(RE) Engineering Diversity and Inclusion: Sharing my Perspectives on Implicit Bias at the World Engineering Education Forum in Florence, Italy

I recently returned from the World Engineering Education Forum (WEEF) in Florence, Italy, where I had the privilege of participating in the special session, “Diversity & Inclusion in Global Engineering Education-Initializing Global Scale Collaboration,” with colleagues, David Delaine (University of Sao Paulo, Bweefrazil), Darryl Williams (Tufts University, USA), Renetta G. Tull (University of Maryland, Baltimore County, USA), and Rovani Sigamoney (UNESCO). We had three goals for our presentation—1) challenge participant’s assumptions on what diversity and inclusion means for engineering education, 2) identify appropriate directions for a consolidated global effort for progress on diversity and inclusion in engineering education and, 3) develop mechanism for strengthening diversity and inclusion in engineering education.

My contribution to this initiative included a brief training on implicit bias awareness, a discussion of the material consequences of implicit bias, and finally an interactive polling activity in which our global audience shared their personal experiences/encounters with implicit bias in engineering. Here is a sample of the experiences of implicit biases our audience (not all engineers) shared with us:

  • “Assuming that a person who speaks Spanish isn’t smart”
  • “I’ve been discredited for speaking slow and with an accent”
  • “Having strong engineering presentation & the remarks after were complementing woman on her looks & not at all on content of presentation
  • Denial of opportunities based on race
  • As an undergraduate engineering student, I experienced my peers not wanting to work with me in teams because they assumed I was not smart due to my race
  • Assuming that the man is my boss, but he was my employee
  • Told that my grants and awards were not earned but due to equal opportunity”
  • Not acknowledged as part of the community until a respected member validated me.”

Clearly these examples demonstrate that biases manifest themselves in various forms—-gendered, racial, linguistic, cultural etc. but the material consequences of bias are detrimental to both the lives of those experiencing these injustices. THERE IS REAL PAIN IN THESE LIVED EXPERIENCES THAT MUST BE RECOGNIZED AND VALIDATED. Secondly, these biases impact the field of engineering’s ability to attain inclusive excellence. And, beyond engineering, these biases impact society’s ability to function successfully.

If we are working toward “engineering education for a resilient society,” the subtitle of the WEEF conference, we need to include all perspectives and welcome interdisciplinary and globally competent and locally relevant approaches in order to solve the very real problems we collectively face. As keynote speaker, Dr. Ahsan Kareem, from the University of Notre Dame, USA eloquently imparted in his talk, “From Hazards to Disasters: A Need for a Culture of Resilience,” engineers must develop resilient approaches to dealing with hazards, many of them man-made in order to avoid them becoming disasters. I argue that we must likewise view implicit biases as a hazard to the field of engineering, which if left unaddressed, have the potential to derail the field’s success in dealing with the issues humanity faces, with disastrous results, similar to a structurally unsound building collapsing in an earthquake. I believe as hands-on problem-solvers, engineers are well-equipped to develop resilient strategies to overcome implicit biases and ensure a sustainable future for engineering.

These experiences shared above as can now likewise be viewed as hazards that have the potential to implode individual lives, and when viewed together, form a structural barrier, that threatens the ability of engineers to address the serious issues that humanity faces! In order to more forward, I believe engineers must leverage their skills, training, and expertise in problems solving to addressing the critical issue of diversity and inclusion.

We all share responsibility in engineering a culture of inclusive excellence within our field. In a call to action, I invite each of you to add your experience of implicit bias to the list above. More than add your experience, however, I invite you to join us in our efforts to (re)engineer inclusion and diversity within a field that is often inhospitable to women, underrepresented minorities (this varying by global location), and others who are deemed different. Join us in strategizing ways we can all be champions for diversity and inclusion in engineering.

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