Why social justice in engineering, anyways?

…a new concept of engineering education, practice, and knowledge production which centers justice and activism for peoples historically marginalized by our field…

This is a an overview of sorts for a new concept of engineering education, practice, and knowledge production which centers justice and activism for peoples historically marginalized by our work. I envision a future where we call ourselves social justice engineers and where we proudly say our work can be called social justice engineering.

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What is engineering?

This question has as many answers as there are engineers. It is a culture, a way of thinking and acting, an identity we hold – many in engineering do not hesitate to qualify their statements with “I am an engineer.” But what does it meant to be an engineer – whether a chemical engineer or a social justice engineer? I’d love to share a few articles (linked in text) and citations (at the end) for readers who are interested in learning more about these rich subjects.

Engineering verses Science

Steven H. VanderLeest wrote about the distinction in an article Engineering Is Not Science, noting that definitions of engineering do not resemble science noting that “engineering has its own body of knowledge independent of science… targeted at optimizing practical value to meet human needs.” They put together a number of writings and thoughts by authors such as Clive Dym on the subject into a succinct article. While science may often be described as a systematic observation, measurement, experiment, and formation of positivist empirical theories, engineering on the other hand is a “process in which designers generate, evaluate, and specify concepts for devices, systems, or processes whose form and function achieve clients’ objectives or users’ needs while satisfying a specified set of constraints.” [1,2] Engineering centers a capitalist production model – taking money and requests, outputting a device or product.

It is disproportionately human centered when compared to what is defined as science. It all relates to people, our environment, and our lives. It should make sense that we should strive to understand who we are, what our impacts are, and the ways in which our work may be harming or helping others. This includes moving past money / clients in our definition of engineering.

Engineering Culture

Anyone who has stepped into an engineering workplace knows it has a distinct and unique culture – a way of talking, a way of joking, a way of relating, and a way of being. The (often problematic) comic strip Dilbert relates several key elements – a work-oriented, money producing, “technical” focus, and lack of social engagement or understanding of social systems. This includes social justice, equity, and inclusion.

Image result for engineer comic

It is a heavily male dominated field – just about 13% of engineers are women – and this is before getting into racial discrepancies, LGBTQ+ exclusion, and diminishment of engineers with disabilities. Many women certainly want to be within engineering but as Aurora stated in an article in the Harvard Business Review:

The environment was creepy, with older weirdo man engineers hitting on me all the time and a sexist infrastructure was in place that kept female interns shuffling papers while their oftentimes less experienced male counterparts had legitimate engineering assignments.

A commenter D Kilo on this article puts together thoughts very similar to my own:

I have struggled to be a successful engineer for 10 years. I went into this career since I loved math. It is definitely not what I expected and even though I hate use gender as my struggle to succeed I have been assigned 95% CAD work even as I see my male peers doing the projects. No more of this. I hate to throw in the towel but I am done with engineering. You guys can have it. No more will I have to face this discrimination. I will tell all females in STEM to stay out of engineering. This is pathetic.

Engineering culture devalues women [3]. Women often have to alter themselves to meet the male-centered culture or else be culturally pushed out. This is even before we include gender nonconforming and nonbinary engineers, queer and trans women of color in engineering, and the harsh marginalization of Muslim and Jewish engineers amongst many others into this culture.

There are few scholars in the field as prolific as Erin Cech and Donna Riley in producing ground shattering scholarship on engineering culture and its many facets. Erin Cech has identified a culture of disengagement in engineering. Despite engineering’s near universal focus on human impact, it seems to be completely separated from issues of public welfare and social justice – with our education pushing students further and further away from these subjects. This is sometimes known as a social/technical dualism which is a central part of our educational system. They also describe depolitization in our culture – this is the notion that building an oil pipeline or a large wall or a prison is not political. To most engineers, the “public” is the employer and the governmental regulations. Engineering is just a cut-and-dry matter of paid work [4].  We know this is not OK in our gut, and in our heart. There are many paths forward which all center a focus on a new conceptualization of social justice as the core discipline of engineering.

Engineering, Feminism, Social Justice, Peace

There is so much exciting work being done to push the horizons of what we call engineering.

In Engineering and Social Justice by Donna Riley – available for free – the case for a synthesis of social justice theory, activism, and practice within engineering is elegantly laid out for those new to the subject.

By offering several definitions of social justice, they summarize the subject as involving itself in “the struggle to end different kinds of oppresson, to create economic equalty, to uphold human rights or dignity, and to restore right relationships among all people and the environment.” Riley weaves a very intricate picture of the engineering profession’s connections to war, to environmental destruction, adherence to hierarchy and class exploitation, and conservative detatchment from anything attached to “liberalism” or “leftist politics.” As many who take a critical look would find, social justice is not bound to any political left-right electoral politics, but exists as a broad push for positive change.

Riley cites two scholars, George Catalano and Caroline Baillie, and their alternative proposal for a new socially just engineering design paradigm:

“they present an example of the design of a grape harvester that threatens to displace workers by automating the harvesting process traditionally done by hand. By asking about not only the problem definition and technical aspects of the solution but also the impacts on farm workers and their way of life, they arrive at different crossroads: one in which there are no easy answers, and one in which the way forward might involve seeking new solutions with the involvement of the farm workers themselves.”

