By Hayley Dickson
Diversity, inclusion, equity (our namesake!) are terms that might seem as inescapable (at least to me, as a past SE3 co-chair) in our cultural and political zeitgeist as they are polarizing. There are varying definitions and levels of understanding, and it can be divisive to even bring them up, let alone address any related issues. Why do we care? And if we care, how do we approach such a nuanced and touchy subject? If we can agree on that, what can we as structural engineers even do, in the small subset of the professional world that we occupy?
These are big questions with answers that will undoubtedly change over time as we learn how to live and work better, but we can start with the facts: this does matter. Our 2018 survey revealed that at each ascending position level, we grow less diverse. At the principal level, just 14% of respondents are non-white, and at the entry/staff level this percentage nearly triples. The numbers related to gender show a similar shift, with 16% of principal respondents identifying as female, increasing to nearly half at entry level.
Though the data shows promise of a diverse future, the picture is not entirely rosy. Those with identities outside the majority are significantly more likely to have experienced discrimination and harassment in the workplace. These are not isolated incidents to be dismissed, with numbers as staggering as 50% of women having experienced discrimination at some point in their careers. It’s meaningful to remember that half of the survey respondents are under the age of 35, so conceivably many of these women are facing discrimination early on in their careers.
This diverse group of young engineers are the future of the profession. But they are also experiencing discrimination and harassment at disproportionately high rates based on identities that differ from an increasingly obsolete norm. Simply put, we have an inclusion problem. Certainly we are not alone, and we can see examples of other industries around us struggling with the same or much worse, as the workforce is growing increasingly diverse across all professions. But the point here is that the data shows that this is an issue for us too, and with that information we can start to address it.
I would like to point out that we, the SE3 Committee, are not experts in implementing company policies to promote inclusivity. And anyone will tell you there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to disrupting bias. I know as engineers we like things to come with a tidy equation, but the thing is, we also know that the world doesn’t actually work like this. We consistently iterate, improve, and sometimes even completely throw out concepts that we can no longer justify. We constantly strive to have a better understanding of the built environment; the nuances of the interactions. And we’re good at it. As an industry of passionate and thoughtful people, we are poised to solve this problem. So where do we start? Like I said, we don’t have all the answers, but it starts with the individual, and radiates up to firm management.
Here are some tools to get started:
Hopefully this is a helpful place to start. See below links to articles with more data and background on what types of initiatives work, why these things are important to address, and how to involve everyone in the process.
Photos from the October 2018 workshop Building an Inclusive Workplace for All in the 21st Century.
Hayley Dickson, P.E. is an Engineer at Forell/Elsesser Structural Engineers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hayley co-chaired the SEAONC SE3 committee for two years, from 2017 to 2019. Over the years, her greatest contributions to SE3 include helping plan two SE3 symposia (2017 & 2019), and a moderated panel discussion on work-life balance (2018), and follow-up interviews with practicing professionals, retirees and people who left the profession for other careers.
The SEAONC SE3 Committee