Advice for whimsical engineers

A frequently-repeated admonition that I receive every time I complain about higher-order Maslow needs, particularly with regards to my present career is that given my socioeconomic background, and additionally, the relative absence of further support infrastructure that everyone else seems to enjoy (i.e. a family in the present continent), is that reliable income is paramount to my well-being. For someone with a more conventional temperament and long-terms needs, I am sure this notion would be applicable and even appreciated, but as of late, I have been seeing that there are larger costs to me continuing on with my current vocation than to leave it. I don’t know what, if any, the economic costs are for continuing along the same path but for the sake of my mental health and overall wellbeing, it’s probably advisable to make other arrangements in the near future.

Given this debacle, I approached Dr. Debbie Chachra, an associate professor at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, an alumnus of U of T engineering on her advice for someone in my position. Dr. Chachra has been long involved in issues related to engineering education, and in particular, issues related to women in STEM fields and I thought she would be among the best to guide me in this regard, given our mutual interest in social justice issues.

The most salient thing she said, that resonated with my experiences within the engineering community is this:

I often joke that it took me more than a decade to deprogram myself from the brainwashing that you get in engineering – that engineers are better, smarter, more rational than other people; that caring about people or wanting to work with them is ‘soft’ and a waste of your time and talents.

Indeed, throughout my undergraduate career, I have been told repeatedly, by peers, faculty and many non-engineers alike, that somehow engineers were better at being proactive problem-solving citizens and we are rewarded more for it. Through experience though, I have found a large number of engineers to lack appreciation of the sociocultural context that they do their work in, and when they do, they are reluctant to take strong oppositional stances against current cycles of injustice. As such, engineering work feels depoliticized to the engineer, when it is in fact not, and is often used to maintain and perpetuate a certain global paradigm of power, especially in the resource-based industries. Even if an engineer happens to be vigilant about social issues, bureaucratic obstacles prevent serious organizational change to occur. Even in academia, there still remain basic obstacles, as Dr. Chachra observes as follows.

One of the best things about Olin is that I’m part of a cohort of six or so faculty who are deeply involved in issues of women and technology. At many engineering schools, faculty who care about gender (who are usually women) can easily feel really isolated. Whereas I feel that we not only support each other, but there’s enough of us (Olin is so small that together we’re almost a fifth of the total faculty!) that we can’t really be institutionally marginalized. And, in fact, we get a lot of support from the College, because our work on gender lines up with our goal to make engineering education better – see what I said about being someplace with shared values?

Shared values is probably the pillar in which careers of people should ideally be built on, even if economic stability is the end goal. However, as it remains, certain career prospects, especially those in the arts, are automatically dismissed as unrealistic by most traditionalists, because of the tangible fears regarding finance. I’d like to make the suggestion that this is not because the arts/humanities/social justice causes pay less because they bring less value into our societies, but because, the current structures of power have decided we should value them less.

This is not a system I feel comfortable supporting any longer. I never have. However, in the meantime, I’ll try to make it less of a waste of time and take some pages from George Monbiot.

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