July 14, 2020
By Dr. Adetoun Yeaman and Dr. Sreyoshi Bhaduri
Even as the world grapples with the debilitating COVID-19 pandemic, the past few weeks have found many in our communities struggling with the repercussions of another long, vicious pandemic – that of racism. Some of us had the privilege to switch off the news and take a break from social media. But for about 25% of the United States, which includes people of color, even stepping away to seek respite and bolster mental health is a privilege that few can afford. In these times, more than ever, empathy is an important skill which can help individuals work towards better inclusion.
Empathy is the ability to see the world through another’s perspective. Casually, empathy is defined as the act of putting oneself in another person’s shoes. Through being in another person’s shoes, an individual may have the opportunity to gain a deeper or more meaningful understanding of what someone else may have lived and experienced. This ability thus allows individuals to be sensitized to others’ needs and sufferings. The way past indifference and towards allyship aimed at inclusion is illuminated primarily through empathy. Author Chinua Achebe, in his collection of essays, hints at lack of empathy being a result of an unimaginative brain.
Like any other professional development skill, empathy is one that needs to be developed and once developed, continually honed. For engineers, this skill is twice-blessed; it allows engineers to connect not only with the people they impact but also the individuals they work with, as they work in teams to solve problems, engage in design and innovate on technologies. While empathy is a human ability, possessed by everyone, studies suggest it can be enhanced or diminished in various instances.
In the United States, empathy found prominence in conversations on race and racial disparities through the works of Kenneth Clark in the second quarter of the 20th century. There has been more recent discourse on empathy and its importance in the engineering field in the 21st century. Many intentional efforts are being made to incorporate empathy into engineering curricula and prepare future engineers to be more empathic. Some conceptualizations of empathy relevant to engineering include the framework for empathy in design, which describes empathy as a process of discovery followed by immersion, connection and detachment; and the model of empathy in engineering, which presents empathy as a way of being, a practice orientation and a learnable skill. People can learn to be empathic!