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Discouraging Women from STEM Careers Would Violate ASCE’s Code of Ethics

Jul 1, 2019


The chief executive of a national engineering society pens a monthly opinion column for the society's news magazine. In one column, the executive reports on a recent study comparing women's career choices in countries deemed to have high or low levels of gender equality. The study reports that countries such as Finland and Norway, which have strongly egalitarian cultures and whose high school girls commonly outperform boys in science literacy, paradoxically have some of the highest gender gaps in terms of women pursuing college degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, while countries with greater gender inequality manifest a proportionately smaller gender gap in the pursuit of STEM careers.

The executive characterizes this study as proof that, on a completely level playing field, men are more inclined to pursue careers involving "things and mechanics," while women are more naturally suited to careers in "care- or people-oriented" professions. He speaks dismissively of a female engineer's observation that she "had to work twice as hard to prove herself" in a male-dominated profession and questions whether this simply means it was twice as difficult for her to deliver the same results.

The executive notes that while a third of his society's student members are women, only a fifth of its graduate membership and a mere 5 percent of its professionally registered engineers are women. This progression makes sense, according to the executive, because the stage of life at which engineers advance into higher career levels is when "most women prefer to work part time or dedicate themselves completely to child-rearing."

Indeed, the executive argues, the relative dearth of women in executive-level positions owes less to gender discrimination and more to "appetite for workload," as most women would "rather have the flexibility to dedicate themselves to more important enterprises, like family."

The executive also has an opinion to offer on pay disparity. He notes that women "are more agreeable than men," and attributes this to a maternal instinct developed to help women manage fussy children. This same agreeableness, he feels, is a disadvantage in the workplace, and he suggests that, in situations in which women make less for the same type of work, they should "stop being agreeable when negotiating" salaries. Finally, the executive opines that the issue of gender equality requires a "deeper understanding than simplification into male dominance, patriarchy, and companies providing baby care in the office." He concludes by asking: "Given that money, time and resources are constrained, and evidence pointing to women being predisposed to caring and people careers, should we be investing so heavily in attracting women into STEM careers, specifically engineering, or should we invest in creating more gender-equal societies?"

Not surprisingly, the executive's column sets off a firestorm within the society's membership and beyond. Some call for the executive's immediate resignation, while others cry censorship and proclaim support for the executive's right to state his opinion. Two prominent engineering organizations issue statements rejecting the executive's arguments and accusing him of causing "immense damage" to the reputation of the civil engineering profession. Media outlets across the country pick up on the story, and at least one top government official publicly condemns the executive's column.

While the executive attempts to weather the storm by apologizing for his remarks and offering to seek diversity training, the offering does little to dampen the controversy. The society's board ultimately issues a press statement affirming its commitment to addressing professional challenges "ranging from diversity to climate change to materials and technology matters" and noting that the society and the executive have agreed to a parting of ways.


If the writer of this column had been an ASCE member, would his actions have violated the ASCE Code of Ethics?


As this case involves an opinion column, it might first be of interest to review the canon that most expressly addresses public statements. Fundamental Canon 3 requires that "Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner," and its supplemental guidelines further define this requirement to include an "adequate knowledge of the facts" and avoidance of "unfair or exaggerated statements."

It has been observed before in this column that an engineer's opinion carries considerable weight because of the education and experience that are hallmarks of the engineering practice and of the profession's reputation for serving the public good. This same influence carries with it an ethical obligation for engineers to ensure their opinions are deserving of such weight.

Though the engineer claims support for his ideas from a published scientific study, his column largely mischaracterizes the cited research. The study does report a so-called gender equality paradox, and it speculates that women in less equal societies are driven toward high-paying STEM careers by a lack of economic security, while women in countries with better social welfare systems feel safe to explore other choices. However, the study also reports that surveys of young women's interest and enjoyment of STEM suggest that higher percentages should pursue STEM careers across all countries. It does not claim that women are predisposed to "people or caring" careers but instead finds that girls who are strong in science are often even stronger in reading comprehension, leaving a broader range of academic strengths for them to pursue. A more accurate assessment of its conclusions might be to say that the problem of attracting women to STEM cannot be solved merely by equal access to educational opportunities.

While it can thus be argued that the engineer's column exposes a lack of knowledge or objectivity that is inconsistent with Canon 3, one possible counterargument is that this canon is commonly applied only to public statements involving engineering judgment. Guideline b, for example, requires accuracy "in professional reports, statements, or testimony," while guideline c references "technical competence" in service as an expert witness.

It is unquestionable that engineers may hold opinions on an infinite variety of topics, and it would be unfair to expect engineers to show the same level of competence in other matters as required for engineering judgment. If the executive in this case had merely offered an inexpert view on economics, politics, or another matter, it is unlikely that his words would merit ethical scrutiny- even if his opinions proved to be uninformed, unfair, or even objectively wrong.

Where the executive's actions cross the ethical line, however, is in allowing those unstudied or unjust opinions to inform his actions as an engineering leader, offering guidance that affects the work of other engineering professionals, and with an aim that directly contravenes another critical ethical principle. Fundamental Canon 8 states that "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."

Yet, far from encouraging equitable participation, the executive is using his platform as leader of an engineering society to actively discourage participation, both from women themselves and from those who might invest time and effort in cultivating future women engineers. Moreover, because of his leadership role and his misleading claim of scientific support, the executive makes a persuasive case for others who might be receptive to a belief in women's unsuitability for engineering and who might use his remarks as validation for practices that limit a female engineer's career advancement or otherwise make her unwelcome in the profession. Despite a patently absurd claim that he writes as a "friend" to all women engineers, the executive's public statement offers only potential harm to women pursuing or contemplating an engineering career.

In view of these considerations, if the case had involved an ASCE member, the Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) would likely have found that his actions had violated Canon 8, and possibly Canon 3, of the ASCE Code of Ethics. The CPC might also have considered whether his comments had harmed the "honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession," thus invoking ASCE's Canon 6, or that he had brought harm to his engineering employer, raising questions under Canon 4.

While it may be self-contradictory to say that all generalizations should be avoided, this idea nevertheless is a sound philosophy from an ethical standpoint. At its essence, ASCE's Canon 8 stands for the expectation that all persons should be treated purely as individuals, given equal respect and opportunity to demonstrate their skills and abilities, without preconceived judgments based on appearance, origin, or other characteristics.

Tara Hoke is ASCE's general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.