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In technical fields, we often pride ourselves on our objectivity -- as though the work exists outside ourselves. In engineering, we have historically believed that we could make technologies that work for anyone, regardless of the identity of the engineer or the user. We have believed that technological progress was inherently making the world a better place.

And, in many ways, it has. From the wheel to the automobile, the printing press to the internet, eyeglasses to orbiting telescopes, engineering has expanded humanity’s horizons and improved the human condition. But it has become clear that such technologies and systems do not benefit everyone equally. At times, they can even actively harm some groups. Unintended consequences can occur, because engineers are people, too -- people shaped by their cultures, with biases and blind spots.

That’s why, earlier this year, I joined fellow engineering deans in submitting a letter to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology recommending that they add diversity, equity and inclusion requirements for accreditation of engineering programs. Engineering must provide deep technical training, yes. But it must also require nontechnical training in fields such as ethics, social science, the humanities, history and matters associated with equity.

Baked-In Biases

Indeed, engineering technologies and systems have transformed society in many ways. We have seen this recently in the many aspects of life that were able to continue through pandemic lockdowns -- yet we also saw great inequity in who was able to work from home or access virtual school.

In fact, sometimes inequity is built into the product. Women are 17 percent more likely than men to die in a car crash and 73 percent more likely to be seriously injured. Why? In part because crash-test dummies are modeled on men. Similarly, algorithms keep poor people out of jobs and housing and lead to Black people being held in police custody because they were wrongly identified by a system optimized to recognize features of light-skinned faces. And designs for autonomous vehicles, often touted as having vast potential to increase mobility for people with disabilities, leave their needs out of most prototypes.

Technologies have also inadvertently played a role in widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Engineered tools have led to improvements in productivity that helped to either entrench or exacerbate income inequality -- limiting opportunities for some while increasing them for others. By many estimates, wages for the bottom 90 percent of earners have not kept pace with U.S. economic growth.

Part of the problem is that engineering teams tend to represent just small swaths of society. Recent reports make clear that they often don’t include women or people from historically excluded groups. Of the nearly 1.7 million prime-age engineering workers in the United States in 2019, 81 percent were either white or Asian, and 84 percent were men, according to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. And while the unemployment rate for scientists and engineers over all is lower than it is for the U.S. labor force in aggregate, that doesn’t hold true for engineers and scientists with one or more disabilities. For that group, unemployment is higher than the national rate, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has found.

In addition to considering diversity within the ranks of engineering companies, there is a powerful opportunity in advocating for more diverse supply chains as well, enabling small firms to establish themselves in competition with the big players. Many leading companies have supplier diversity programs, and Intel recently announced $500 million it plans to put toward companies led by women and historically excluded groups.

Engineering can make the world a better place. But to do that in the broadest way possible, we must think differently about what engineering is and whom it’s for. We can do that by approaching our work through an equity-centered lens. Equity-centered engineering, like its cousin, equity-centered design, strives to intentionally close societal gaps rather than unintentionally expand them.

Equity-Centered Engineering Is Foundational

It starts with education. My colleagues and I are calling on the accrediting body of our field to require diversity, equity and inclusion education in engineering school, and at Michigan Engineering, we’re not waiting to be told. For the past two years, we’ve been incorporating an equity-based framework into our undergraduate curriculum and defining experiential learning objectives that include empathy, ethics and cultural awareness. We recently approved new plans to educate the entire College of Engineering community of students, staff and faculty on diversity, equity and inclusion -- starting with a focus on race, ethnicity and bias.

Perhaps the most impactful part of the new education effort will be in the undergraduate curriculum, as we graduate more than 2,000 students per year. We’re developing a new course for all of our undergraduates that will examine diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM, its historical context and societal impact. We’re also integrating content on diversity, equity and inclusion into existing technical coursework where it’s appropriate, because we believe this knowledge is vital to both excellence and ethics in engineering practice.

We are taking these steps because, frankly, we need to require more of our engineers. Society demands rigor in engineered systems, so it goes without saying that technical acumen is a hallmark of engineering education. But engineering is a people-first field. We do not make or use technology in a way that is separate from the culture and society we are part of. We need to teach that in required engineering coursework, threaded throughout the academic experience, as a practical means of addressing or preventing social problems that materially affect the field and society at large.

Engineers must understand how their individual biases and those of the field influence engineering practice and how to counteract those biases. They need to know how to work in diverse and inclusive teams, and why that’s valuable as they advance in their careers. They must learn how to step back from engineering’s conventionally technocratic frame and to respectfully engage with and learn from stakeholders. And they must hold themselves and each other accountable to root out biased or toxic behaviors that perpetuate environments that cause harm.

Without this broader educational foundation, tomorrow’s engineers run the risk of exacerbating the societal wedges we see today. To stay on our field’s current path is to accept that, and to choose that outcome.

Rethinking the Engineer’s Role

From the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, we have an opportunity to rethink the role of engineering in society. Our actions will help determine how the rise of ubiquitous computing and advanced automation affects communities and workers, and all of us.

So we must think carefully about the questions we ask, and whose problems we choose to solve. What if, from day one, engineers were trained that it’s their responsibility to inquire about the impacts that technologies will have on people, the planet and future generations? What if they were taught to explore, from the outset, what a product’s supply chain would look like, how it would be manufactured and whether its components could be recycled? What if engineering teams included not only people who could ask about those impacts from all angles, but also leaders who were prepared to step back from the status quo and demand answers?

In addition to the moral grounds for change, there’s also a business case. Recent years have seen the rise of environmental, social and governance, or ESG, practices, which have proven to be important to a growing number of socially responsible investors. Engineers who understand these factors will be increasingly valuable in the marketplace.

If all engineers had these additional core competencies, not only could we see diversity blossom in the field in the coming decade, not only would we create the kind of engineers that society is asking for, but we could also move toward surmounting what is perhaps the grandest challenge: ensuring a more equitable future.

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