Moving Toward More Equitable Classrooms and Workplaces

In time for Pride Month, insights from a noted researcher address both LGBTQ+ equality issues in engineering and how the passion principle perpetuates inequality.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

No one could miss a hopeful nationwide groundswell for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout STEM and tech industries. It’s trumpeted in news headlines, job opportunities, and earnest discussions on social media.

But cultural standard-bearers in the engineering industry still interpret diversity concerns as “polluting” the efficient, objective context of engineering, says Erin A. Cech, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology and mechanical engineering (by courtesy) at the University of Michigan. Dr. Cech, who identifies as queer, has researched LGBT-identifying engineering students — many of whom were not open about their sexuality to anyone else at their colleges or universities.

Erin A. Cech, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and mechanical engineering (by courtesy), University of Michigan

Dr. Cech rejects the very notion that engineering is objective. Engineering “is inherently cultural and political because engineering is done by people,” she said.

In fact, even the most casual conversation can ignite a backlash. “Someone casually talking at work about [going out on] a date with someone of the same gender is seen as politicized, even though people in heterosexual relationships may talk about those relationships at work all the time,” Dr. Cech said.

“This perception of LGBTQ+ equality issues as somehow polluting shuts down the conversations necessary for greater inclusion in engineering,” she said.

You may be asking, “What? This is going on nearly three decades after Tom Hanks starred in the movie ‘Philadelphia,’ based on the true story of a lawyer who sued the world’s largest law firm for firing him because he had AIDS?” And three years after “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a biopic about bisexual rock god Freddie Mercury, became the highest-revenue music biopic of all time, grossing more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide off of a budget of $52 million?

Well, yes.

After all, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 28 signed what critics have called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law, prohibiting “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s public schools. And Republican lawmakers in dozens of states have proposed laws since Jan. 1 that would limit the rights of transgender and nonbinary youths, including their ability to participate in sports, receive gender-affirming care, or use the bathroom.

“Even if people are personally committed to equality, the profession doesn’t often value or leave room for these kinds of considerations,” Dr. Cech said. “New generations of engineers are educated in the same way, over and over, to [accept traditional and often biased] values and expectations of what it means to be an engineer.”

The key is to change engineering education, Dr. Cech said, and that’s a tall order. “That’s where professional socialization happens,” she said of the classroom. “We want to train engineers to have a different assessment of what excellence means, and to have that assessment include equitable workplaces.”

“We want to train engineers to have a different assessment of what excellence means, and to have that assessment include equitable workplaces.”

– Erin A. Cech, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and mechanical engineering (by courtesy), University of Michigan

“But that’s often a roadblock,” Dr. Cech said. “When we look at the engineering workforce overall, the gender, racial, and LGBTQ biases are worst in academia, even compared with industry.”

Yet beacons of light shine through, such as the Colorado School of Mines’ Humanitarian Engineering program, she said.

“They bring conversations about access and diversity into what it means to think about engineering problems and what the solutions are meant to be,” Dr. Cech said. “They’re designing these kinds of concerns into the curriculum from the ground up. It is an inspiring space. But they’re so inspiring because they’re so distinct.”

Beware Your Passion as a Path to Inequality

Dr. Cech’s newest work — the book The Trouble with Passion: How Searching for Fulfillment at Work Fosters Inequality — stems from experimental data, surveys of U.S. workers, and Dr. Cech’s interviews that follow students from college into the workforce.

The result explains how “the passion principle” perpetuates inequality by class, gender, and race. That’s partly because the concept helps culturally legitimize and reproduce an exploited, overworked white-collar labor force.

“The ripple effects of this mantra undermine the promise of college as a tool for social and economic mobility,” according to a synopsis from the University of California Press.

The synopsis continues, “The passion principle also feeds into a culture of overwork, encouraging white-collar workers to tolerate precarious employment and gladly sacrifice time, money, and leisure for work they are passionate about. And potential employers covet, but won’t compensate, passion among job applicants.

“This book asks, ‘What does it take to center passion in career decisions? Who gets ahead and who gets left behind by passion-seeking?’”

“To tie our identities so closely to our work is existentially risky and can wear us down,” Dr. Cech said. “Divorcing the idea that you have to be employed in the thing that you love can bring freedom.”

One way to escape the never-ending 14-hour days tied to a computer and being always available to our employer, Dr. Cech said, is to learn valuable skills outside of our specific passions. Engineering students might learn skills in accounting and technical writing, for example, to give them greater job stability and to open up space for “meaning making” in their lives.

“We need to make sure that we diversify our meaning-making portfolios,” Dr. Cech said, “by investing the time in activities we find fulfilling outside of work — volunteering, painting, exercising, or other fulfilling practices.”