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We must tackle casual sexism to address the gender gap

Mark Hansford

It turns out I’m institutionally sexist. My colleague Margo spotted that while proof-reading my analysis piece on the Big Bang Fair.

There I was, in a piece exhorting the need to tackle the shockingly low numbers of women joining the industry, describing the ICE’s stand at the fair as being “manned” by a raft of female young engineers. The piece now reads “staffed” - thanks Margo - and I hope you all will agree with its intent.

And I also hope you’ll see my slip as a slight one. But it is revealing of how intrinsically sexist we as an industry are. I’m willing to bet that nine out of 10 of you would also have written “manned” without a moment’s thought.

How are we going to deliver these major projects if we keep turning people away?

Just as nine out of 10 of you never bat an eyelid when we quote a female press officer as a “spokesman”. And just as nine out of 10 of you never complain when we call a chairperson a chairman, regardless of gender.

Both of those are written down, NCE style rules. They haven’t changed in decades. Which is bad on us. But it’s also bad on you.

Because the industry suffers from a chronic shortage of women entering the profession - and an even more chronic problem when it comes to keeping them.

As business minister Vince Cable told the Big Bang Fair supporters’ dinner last week, the statistics are a “disgrace”.

Women account for just 12.3% of people working in science, engineering and technology occupations, despite the fact that 45.1% of the UK workforce are women. And it is not as if we can afford to be so profligate with the potential skills on offer.

Inadvertent barriers

This week sees the publication of a hugely credible plan to speed up delivery of the £43bn High Speed 2. It is just one scheme in the government’s £377bn National Infrastructure Plan. How are we going to deliver these projects if we keep turning people away?

We are not doing it deliberately. No-one has a policy that excludes recruitment of women. But we are all putting up barrier after barrier that blocks the progress of women.

Each on its own is not a show-stopper - take my slip this week - but put together it all adds up to an industry that is fundamentally sexist.

So what’s to be done?

Next week NCE is hosting a round table debate on this subject with senior representatives from clients, consultants, contractors and suppliers.

I want to leave the evening with a series of actions that NCE can and will be held to account on. Maybe a re-write of the NCE house style will be one of them. But I also want to leave with a series of actions that NCE can hold the industry to account on. So what should they be?

Let’s be bold, let’s get serious, because having the business secretary describing your industry as a “disgrace” should be a serious wake-up call.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

Readers' comments (3)

  • Mark, surely "women" should be "wo-persons".

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  • Mark, whilst I agree there aren't enough women in Engineering, I can't agree that any historical masculine bias in our langauage is to blame for a disproportinate number of females taking an interest in science and maths. None of these "casually sexist" terms as you put it are specific to Engineering. The word 'Chairman' for instance is used in all industries including education and media which are hardly under represented by females.

    More effort needs to be put in by society as whole to encourage girls to take an interested in 'geeky' subjects. This requires a change in our modern British culture. I believe that many parents (and also society/the media) have a tendency to indulge boys in technical pursuits whilst girls are directed towards more superficial or arty interests. I don't why this is but it appears to be getting worse in my view almost a reverse feminism is taking place. You only need take a look at toys marketed at boys and girls with an obsession with pink fluffy things for girls and action toys for boys. It doesn't have to be this way but will take a shift in culture to make a real difference. All in my humble opinion of course.

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  • Bravo (or brava?) NCE for hosting this round-table.

    I broadly agree with Joel's comments and would add that a start-up company called GoldieBlox is doing a sterling job of addressing the "boys' toys" problem.

    Personally I feel the use of "manned", "chairman" etc is less important than the actual content used to portray women in the industry.

    For example, a profile of former ASCE president and company CEO Patricia Galloway published in a 2011 issue of Engineering News-Record featured this cringeworthy line: "Blonde and 5'7", Galloway is equally intellectually and physically attractive." I wonder whether a male CEO or president of an engineering institution has ever been written about like that.

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