This is in stark contrast to the social-technical divide and the culture of disengagement described earlier by Cech. Whereas most engineers would typically build what was asked for them in exchange for their salary, activism and resistance in engineering would question the project and perhaps focus on those impacted by the work and seek to create justice all peoples involved and impacted. This includes social justice between engineers themselves – kind, loving, affirming, welcoming, environments. Looked at another way, this means between each other we adopt anti-racist, anti-fascist, feminist, and liberation-centered human relations.

What would a degree which centered social justice look like? This transformative possibility of integrating feminism within engineering education is explained in a paper by Donna Riley, Alice L. Pawley, Jessica Tucker, and George D. Catalano [5].

… we know that a feminist movement sensitive to the concerns of women of color, of poor women, of queer women, of women living in the global south, and of women with disabilities would need to confront racism, imperialism, militarism, homophobia, and other social justice issues… taking a transformative feminist perspective in engineering, therefore, might mean fighting for representation of all women, as well as men of color and other underrepresented groups in engineering, but it might also entail raising concerns about engineering’s links to militarism, ecological sustainability, and global economic equality.

Building off of this, they offer these provocative questions for us to consider as we strive for an ethics of radical care:

  • For whom do engineers work? How do these work relations reinforce or resist classed, gendered, or raced power relations?
  • What is the place of science in engineering’s application? Where is the place in engineering for sociology, anthropology, and other such social sciences? What is the nature of power relations between science and engineering, how have they changed over time, and how do cultural stereotypes compare scientists and engineers while still valuing hegemonic classed masculinity?
  • What problems do engineers in practice actually solve? What kind of problems seem not worth investigating by engineers?
  • What populations benefit from engineers’ solutions, and what populations are overlooked? Why are these populations overlooked, and what populations bear unintended consequences or penalties of engineering solutions?
  • Why are certain problems or forms of knowledge considered out side the scope of engineering in educational contexts? Where does knowledge about domestic work, caring work, and peace work fall in relation to engineering knowledge?

I am particularly moved by the notion of Peace Engineering. This would complicate our complicity in working for corporations and governmental entities which create war implements, deploy the military, and create human or economic harm upon others as an  example. P. Aarne Vesilind in 2006 wrote an article entitled Peace Engineering which provided a great entry into this subject [6]:

The engineer is sophisticated in creating technology, but unsophisticated in understanding its application. As a result, engineers have historically been employed as hired guns, doing the bidding of both political rulers and wealthy corporations. But today, a new kind of engineering is emerging—one rooted in the greater ideals and aspirations of engineering as a service to all of humanity… Peace engineering, as I envision it, is the proactive use of engineering skills to promote a peaceful and just existence for all … some engineers come to peace engineering after having been, perhaps unknowingly, practicing military engineering.

I myself worked for the Department of Defense for over three years. This played a major role in my own turn towards peace and social justice. I assisted in the maintenance and deployment of military craft in the middle east and the reinforcement of the dams upon the Columbia River. It is through this participation that I, myself, have gained insight into the horrors of military engineering and its innocuous perception. In addition to being a queer woman in engineering guiding my work, I carry this history upon my shoulders. Put together, I cannot see an engineering which does not consider all elements of social justice into its practice and application, let alone its education. If engineering is concerned with – as we started out with – humans, clients, and users – we must consider all of them (and the unmentioned other beings, environments, and cultures) in our work.

What do you think?

Moving Forward

Ok, soooo this is a blog for my thoughts, and a chance to share my interests with the internet-at-large. I do not have answers right here, and I have opened up a thousand tiny doors each with a thousand big questions in this post. I hope this has helped to open the door to those new to these questions and lines of thought and that in future posts I can detail further what I am reading, what I am working on, what I believe in, and my vision for a more equitable loving and socially just engineering culture.

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[1] VanderLeest, S. (2012). Engineering Is Not Science. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 64(1):20-30.

[2] Dym, C. et. al. (2005). Engineering Design Thinking, Teaching, and Learning. Journal of Engineering Education, 96(1):103-120.

[3] Powell, A., Bagihole, B., Dainty, A. (2009). How Women Engineers Do and Undo Gender: Consequences for Gender Equality. Gender, Work, & Organization, 16(4):411-428.

[4] Cech, E. (2014). Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education? Science, Technology, & Human Values, 39(1):42-73. 

[5] Riley, D., Pawley, A., Tucker, J., Catalano, G. (2009). Feminisms in Engineering Education: Transformative Possibilities. National Women’s Studies Association Journal, 21(2):21-40.

[6] Vesilind, P. A. (2006). Peace Engineering. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice. October pp. 283-287.




Author: Andrea Haverkamp

Andrea Haverkamp holds a PhD in environmental engineering with a minor in queer studies. Her dissertation research explored the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education. She is currently a labor organizer in Washington state.

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