s strategic plan has received demonstrates that our commitment to the ideal is real. We not only believe in it; we want it to be more than just a slogan on a bumper sticker.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion within NSPE and the engineering profession can be achieved without descending into blame and recrimination when we are aware of our roots but not trapped by them. Focused on the future. That is the task we have set for ourselves.

1 NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers, Section III, Paragraph 1(f): “Engineers shall treat all persons with dignity, respect, fairness and without discrimination.”

About Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE
Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE, is Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, which provides global leadership advancing the practice and profession of clinical laboratory science and medicine. He previously served as Executive Director and CEO of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in Alexandria, Virginia. as Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), Vienna, Virginia and in leadership roles with the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA), Washington, D.C. and the Association of Telemessaging Services International (ATSI), Alexandria, Virginia. Long active in the association community, Mr. Golden is a past Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Association Leadership, a past Vice Chairman of the ASAE Board of Directors, past Chair of the Center for Association Leadership’s Research Committee, and past member of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce's Association Committee of 100. He is the 2011 recipient of the American Society of Association Executive's Key Award, the highest honor ASAE bestows, to "honor the association CEO who demonstrates exceptional qualities of leadership in his or her own association, and displays a deep commitment to voluntary membership organizations as a whole.”

One Response to Ending Missed Opportunites

  1. Pingback: Association Brain Food Weekly: 1.17.20 | Reid All About It

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