Prism Magazine September 2001




Expecting Respect

- By Henry Petroski

American 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.

Such impressions 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.

The venues 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.

Many engineering 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 meetings?

Clearly questions 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.


Henry 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.