This week has had more than its fair share of depressing news, but I had a personally depressing moment yesterday when I saw that one of my favored very nerdy chat groups had an explosive thread about how “social justice warriors” are ruining engineering. This chat group is usually quite apolitical and consists mostly of electrical engineers of various stripes and skill levels helping each other out with their projects. Need a filter with a certain response? Need to know how to safely interface a triac to a microcontroller? Want to know how to write VHDL? Measure the time between two pulses on the order of nanoseconds? Calculate the feedpoint impedance of a certain dipole antenna? This is the place for all that.
Well, for the last couple of days it’s also been the place to hear men complain about Social Justice Warriors who want to ruin engineering by making it more amenable to women.
I don’t have the energy or time to break down what a bunch of toxic baloney such protestation is. It’s been covered well enough in the articles and threads discussing the infamous Google memo. In short, though you can (and right wingers do) almost always find someone on the left saying something dumb, or, more often, something that requires a effort plus a wealth of context to understand (and typical academic writing exacerbates this problem), questioning why women do not often pursue engineering careers remains perfectly valid. Doing so does not imply that you ultimately expect male/female participation in engineering to be 50/50, but it does mean that you want whatever ratio ultimately emerges to be based on the preferences and aptitudes of the individuals involved, rather than, say, the preferences of their would-be professors, colleagues, mentors, companies they might work for, parents, etc. It also doesn’t mean that there are not systematic differences between the sexes. It only means that each individual’s opportunities depend on their own particular gifts, not the average of some particular group of which they might be a member.
Is this rocket science? Are we seriously still debating this shit?
Part of my consternation comes from my particular boundary-straddling lifestyle. I like to tell people I am an engineer by training and temperament. But I also live in the world of policy analysis and social science. And I’ll tell you, I’m tired of hearing engineers and social scientists insult each other and disparage the way the other group thinks. The reality is that both groups could use a dose of the others’ discipline. Social scientists, particularly ones who want to implement programs, could learn a lot from the grim conservative (small “c”) pragmatism that engineers bring to problem-solving — the understanding that nature doesn’t want your machine (or program) to work, and you have to design your program so that it works despite nature. Similarly, engineers really need to know much more about human behavior, human experience, and history. Knowing how your creations will affect people may slow you down, but it will make your work so much more valuable in the long run with less potential for negative consequences.
Anyway, I want a hat that says “Engineers for Social Justice.”