Opinion piece written for and submitted to ICE Publishing (on 24 May 2016), also timely for National Women in Engineering Day on 23 June 2016, a shortened version is published here
Sexism is everywhere. Julia Gillard’s speech still starkly springs to my mind (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2011) and Grayson Perry’s recent BBC documentary “All Man” discussing masculinity is a good example too. Or the collection of women-at-work issues summed up in the article by Barnett and Rivers (2016). It’s not hard to grasp that something is askew. Yet, chauvinism, or patriarchy for another word, manifests itself in different ways. It can be overt and it can be covert, conscious or subconscious. But it’s happening, every day, as painstakingly documented by the Everyday Sexism Project. Sexism is intricately interwoven into our living fabric, everyone’s fabric. A recent article described that in the UK it’s gone underground and is now harder to detect, and challenge, whereas in Germany, my home country, it’s much more in-your-face and direct (Kokot, 2015). Both forms are wearing, destructive and harming societies, economies, efficiency and well-being on the whole. Both forms need challenging, by women and by men, everybody who sees it.
It’s not easy. Often we can’t quite put our finger on it. It’s invisible. Firstly, I feel, we have to confront our own inherent confirmation bias and acknowledge the real scale of the challenge we are facing. Then again, it’s eye-poppingly obvious: the gender paygap or the gender representation in board rooms. Women do not only have much less of a say in decision making and their future, women also work for free after 9 November in every year (Kollewe, 2015). Gender equity in engineering at universities will be reached somewhere around 2050, if we keep progressing at the current rate (Horner, 2015:9). A long wait for society.
In 1996, when 23 years old, I left Germany to complete my civil engineering studies in the UK and US. I finally settled in Newcastle, UK, in 2001 and have worked here ever since. I am 43 now, and I still remember well the excitement about my first job, how I was busy absorbing new concepts and tricks of the trade, keen to deliver the best quality work – and trying to fit in. A German woman in the UK, in a male-dominated environment. Full of exhilaration and gratefulness. It was only when I turned 30 or thereabouts that some things started to jar. Male counterparts were promoted, when it logically and arithmetically was my turn. I was treated differently in appraisals and my training and development needs were postponed, again and again. I left my current company and embarked on “hopping around” a bit. I became chartered. Each hop bumped me up the scale of responsibilities and opened up new and interesting projects to work on. All the while, men and women were still treated differently at my first employer: the women engineers waiting for promotion, men getting ahead. I had taken initiative, parted, and it had worked, for me, for now.
The penny eventually dropped whilst working in the public sector. I looked around and swallowed the red pill, and it did feel like a big-screen moment – Neo in The Matrix. There was no going back now. I am certain most woman engineers of a certain age can identify with this penny-dropping moment: we start to ask ourselves questions, and realise there are no rational answers. Why did they think I was the note-taker – and not the lead project engineer – in that meeting? Why was it me being made responsible for the coffees again, seemingly by default? What should I wear, to visibly project what I do and stand for? My most comical moment happened when I turned up on a construction site by bike, and was mistaken for the cleaning lady: “the messroom and toilet block are over there” – when in all actuality I was the most senior technical person on site. We all had a chuckle. And, yes, you often will be the only woman in a meeting (the twitter hashtag #allmalepanel is quite therapeutic in that respect). Women are regularly bending backwards to fit in as Powell and colleagues describe it (2012) and thereby we lose parts of our self, identify and meaning. It sounds exhausting. And it is.
We, women, are trying to fit into a system where we often do not know the rules. We have not been involved in writing the rules. Oftentimes they do not feel natural, or seem arbitrary. It’s a system that has moving goal-posts. Masculinity has something to answer for. All of us should be busy talking about degendering and diversifying the workplace, complete with the challenges this brings and the benefits and rewards it brings. “It’s always been like that” should not be an acceptable answer and consigned to history. In fact, this sentence, in many ways, is an indicator. It shows you the limits and the exclusivity of the current system. I realised that in my mid-thirties, growing increasingly frustrated by the limitations the system placed on my general development.
