For November, we continue to highlight the many spaces and places where engineering, ethics and equity meet with Where’s my code? Engineers navigating ethical issues on an uneven terrain. Rottmann et al. unpack 15 interviews with engineering students and professionals to examine why it is so challenging to pursue social justice in engineering education and the workplace. These moments of ethical challenge are framed as “critical incidents.” This study draws on the lived experience of engineers ranging in age from 18 to 75, working across eight different disciplines. The authors apply a critical social justice lens to their analysis of engineers’ ethical dilemmas. This study illustrates that gaining fluency in ethics and equity through the classroom is more than an intellectual exercise; it can prepare engineers to make decisions and take substantive action in real life situations.
The authors identified three key barriers that participants committed to social impact faced when trying to address inequity in their workplaces. These included: 1) dominant narratives in engineering that make it difficult for social justice viewpoints to be acknowledged; 2) limited organizational influence because of junior status, and 3) fear that raising equity issues will result in personal attacks rather than positive change. Professionals in senior positions chose to share incidents faced at the outset of their careers. These lasting memories suggest that the junior role may be a particularly challenging career phase for equity-minded engineers.
To make it easier for new engineers, especially those from under-represented communities, to challenge inequitable workplace practices and cultures, the authors propose that engineering educators draw on studies conducted by Erin Cech to challenge the dominant narrative that engineering is objective and that success is based on merit. They suggest that resisting this narrative by unpacking the “hidden curriculum” may nurture future professionals who are prepared to “actively listen to the perspectives of their colleagues and accept the legitimacy of counter-narratives,” (p. 13).
A growing body of literature has analyzed the meaning and significance of ethical codes. You can engage with these thinkers by considering the historical context within which ethical codes were developed. What were the social and political power structures at play? Do ethical codes always feel ethical or equitable to you? Consider the difference between a code of conduct and a code of ethics. What happens when we confuse rules of conduct with professionally ethical behaviour? Do these lines of thought help you identify areas for ethical improvements in your area of work? See articles four and five in the reference section.
If you’re a student wondering why social justice has been minimally addressed in engineering education, page four outlines four barriers to equity identified by engineering education researchers. Read this section if you’re curious to know how and why counter-narratives remain on the periphery. If you’re an aspiring educator or academic, does this give you any ideas for areas where curriculum can be re-designed to intervene?
Citation: Rottmann, Cindy, Reeve, Doug, Sacks, Robin, & Klassen, Mike. (2018). Where’s my code? Engineers navigating ethical issues on an uneven terrain. Paper presented at the American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition, Salt Lake City, UT, USA.