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Six diversity myths

Story by: Kate McAlpine

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This series was supposed to be the business case for diversity. It was going to be neat and tidy, including supporting statistics and anecdotes, probably written off by some as another university puff piece championing diversity, and possibly helping others understand how diversity could improve their engineering firms.

Then we found out about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. A Detroit man, Robert Williams, was held by police for 30 hours based on a false match with a suspect using a facial recognition system. The moral case for acknowledging engineering’s role in a fundamentally unequal society, and for making engineering a force for improving equity, is the heart of the problem.

“There is a hole in the way we teach power, privilege, social identity and unconscious bias. To the extent these topics are taught, students walk away thinking they are important – but not connected to engineering,” said Steve Skerlos, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in mechanical engineering, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and faculty director of the Center for Socially Engaged Design.

He and his colleagues are trying to fill that hole. So is this series. You will still find the statistics and anecdotes that show how diversity pays off for everyone. But we also need to talk about the sources of resistance and why they are misguided.

For our allies, we hope that this will help you make the case for why diversity, equity and inclusion are everyone’s job. For those who still think this is someone else’s problem, or not a problem at all, we hope that this inspires you to reconsider your assumptions.

We cover diversity in six myths

Myth 1: Engineering is a meritocracy.
Myth 2: Identity diversity is not important in engineering.
Myth 3: Women and minorities don’t need safe spaces because there’s nothing unsafe about engineering culture.
Myth 4: Women and minorities aren’t as good at or interested in engineering.
Myth 5: Women and minorities aren’t as good at leadership.
Myth 6: It is not engineering’s problem when communities are left behind.

Conclusion: Prioritizing diversity to benefit the field of engineering

Not every myth has a clean rebuttal. We can’t get around the fact that the data we have on who succeeds in engineering has been deeply influenced by racism and sexism. But we can make the case for why the status quo is not a reflection of intrinsic talent—and is, in fact, harmful to the field and to society.


Go to the first myth: Engineering is a meritocracy

This article is part of the Fall 2020 issue of The Michigan Engineer magazine. Visit the issue home page to see other articles.

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