The New Engineer: Management and Professional Responsibility in a Changing World – Review

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 5 Easter 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

The New Engineer: Management and Professional Responsibility in
a Changing World by Sharon Beder

Reviewed by Helen Bartlett

Beder gives little explanation of the changing world to which the title of her book
refers. However, it soon becomes apparent that the reference is to what has been termed the
environmental revolution. For many decades a small number of individuals have been expressing
concern over the impact humans are having on the planet, suggesting that the impacts are
reaching a level beyond the planet’s capacity to cope. In the 1980s and 1990s the problems
came fully to the world’s attention, not least by means of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. The
World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as
“development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future
generations to meet their own needs”[1].

Beder, a Professor of Engineering at the University of Wollongong, Australia, recognises that
engineers have a central role to play in any attempt to meet the challenges of sustainable
development. Engineers design, construct and implement the technology and infrastructure that
some people look to as the cause of destruction and others look to as the means of
deliverance. Either way, as the opening statement of the book declares “Engineering appears to
be at a turning point”. Beder is calling for change in the way that engineers are educated and
trained and in the way they develop and implement solutions.
She begins by reviewing the engineering profession in the past and present. She notes the
heavy emphasis on mathematics and science in engineering, and ascribes this to a need for
differentiation from technicians, mechanics and craftsman. She acknowledges the essential
nature of these requirements but laments the fact that little time is spent studying and
developing qualities such as judgement and creativity and expanding understanding of social
complexities, stating that “in scientific courses students learn that there is only one right
answer to the problems that are set…yet there is seldom only one solution to real life
problems, or one way of going about things.” The author believes that the overemphasis on
science has led not only to a neglect of the social dimension by engineers but also to a faith
in technological solutions that is often not warranted. Furthermore, she holds the
preoccupation with science and mathematics responsible for deterring many people from
considering engineering as a career, noting that in the past, “often it was students with a
broader range of interests and a different range of talents who were put off; those who wanted
to work with people rather than with machines and numbers, those who cared about social
issues. Too often it was the female students who were put off”. In this and other statements
she hovers close to some unhelpful stereotypes, but it cannot be denied that women are a small
minority in the engineering profession. Apparently, less than 10% of engineers in the US are
female and only 5% in Australia. No figures are given for the UK, but the statistic is
unlikely to be very different. Beder provides some interesting suggestions as to the reasons
and advises that an engineering profession that reflects the diversity of society can only be
a healthier profession.

The second part of the book presents a less than glamorous, but certainly very enlightening,
case study on the development of Sydney’s sewerage system. It focuses on decision-making and
considers how technologies become dominant. The study provides insight into engineers’ roles
in influencing public opinion. It is noted that some engineers claim only to be employees,
coming up with solutions to fit others’ criterion and within budgetary constraints set by
others. Other engineers see themselves in a position to take a central role in the decision
making process by selecting solutions and persuading superiors, politicians and the public to
accept them. It is to the latter viewpoint that Beder is calling engineers.
Finally a vision is set out for what the author calls the New Engineer. Having presented a
comprehensive argument that engineering is a social activity with political, ethical and
economic aspects, the qualities and skills which will be needed to successfully carry out such
engineering are identified. Beder envisions engineers with enhanced communication and
leadership skills, who are innovative and creative and accountable for their decisions within
the total context of economic, political, ethical, cultural and environmental issues. She
hopes that the new engineer will be able to assess the long-term consequences of his or her
work and be influential in shaping future development.

1. World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, Our Common Future, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, UK.



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