By Henry Petroski
engineering journals and Web sites are full of columns and flames
about the profession getting no respect. The media ignores us, we
are told, and the public
doesn't know a professional engineer from a railroad-train operator.
are not new, nor is the image of the engineer as someone answering
a lesser calling than a "professional." Herbert Hoover
recounted in his memoirs traveling on an ocean liner and engaging
in conversation one afternoon with the woman sitting in the next
deck chair. They had been talking for some time when the woman asked
Hoover his profession. When he told her that he was an engineer
she replied, "Why, I thought you were a gentleman."
There is nothing
inherent in being an engineer or practicing engineering that makes
us lesser ladies and gentlemen than doctors, lawyers, or other professionals.
Hoover did not conform to the stereotype of the engineer, and so
he was not dismissed as "nothing but an engineer." Like
most people, in fact, engineers are perceived to be what they project
themselves to be. If we do not dress appropriately for the occasion,
carry on an intelligent conversation with a stranger, or handle
our silverware properly at meals, then we run the risk of commanding
less respect than we may wish.
But the most
fundamental fact is that the respect we get from those outside the
profession is unlikely ever to be more than we show for ourselves.
One obvious manifestation of what we think of ourselves is how we
dine. Luncheons and banquets are often the social highlights of
professional meetings, and they are the venues where old acquaintances
are renewed and new ones formed. They are also the times when we
reveal our social selves, especially through our conversation and
our table manners. Some engineers may pride themselves in not knowing
which fork to use, but that kind of boast is not likely to get them
mistaken for ladies and gentlemen in a social setting.
In the past
year, I have attended many professional meetings, including a few
sponsored by groups consisting mainly of lawyers and librarians.
A number of these meetings have been associated with committee work,
and so they have met several times each year, thus establishing
patterns rather than just presenting isolated cases.
of the meetings have sometimes but not always been grand, but the
meals have always been civilized and civilizing. One group consists
largely of lawyers, and all of our luncheons and dinners have been
sit-down affairs in dining rooms, with pressed linens and the full
array of silver, and with food to equal the table setting. Another
committee on which I serve consists entirely of engineers. This
group meets in the exact same building in Washington as the first,
but we always eat in the committee room, perching our self-made
sandwiches on our papers. I cannot say that the group of engineers
gets any more work done over lunch than the lawyers.
When the committee
on library resources on which I sit meets in Washington, it does
so in a well-known club. Lunch is served in a separate dining room,
in which the librarians appear to be quite at home. This is not
to say that engineers cannot feel at home in a private club. I recently
gave a public lecture to an engineers association whose venue was
a club in Chicago where the engineers appeared to be as familiar
with the surroundings as the lawyers and architects in attendance.
meetings I have attended do not take place in such a setting, however,
but in a motel function room, often with extra tables and chairs
stacked up in the rear. Engineers who are used to dealing with business
people and other professionals must certainly appreciate the differences
between holding a meeting in a motel and in a club, between eating
a buffet and a served meal. What impression of engineers can we
expect any non-engineers (including architects, lawyers, and media
representatives) in attendance to take away from the different types
of budget and access affect where engineers or anyone else can meet
and under what conditions. And it is not always possible, desirable,
or appropriate to meet in nicer surroundings and schedule a sit-down
meal. But if engineers do not make the choice of doing so at least
on occasion, we should be asking why. Do engineers not have the
same meeting budgets or the same access to social venues as architects,
lawyers, doctors, and business people do? If not, why not? Are we
not just as much ladies and gentlemen? If not, why not?
How any profession
is perceived is very much under the control of its members and their
collective surrogates, the professional societies. We should behave
as we wish to be perceived. If we want to be shown the deference
accorded doctors and lawyers, we should conduct ourselves accordingly.
We should not want any stranger we might sit beside on an airplane
or at a dinner party to express surprise that ladies and gentlemen
can also be engineers.
Petroski is A.S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering
and a professor of history at Duke University.
He is the author of several books on engineering and design,
the latest of which is entitled The Book on the Bookshelf.