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Female Engineer Faces Workplace Discrimination

Situation

A recent graduate accepts a position at a small engineering design firm. Her new colleagues form a tightly knit, congenial group, and she often joins them for get-togethers after work. But several months after she joins the firm, the firm’s president advises her that his wife has objected to her presence on the staff. Contending that it is “inappropriate” for a young, single female to work and socialize with a group of male engineers, many of whom are married, the president’s wife has been encouraging her husband to terminate the engineer’s employment, and although the president himself has no issues with the engineer or her work, he suggests to her that she may need to look for another job.

When the engineer’s immediate supervisor learns of this conversation and expresses outrage to the president, the president backs down and offers to “let sleeping dogs lie.” But soon thereafter at a company party the president’s wife raises the topic again, complaining loudly and openly about the young woman’s employment.

With everyone in the firm now aware of the wife’s objections, the engineer begins to notice a difference in her work environment. Although her colleagues are openly supportive of her, she nevertheless feels that the wife’s comments have altered their perception of her. She stops receiving invitations to her company’s parties and is excluded from after-hours gatherings. Even worse, while she had previously found her work both interesting and challenging, she no longer receives assignments from the firm’s president and she begins to sense that her colleagues are treating her as someone who will not be a long-term member of the staff. Believing that she is no longer taken seriously as an engineer and that she will have little opportunity to advance within the firm, she begins searching for a new position. However, before she can do so her supervisor announces a downsizing of the firm, and she is the first engineer to be laid off.

The young engineer contacts a former professor for help in finding a new job, and the professor in turn contacts ASCE’s ethics hotline to report the president’s conduct.

Question

Is it an ethics violation for an engineering employer to exclude and ultimately discharge an employee on the basis of sex, age, or marital status?

Decision

While ASCE’s Code of Ethics is silent on the issue of employment discrimination, canon 6 reads as follows: “Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.” Canon 7 enjoins engineers to “provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision,” and paragraph (d) in the guidelines to practice for that canon states that engineers are to “uphold the principle of mutually satisfying relationships between employers and employees with respect to terms of employment.” These strictures suggest that a member is obliged to act in this way for all employees, regardless of gender.

While the Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) staff contact believed that the employer’s conduct raised a potential ethics violation under either canon 6 or canon 7, the contact believed that a more effective means of addressing the matter might be through the complaint process of federal or state human rights agencies. The contact noted that by excluding and ultimately discharging an employee on the basis of gender, the employer may have violated federal, state, or local laws prohibiting discrimination.
For example, title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 reads as follows:

(a) It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer -
      (1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
      (2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Employees who feel their title VII rights have been violated may file a complaint through their local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and employers found to have violated a worker’s rights may incur civil liabilities. Moreover, while the federal Civil Rights Act covers only employers who have 15 or more employees, many states and localities have adopted legislation that bars discrimination by smaller employers and have established civil rights divisions to investigate violations of such laws.
As the engineer’s former employer was not a member of ASCE, the CPC could not open an investigation into the conduct in question. The female engineer found new employment shortly thereafter and elected not to take any further action against her former employer.

In 2000 ASCE established the Committee on Diversity and Women in Civil Engineering, and in 2005 it adopted Policy 417 (“Achieving Diversity and Equity”). Noting that women and members of minority groups historically have been underrepresented in the engineering profession, this policy affirms ASCE’s goal of promoting diversity within the civil engineering community, and it encourages members to provide an “equitable opportunity for participation of all people within the civil engineering profession without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or physical challenges.” As ASCE continues to work toward enhancing diversity within the civil engineering profession, it is possible that future editions of the Code of Ethics may include an express obligation to treat employees fairly irrespective of gender, race, or any other factor, trait, or characteristic extraneous to engineering ability.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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