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.”

A Tale of Two Paradigms

Paradigms are the frames of reference that filter our view of the world. They govern how we see things … and can blind you to realties that don’t fit your governing paradigm.

Take professional licensure. It’s a no-brainer, right? Some form of professional licensure has existed in America for lawyers since 1763, for physicians and dentists since the mid-1800s and for engineers since 1907. After all, if people are going to entrust their safety, liberty, property, health and general welfare to you, they have a right to expect you to be competent and ethical.

In fact, though licensure came (comparatively) late to engineering, I would argue licensure is needed for engineering, most of all. If you need a doctor or a dentist, you can look into his or her credentials before submitting to care; if you need a lawyer, you can look into his or her credentials before entrusting them with your case.

TexasBut when you send your child to school, who checked to ensure that the engineering of the utility services was done correctly? In 1937, an explosion at a school in New London, Texas, killed 300 people and severely injured another 300, many of them children. (Some estimates place the casualties as high as 1,000.) The cause of the explosion? Faulty engineering linked to cost saving actions taken by the school board. This tragedy was one of the motivating forces behind passage of Texas’ licensure law that same year.

When you drive on a road, enter an elevator, or cross a bridge, what assurance do you have that it was engineered competently? Licensing the professional practice of engineering is necessary because P.E.s have the knowledge to recognize risks that the public itself is not able to identify and not empowered to protect itself against.

The form of government established in the US Constitution reserves authority to license professions to the states.  And there are currently laws in each of the 50 United States (and its territories) that establish legally recognized standards of practice based on an engineer’s education, experience,examination, and (in most states) mandatory continuing education. Regulators, the profession, educators and examiners have worked cooperatively to establish a system intent on maximizing the uniformity of engineering standards and license mobility across the United States. Areas of professional practice reserved to licensed professional engineers are reasonably and narrowly defined and limited to those areas with implications for the public welfare.

Now, some may (and some have) argued that engineering licensure was vital in the bad old days, but that society, technology and education have evolved to such an extent that it is less important today.

History provides a steady stream of examples that prove such a thesis wrong. Take the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion, where engineering judgment was over-ruled by non-engineers. Or the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, where, under industrial exemption, P.E.s were not required but their involvement might have avoided the catastrophe. Or the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster, where authorities simply failed to employ a P.E. where it was clearly required and three million gallons of mine waste water and tailings were released into the Animas River.


There are too many more such examples that could be cited. Additional new ones can be expected in the future.

Moreover, there are still other areas where the value to the public that a P.E. could bring goes unrecognized: areas like autonomous vehicles, cybersecurity, even such mundane areas as amusement park rides and duck boat tours. Real world experience has proven how deadly the lack of competent engineering judgment in these fields can be. Their actual and potential vulnerabilities have all been covered in recent issues of PE magazine.

Surely the need for engineering licensure is self-evident, right?

But there is another, a different paradigm at work here.  Viewed from this perspective, licensure exists to protect licensees from competition, not the public from harm. Licensure is a barrier to economic growth, workforce development and investment. Ergo, alllicensure requirements should be challenged and removed.

It is a paradigm being aggressively pushed by well-funded and nationally-coordinated efforts of groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch brother’s Americans for Prosperity, the Institute for Justice, the Goldwater Institute, and others.

It is a paradigm that is gaining public currency, as can be seen in headlines, op-eds and media coverage from the Wall Street Journaland the Washington Post right down to your hometown newspaper.


And it is a paradigm that drove serious anti-licensure initiatives in legislatures in 31 states in just the past three years … and in 16 states so far in 2018 alone.


Sometimes the P.E. is unintended, collateral damage in overly broad, occupational licensing and deregulatory efforts; increasingly, though, the bullseye is centered right on the P.E. itself.

The engineering community cannot afford to rest complacently in the comfort of its own paradigm. It cannot afford to deal with specific threats where they occur, and pat itself on the back when, as has luckily been the case so far, the specific threat is neutralized or mitigated.

We need to recognize that no single battle victory is ever final, that a bad outcome in any state is a danger in every state, and that rigid, knee-jerk defense of the status quo is insufficient. (Unfortunately, anti-licensure forces can cite examples of actual – albeit, trivial – over-reach by P.E. regulation and regulators that defy common sense.)

The now prevailing paradigm is against us. Unified, nation-wide action is required, action open to fundamental change to strengthen and improve the P.E. so that it can stand in the face of the new paradigm.

And that action must be sufficient to change the public’s perception from the license as a purely legal or regulatory obligation and bureaucratic nuisance to recognition of the value and need to use P.E.s even where the law (and industrial exemptions) don’t require it.

That is precisely the mission that NSPE (as an integrated network of national and state organizations) exists to serve.

CEO effectiveness & volunteer boards

I was recently invited to share one piece of advice from what I have learned in my years as an association chief staff officer on effective partnership with volunteer leaders, for a book soon to be published by ASAE.  After giving  some thought to the matter, for me it came down to what JimiStock_puzzel Collins calls Level 5 leadership: “the paradoxical blend of personal humility and [fierce] professional will.” You need to be able to take your own ego-gratification out of the equation when assessing the association’s strategic needs, but also refuse to make allowances for any limitations that might be present on your board by compromising on the level of leadership their role demands from them. You need to be authentic in giving the board credit for association success and in truly owning any board failure as your own. And never, never, never, letting a setback cause you to doubt yourself or become tentative and risk averse. Take the hit, learn what you can from it, turn the page, and move on. In doing so, you become not only something of a safety net for the board, making it less risky for them to take bold action. You also model the behavior that will enable them to be effective in their own leadership roles.