What do I mean by degendering? It’s about becoming aware of what we are doing in our everyday interactions, our behaviour, perceptions and habits. A good question to ask would be “would a man have been treated differently in this situation?” I really enjoy the twitter account @manwhohasitall who does exactly that and turns the tables. Do have a look at their timeline. It makes for a stunning discovery, some choking, and some solid chuckles too. Talking about a very human trait, confirmation bias, should now be second nature at work places. Confirmation bias is an automatic reaction, and anyone uneducated in its existence will carry on as usual. Any employer serious about reaping the benefits of a diverse workforce should educate its employees on confirmation bias. So that we stop only hearing what we know or want we want to hear. Yes, humans are fallible. However much it hurts, it’s true, and the first step of advancement, as always, is acknowledgement. Read Nobel-prize winner Kahneman’s book “thinking fast and slow” if you haven’ already. It hands out enlightenment on our human cognitive biases in buckets. Our minds are riddled with pitfalls and traps. Engineers ought to know.
So, feminism? Well, whatever you want to call it. Any cause that’s improving diversity, equality and fairness in engineering, and the wider population, is worth pursuing. We are making better decisions, the more diverse the inputs and the debates are. Including women voices in city planning, or disability voices in transport equality debates are the signs of a mature inclusive society. Workplaces should be no different.
And talking about different. We are all different. I am a woman engineer. I am a cyclist. I am a vegetarian (mostly). I am German (mostly). I am all these things, and more; I am sure we all are, many different things. Diversity starts with ourselves and recognising our own differences, to recognise and accept others’ differences – and celebrate it, together. It’s important as limiting others, reduces how they can behave and express themselves. It limits their productivity, creativity, ability to innovate, relate and teamwork.
As for the ultimate test? Would I recommend engineering as a career choice to fellow women? Yes and no. You will be a stranger in a strange land and at times you will feel that “they” just don’t get you. But some of us are trailblazers and plough new furrows. Others need role models. Go for it! Organise productive places for exchange and discussion, seek solidarity with allied causes and take comfort in being part of making change happen for a more dynamic, efficient and happy (work) place, and ultimately better society. It’s not about blame, it’s about informing, educating, raising awareness, so next time there is less of “can’t do it like that” and more informed collaboration and decision-making in action.
- All Male Panel https://twitter.com/hashtag/allmalepanel
- Barnett, Rosalind C. and Rivers, Caryl (2016) A Woman’s Place – Eight Major Problems for Women on the Job. Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/womans-place/201605/eight-major-problems-women-the-job/ (accessed 24 May 2016)
- Everyday Sexism Project http://everydaysexism.com/about
- Horner, K.E (2015) Equality in Higher Education: Now? Sometime? Never? Presentation https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B06lEHJPznixSmU4TVMydkx6ZEt5LUUwamlLaWN3bGd3M0R3
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Kokot, P. (2015). Let’s talk about sex(ism): Cross-national perspectives on women partners’ narratives on equality and sexism at work in Germany and the UK. Critical perspectives on accounting, 27, 73-85. doi:10.1016/j.cpa.2014.02.002
- Kollewe, J (2015) Gender pay gap: women effectively working for free until end of year. Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/09/gender-pay-gap-women-working-free-until-end-of-year (accessed 24 May 2016)
- Man who has it all (twitter) https://twitter.com/manwhohasitall
- Powell, A., Dainty, A., & Bagilhole, B. (2012). Gender stereotypes among women engineering and technology students in the UK: Lessons from career choice narratives. European Journal of Engineering Education, 37(6), 541-556. doi:10.1080/03043797.2012.724052
- The Sydney Morning Herald (2011). Transcript of Julia Gillard’s speech. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOPsxpMzYw4 and http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/transcript-of-julia-gillards-speech-20121009-27c36.html