At the beginning of the fall semester, I wrote an article about the gender ratio in the engineering school, and the ways that Cornell’s College of Engineering could better create a more inclusive environment towards women. I received a lot of supportive feedback on the article, but I was particularly struck by the backlash. The comment section of the Facebook post was filled with people who claimed that women, and as they inferred, people of color, were stealing valuable spots from white men who were more “deserving”; namely, they had better grades and more previous experience in engineering. They just couldn’t seem to comprehend why it’s genuinely necessary to have diversity in a field that literally shapes the world a vast majority of the population lives in. Even aside from the obvious ethical and moral necessity of student body diversity at a world-class university like Cornell, diversity is crucial for the future and success of the school.
Engineering is an inherently creative field. Perhaps not as obviously as the fine arts or music, it’s really the field of using experience and highly developed technical skills learned through years of grueling classes to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. In fewer words, it’s the practice of design under real-world considerations and constraints. There is never a single answer to an engineering question. The ability to solve such problems stems from knowledge and experience. Creativity and problem solving occur as a result of the intersection of life experience and learning, yes, but just as important is the impact of our backgrounds and previous life experiences. A diverse set of engineers working on a solution are capable of seeing the world through the most varied lens possible, opening a world of possibility that can’t be accessed by a homogenous group of individuals from the same background, such as the groups of white men in the past that still dominate the engineering workforce today.
You certainly can understand engineering as meant for those who have gotten A’s at prestigious private schools and amassed previous technical experience, a lens that individuals from certain backgrounds seem to monopolize. However, this not-so-unique perspective fades in importance relative to recruiting individuals from all backgrounds who are capable of learning at the level demanded by the College of Engineering.
The most straightforward standpoint might be to consider the engineering sins of the past and present, when groups not represented by the homogenous group of engineers and designers suffer the consequences. Many devices have been designed solely with the male user in mind — sometimes even proving fatal to its female users. Crash test dummies used by car manufacturers to evaluate the safety of their cars are based on the build of the average man. Even when a “female” dummy is used, it’s just a scaled-down version of the male dummy, entirely ignoring the significant anatomical differences between the sexes. When involved in a car crash, women are 17 percent more likely to die and 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured, even when controlling for crash intensity, use of a seatbelt, height and weight. Due to anatomical differences, women sit differently in cars than is considered the “standard seating position”, putting them at a far greater risk of injury.
In construction, almost every material and piece of equipment is unwieldy (at best) for its female workers. The standard size of a bag of cement is comfortable for the average man, but too heavy for the average woman to lift. Standard tools like the wrench are too large for female hands to comfortably grip, leading to more fatigue during the workday, and injuries over time. Personal protective equipment used by employees in a large variety of fields who work in hazardous conditions are designed based on the build and facial structure of the average white man. In 2016, a study conducted by a trade union organization found that 57 percent of women found their ability to perform their jobs impeded by their PPE. Protective equipment such as goggles or face masks were designed for the clean shaven, white male face and therefore do a poor job protecting the faces of women, men of color or even men with significant facial hair. Manufacturers and employers use PPE for women that are simply smaller versions of those made for men — a gross oversight clearly due to the prevalence of men within the engineering design field. Items such as fall-arrest harnesses are meant to be worn with straps around the chest, hips and thighs — in which women’s bodily proportions differ greatly from men’s. In such a case, a safe and uneventful fall for a man could prove devastatingly injurious or even fatal for a woman. Such issues are compounded even more for women who become pregnant and need to continue to work.
The examples go on and on; I could write ten articles about this topic. But here’s the short story: when engineers don’t represent you in their design of your everyday objects and devices, it can prove fatal. You could die, you could be fatally injured and at best you’ll be significantly hindered every step of the way.
Diversity comes in a great variety of forms; more than just gender and race, we must also consider income, nationality, sexual orientation and neurodiversity, just to name a few. The issues of the future are some of the most daunting ever faced, and to solve them we need the best — read diverse — set of engineers we can possibly get. And yes, I’m okay with a few white men with higher SAT scores not getting into the College of Engineering to ensure a better future for everyone.
Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bet on It runs every other Monday this semester.