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(Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

SCENARIO An ASCE member is invited to participate in a three-person panel at a technical session of a large institute conference. Over the course of the hourlong session, the panelist makes several questionable remarks about women engineers. Although couched as humor, the jokes all have the effect of characterizing female professionals as difficult, temperamental, and unsuited to working in a team environment. The moderator and other members of the panel attempt to downplay or deflect attention from the panelist’s “jokes,” but their efforts are unsuccessful; nearly a half-dozen attendees contact ASCE’s staff or volunteer leadership after the session to express offense at the panelist’s remarks.

A member of the institute’s governing board contacts ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct to file a formal ethics complaint against the panelist.

QUESTION Did this member violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics by making offensive jokes about women while participating as a speaker at a technical conference?

DISCUSSION Recent columns have noted that basic principles of engineering ethics have remained largely consistent from the time ASCE’s first public-­oriented Code of Ethics was adopted in 1974 through the most recent iteration of the code approved in October 2020. One noteworthy exception to that rule is in the recognition of fair treatment, respect, and equity as an ethical imperative for engineers. While this case occurred less than a decade ago, the code’s treatment of such issues at the time differed markedly from today’s code, reflecting a dramatic change in the emphasis placed by the code and the engineering profession as a whole on the ethics of diversity and inclusion.

At the time this case was submitted, there was nothing in ASCE’s Code of Ethics that instructed engineers to be inclusive when speaking to other professional colleagues; in fact, at no point in the prior code’s history had there been language that directed the CPC to address this type of behavior. Without such express guidance, in cases involving this type of conduct the CPC was obliged to find an implied mandate of fair treatment in one of two nonspecific ethical principles: the “relationship” language in guideline d of Fundamental Canon 7 and the all-encompassing “honor” clause of Canon 6.

Guideline 7d of the prior Code of Ethics required engineers to maintain “mutually satisfying relationships between employers and employees.” While this provision was at least arguably designed merely to encourage engineering employers to pay fair wages to workers, the CPC commonly held that workplace harassment or discrimination also represented a failure to maintain mutually satisfying relationships, meaning that any member who engaged in such conduct was guilty of violating guideline 7d. 

Of course, since its language made specific reference to employer/employee relationships, guideline 7d offered little remedy in cases involving offensive behavior among peers, at educational meetings and conferences, or in almost any other professional setting. In cases where 7d could not be applied, the CPC typically took the position that offensive or inequitable conduct also cast the profession as a whole in an unflattering light; accordingly, this type of behavior violated Canon 6’s directive to “act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.”

While this interpretation of the Code of Ethics provided a basis for CPC actions on numerous cases involving discriminatory behavior, it was not until 2017 that ASCE officially clarified its position on equity as an ethical principle, with the adoption of Canon 8. This new canon read: “Engineers shall, in all matters related to their profession, treat all persons fairly and encourage equitable participation without regard to gender or gender identity, race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability, political affiliation, or family, marital, or economic status.”

The adoption of this canon made clear that diversity and inclusion were not simply matters of legal compliance or social etiquette but in fact were core parts of the engineer’s duty to society and the profession; inclusion of these concepts in ASCE’s ethical code reflected the strength of the Society’s commitment to equity within the profession and to serving the needs of a diverse population. 

Unfortunately, it would also soon prove to be a source of contention in the Board of Direction’s subsequent decision to advance a comprehensive rewrite of the ASCE Code of Ethics. Proponents who had worked to win the board’s approval of Canon 8 were understandably reluctant to see that effort superseded only a few years after its adoption. Additionally, the style and structure of the new code’s language differed dramatically from its predecessor. Whereas Canon 8 stood out as a distinct and highly visible statement about diversity, equity, and inclusion, these same principles in the new code did not stand alone but rather were intermingled with (and potentially buried among) the list of obligations to the engineer’s five stakeholders.

Supporters of the new code argued, conversely, that the changes served to emphasize rather than diminish the importance of inclusion as an ethical duty. By weaving these principles in throughout the document, the new code demonstrates that equity and inclusion are not separate activities undertaken only when making hiring or salary decisions but rather are of critical importance in all aspects of professional practice. Ultimately, the board voted to support this new approach, and so today’s code lists aspects of the former Canon 8 under three of its five critical stakeholders: Society, the Profession, and Peers. 

Accordingly, if this case had been brought to the CPC today, the committee would likely examine the applicability of at least three provisions in the current Code of Ethics. First, section 1f (Society) requires engineers to “treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness, and reject all forms of discrimination and harassment.” Second, section 3e (Profession) instructs engineers to “promote mentorship and knowledge-sharing equitably with current and future engineers.” Finally, section 5d (Peers) directs engineers to “promote and exhibit inclusive, equitable, and ethical behavior in all engagements with colleagues.” 

If the CPC agreed that the member’s comments represented a failure to treat all professionals with respect and fostered an environment in which female colleagues might not feel equally welcome in their professional society, it is likely the CPC would find that the member had violated these provisions of the new Code of Ethics.

Also, section 5f of the new code instructs engineers to “encourage and enable the education and development of other engineers and prospective members of the profession.” While this language is not expressly linked to inclusion or equity, if the CPC felt that the member’s conduct served to dissuade other attendees from participating in future educational activities, it might decide the member had violated this ethical principle as well.

In the actual case, while the CPC did not believe that the case warranted formal disciplinary action, the committee nevertheless felt that the member had acted unprofessionally and been disrespectful to his audience and to the institute responsible for the event. Acting in coordination with the institute’s leadership, the CPC sent the member a strong letter of caution, advising the member that his conduct had not met his ethical obligation to uphold the “honor, integrity, and dignity of the profession” and that he would not be welcome to speak at future events unless he could demonstrate a greater commitment to the Society’s principles on inclusivity.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as "Equitable and Inclusive Behavior Are Mandates in the New Code of Ethics."