For almost a century, iron rings worn by Canadian engineers have been shrouded in mystery — at least for outsiders like me, an English professor and director of the Critical Media Lab at University of Waterloo, who teaches ethics to engineers.
The young engineering students I encounter are almost universally accepting of a “tech for good” ethos. This makes it especially surprising that a capstone ritual celebrating their profession is steeped in traditions that fly in the face of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI).
The rings are distributed at the “Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer,” which is overseen by the ominously named Seven Wardens.
In a press release on Nov. 21, the wardens stated they formed a committee “to initiate a review of the Ritual and the organization to make the Ritual more meaningful and inclusive for all candidates.”
Steeped in harmful worldviews
The announcement comes after a recently formed group called for a much-needed retooling of the ceremony.
The group includes engineers and engineering educators, students, university administrators, iron ring wardens as well as organizations like Engineers Canada, a non-profit group that “works on behalf of the provincial and territorial associations that regulate engineering practice and license the country’s 300,000 members of the engineering profession.”
As the group’s Sept. 8 “Retool the Ring” statement notes, the “ceremony is steeped in outdated and harmful worldviews, including colonialism, racism and sexism.” Moreover, “it includes readings from Christian texts, as well as language and symbolism that is explicitly religious and/or patriarchal.”
Most famously, Kipling wrote The Jungle Book. But he also penned “The White Man’s Burden.” As Charles McGrath put it in a New Yorker book review, “Kipling has been variously labelled a colonialist, a jingoist, a racist, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a right-wing imperialist warmonger.”
Authors of the Retool the Ring document suggest that beyond being steeped in harmful world views, concepts of engineering ethics championed in the ritual are outdated and short-sighted. For one, the ceremony “locates ‘bad workmanship’ in material failure, financial misconduct, and ‘professional jealousy’ — all important examples of poor engineering work — but does not mention engineers’ roles in systemic environmental or social issues, nor the importance of building and maintaining trust with communities.”
The statement notes Canadian engineers have played significant roles in colonization and “changing the Iron Ring ceremony is one appropriate response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, particularly those directed at the corporate sector and post-secondary institutions.”
Examining the problem
Following the advice of design philosopher Donald Schön, this is a good time for critical “problem setting” rather than solutionist “problem solving.”
The point in asking critical design questions is to create space in the design process to consider issues like EDI, and social and environmental impacts. Similar reflection is called for here.
How does this ritual reflect other values embedded in the engineering profession?
What does the exclusive nature of the ceremony say about the engineer’s relationship to the broader public?
Need for transparency, inclusion
The Retool the Ring statement emphasizes transparency and inclusion as key values for the engineering community to uphold. The statement notes:
“The current processes also exclude members of the public from understanding the ethical obligations of a practice that profoundly impacts their lives and worlds.”
In September 2022 I interviewed several organizers of Retool the Ring, including Robyn Mae Paul, a PhD student at the University of Calgary.
Paul said that because of the secrecy, by the time students “realize how broken the iron ring ceremony is, they are starting their careers as engineers and it’s a weird blip in their past. I believe this is why students have never advocated for change.”
Still, the so-called private but not secret ritual persists as a source of shame for many conscientious engineers. This includes Kyle Monkman, a PhD student at the University of Manitoba who identifies as Métis.
Monkman attended the ring ceremony with hesitation, only to discover its harmful colonial angle. When he expressed his concern to other engineers, he says they were dismissive, and he felt pressured to uphold the secret.
“I want people who feel uncomfortable about the ceremony to have their feelings acknowledged,” he told me.
Need for revisioning
The ceremony’s problematic past isn’t a new discovery. As writer Pierre Home-Douglas puts it in an article published by the American Society for Engineering Education, Kipling’s colonialism is “one of the challenges to present and future wardens.”
Ted Nolan, who teaches communication to first-year engineering students at the University of Toronto, sums up the situation more bluntly:
“We start their education with a land acknowledgement, and we end it with a ceremony written by a white supremacist.”
Clearly, the ceremony puts contemporary values at odds with those purporting to represent the profession. And this puts young engineers in a difficult position.
Professor of engineering Kari Zacharias expresses that conflict in plain words: “I would like to start wearing my ring again.” She attended the conference where Retool the Ring was born and is a key organizer of the initiative.
A new ceremony?
Some camps have already started revising the ritual, including Camp 5 in B.C..
Zacharias is encouraged by this, but she can also imagine a reconciliatory ceremony designed for those who have felt alienated by the Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer.
If Monkman had his way, a revised ritual should acknowledge the harms done by previous ceremonies, to ensure that the damage is not simply swept under the rug.
The organizers of Retool the Ring are hopeful that the keepers of the ritual can learn to see themselves as stewards rather than wardens, which makes the retooling an opportunity for mentorship.
Stewardship is a term advocated by the Engineering Change Lab, a Canadian non-profit collaborative platform that offers the Tech Stewardship Practice Program. This program, like Retool the Ring, addresses “systemic challenges holding back the profession’s full potential.”
Questions linger for Retool the Ring organizers following the Seven Wardens’ recent announcement.
As Zacharias asks: “How far will they go in their revisions? Who will be included in the process? And how many more potentially harmful ceremonies will take place before the revisions are finally implemented?”
Paul wants to make it clear that “removing a few religious references and adding some ‘she’ pronouns is not enough.”