I've been mulling about my iron ring ceremony lately. It's a ceremony where you make a professional obligation to adhere to good professional practice and be responsible. In Canada, nearly all practicing engineers wear an iron ring as a symbol of their commitment. I'm not much for fanfare but my family is absolutely fawning over my iron ring. Yet, I still have a bitter taste in my mouth about the whole thing.
The first thing that bothers me is that it's supposed to be "secret". We were only allowed so many guests to the ceremony, and everyone was supposed to pledge to refrain from divulging any details about the whole thing, lest we ruin the "spirit of the occasion" or something. Doesn't that strike you as odd? We're here pledging our commitment to public safety, honour, and good practice, but you can't watch. Everyone go away and let us be noble and dignified in secret.
Yet, at the same time, the handouts I received from my school before the presentation stressed the fact that the ceremony is not in fact secretive or private. They just, you know, insist that you vow not to ever tell anyone anything about it. Totally different.
Global News Vancouver on "secret" engineering ceremony.
Ok, so big deal, engineers want to have their (our?) own little treehouse club member initiation. Animal sacrifice optional. Big deal. So what bothers me? I'll let APEGGA describe it, from http://www.apegga.org/About/ironr.html:
"Like many established symbols, in recent years, the iron ring ceremony has come under criticism. It is viewed by some as sexist and by others as archaic. Some argue that the ceremony should be public. Others suggest it relies excessively on Judeo - Christian principles. Some feel that language should be changed to reflect current times by eliminating any reference to gender or to God. Others simply state that the overall tone is inappropriate for these enlightened times."
Yes. Excellent. Not only is it all of those things, but they are clearly aware of it, acknowledge it, and make no move to change any of this despite repeated pleas for inclusion by various new members of the profession. I felt incredibly uncomfortable during the ceremony when anything non-inclusive came up and was immediately prefaced with, more or less "Some of you may feel left out or offended, but you shouldn't be offended because that will ruin our vibe" It was like waving a giant "Yeah, so what? Suck it!" in the face of anyone who felt left out.
What are the arguments for preserving the tradition as is? One is that it's not a requirement to be a practicing engineer. Fair enough, they aren't preventing anyone from graduating or working because of any silly willy personal objections they might have to swearing an oath that they don't believe in, or anything. However, simply not barring anyone from participating in the ceremony is not the same thing as actively supporting and including everyone! Shouldn't it be their (our?) goal to welcome everyone into the profession, regardless of culture or gender? I've been accused of being oversensitive, but I really did feel during the ceremony as though the ceremony was really for Christian men, and the rest of us were just being allowed to participate so that we didn't throw a fuss.
Another argument I've heard is the, "It's tradition" bit. A lot of things are tradition. That doesn't hide what they really are. I realize that a 85 years or so is basically forever in Canadian history, but it's kind of a flash in the pan on a bigger scale. Societies, cultures, words and meanings change over time. I certainly understand the desire to preserve the meanings of the tradition, but I don't agree that it means that we have to keep the wording exactly the same. If it has a noble and honourable meaning, surely it can be conveyed equally well with a slightly different set of language. For example, I don't see how changing the words "son" or "man/men" to "children" or "people" in any way alters the deeper meaning of anything, unless the deeper meaning is "women can't be engineers". Likewise, I don't feel that promising something on your personal honour/integrity or to a higher power, if you believe in one, is any less of a commitment than promising something unto God the Creator, unless the meaning of that part of the ceremony is "I promise to believe in Jesus." In which case you should not be labelling your ceremony or group of people as representative of a certain more diverse population (engineers) or as inclusive.
Overall, the messages I got were:
"We aren't binding you to secrecy, just asking you not to tell anyone"
"We're inclusive, we just refuse to use language that includes people who aren't like us."
"Don't make a fuss."
So I really don't know what to say to people when they ask me how my graduation or iron ring ceremony was. There certainly is a lot of value in committing yourself to the betterment of society, yourself, and your profession. And I'm sure it can be very meaningful to be welcomed into a group of people that will support you in those goals. I'm just not feeling it.