How Diversity Makes Better Engineering Teams

Written by: David C. Mays
Published on: Dec 26, 2022

female mechanical engineer
Photo credit: Gorodenkoff/Adobe Stock

Over the past few years, our awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has grown significantly. This article shows how DEI fits within the professional practice of engineering, in particular focusing on how teams with DEI lead to better outcomes.

If you want to be a good engineer, you need to develop an appreciation for DEI because engineering is not just about mathematics, science, and economics. The calling of engineering is to “advance the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” quoting from the Code of Ethics of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE; ASCE 2020). Stated another way, “It is incumbent upon us to practice and execute our duties with regard to the public interest,” quoting from AWWA's code of ethics (AWWA n.d.). Many engineering organizations have similar statements.

ASCE's code of ethics (2020) gets even more specific in the section on Society, stating engineers have an ethical responsibility to “treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness, and reject all forms of discrimination and harassment.” DEI is the opposite of discrimination and harassment, and it is fundamental to what engineers do as they work to serve the public.

Engineering Teams

Engineers typically work on teams, sometimes within their organizations, but often in project-based collaborations. Depending on the project, technical teams can include engineers from various disciplines, as well as designers, construction partners, chemists, geologists, and ecologists—the list is long. Broader projects can involve teammates in business and communications, elected officials, and groups from the general public. The days when engineers would spend most of their time alone in a cubicle are mostly over.

As a profession, the thing that makes us engineers is the application of judgment to open-ended problems—we have to bring our brains but also our hearts. In 2022, most basic engineering problems have been solved; the focus these days is on facing challenging problems that cannot be solved by anyone working alone.

Teamwork is fundamental to engineering. Moreover, teaching teamwork is fundamental in engineering education—so fundamental, in fact, that it constitutes one of the student outcomes for any engineering degree program under the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Specifically, the board's Student Outcome 5 requires engineering graduates to demonstrate “an ability to function effectively on a team whose members together provide leadership, create a collaborative and inclusive environment, establish goals, plan tasks, and meet objectives.” (ABET 2021).

Defining DEI Terms

To frame the following discussion, here are the definitions of DEI terms as provided by the Extension Foundation serving Land Grant Universities (Extension Foundation 2021).
  • Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective.
  • Equity is promoting justice, impartiality, and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems.
  • Inclusion is an outcome to ensure those that are diverse actually feel, and/or are welcomed; inclusion outcomes are met when you, your institution, and your program are truly inviting to all.

Read the full report.