Where’s my code? Engineers navigating ethical issues on an uneven terrain
Claims to professionalism among engineers are rooted in three key elements: a specialized knowledge base, self-regulation, and a commitment to public service. 1-3 These elements have been historically codified into a set of ethical guidelines. 1, 4, 5 While these guidelines—Professional Codes of Ethics—may help engineers appreciate what not to do,4, 5 they are insufficiently specific to guide novice engineers through ethically ambiguous situations. As early 20th century artefacts, they also tend to reproduce structural inequities embedded in the history of the profession, and are thus insufficient guides for historically underrepresented groups of engineers.6-14 The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board’s (CEAB) pairing of ethics AND equity15 demands that we look beyond the codes to help them navigate ethically ambiguous situations and patterns of privilege likely to arise in their professional lives. Our three-year project set out to fill this pedagogical gap by developing anonymous case studies based on the experiences of Canadian engineers grappling with ethical and equity-based issues in their professional lives.
We conducted semi-structured career history interviews with 14 engineers deliberately diversifying our sample by discipline, career stage, and other demographic markers. After transcribing the interviews verbatim, we inductively coded them,16, 17 and developed anonymous case studies based on critical incidents shared by each participant. We then tested four completed case studies with 112 undergraduate engineering students. This paper highlights three of the fourteen cases to examine the inequitable terrain on which professional engineers navigate ethical issues in their professional lives.
Our open-ended invitation to share an ethical dilemma resulted in an interesting demographic trend. Gender figured prominently in the experiences of 5/7 women, but only 1/7 men; race figured prominently in the experiences of 2/4 racialized engineers, and 0/10 white engineers; and the only two engineers to mention sexuality were LGBTQ-identified. While not all female engineers raised the issue of gender and not all racialized engineers raised the issue of race, our findings suggest that equity issues are more prevalent in ethical dilemmas faced by historically disadvantaged groups of engineers than in those of their historically advantaged counterparts. We illustrate this finding through the cases of “Tanya,” an engineering intern who reconsiders her technical career after encountering subtle and overt discrimination in the mining industry; “Matthew,” a junior engineering operator who is asked to cover for a senior colleague who fell asleep on the job; and “Awande,” an industrial engineering student who is shocked and angered when her professor introduces the mechanization of an industry historically driven by slave labour as though it is a neutral example of engineering optimization.
Our findings suggest that equity issues are deeply engrained in engineering ethics and as such, it behoves us as engineering educators to move beyond simply exposing students to their respective ethical codes. We also need to help them navigate the challenging ethical situations they are likely to encounter in their professional lives, paying close attention to the systemic inequities structured into the profession.
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