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Engineering Equality: Looking back at the year of gender equality

If 2014 was the year of feminism or gender equality you could be forgiven for thinking as the year closes out, it’s done with, it’s over. But it’s not over, certainly not for NCE.

The pursuit of a balance of male:female employment in engineering and also of race, sexuality and any bias that prevents vast swathes of humans succeeding at what they desire will continue.

NCE has written much of late about the need to eradicate the unconscious bias that threatens to keep a lot of women from stepping into, or thriving in, the wonderful world of engineering.

That is because we were keen to give air to the debate. It was not strictly a campaign. A campaign suggests there is a one-solution target that will be achieved. And that would frankly be too limiting.

We are also not insisting on every civil engineering organisation and client adopting affi rmative action or a specifi c corporate strategy. What we are insisting on is using the power of the pen to talk about the issues – and specifi cally the language and semantics of equality.

As part of that endeavour, NCE editor Mark Hansford recently wrote to around 80 top bosses in our industry to ask if they felt comfortable declaring themselves feminists according to the “Oxford English Dictionary” definition. This states that a feminist is “an advocate of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”.

Women at work: Employers need to send out strong equality messages

Women at work: Employers need to send out strong equality messages

Emphatically positive responses came from Highways Agency chief executive Graham Dalton; Mott MacDonald group chairman Keith Howells; High Speed 2 chief executive Simon Kirby; WSP UK managing director Mark Naysmith; Aecom EMEA chief executive Steve Morriss and Aecom America design and consulting services president Tom Bishop; Roger Bullivant director John Patch; Atkins chief executive Uwe Krueger and Atkins Europe chief executive David Tonkin; Tony Gee & Partners executive managing director Graham Nicholson; Environment Agency chief executive Paul Leinster; Thames Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell and Hyder chief executive Ivor Catto.

A good start, and on the positive side it wasn’t exactly a deafening silence from the rest. The response has been a little subdued but there were a number who proclaimed themselves passionate advocates of a more diverse, balanced workforce while at the same time being reticent to shout loud that they were feminists.

“Ignorance and prejudice are things which get in the way of us and our clients doing the right thing and improving society”

Steve Morriss, Aecom

One concern was that NCE might over-simplify and trivialise a complex debate and force people to conform, gratuitously, to a label. But labels already exist and are part of everyday life – personal and professional. And part of the semantics of the debate is that the word feminism has unjustifiably been seen in recent years as a negative one.

A recent brilliant video put together by feminine hygiene product manufacturer Always directed by Lauren Greenfield highlights exactly how much one neutral term has increasingly been perverted into something negative.

The Like a Girl video asks when doing something “like a girl” became an insult – running “like a girl”, throwing “like a girl”, hitting “like a girl”. It asks for demonstrations from the subjects of the video (grown up men and women and one young boy) who all do an impression of something feeble. But when it switches to asking girls to do the same, they just go for it and the result is somewhat different and something that challenges the obvious stereotype.

The campaign’s aim is to halt the damage often done to girls’ confidence during puberty and it’s an eye-opener. You can join in the debate on Twitter with the hashtag #LikeAGirl

Like a girl: Still from YouTube video promoting strong, positive images of girls and women

Like a girl: Still from YouTube video promoting strong, positive images of girls and women

So I take it back – NCE is after affirmative action – at least where language and labels and getting rid of unconscious bias are concerned. Because until the negative connotations can be eradicated, positively embracing words like “feminism” and “girl” and “woman” – when the definitions are so obviously without negative or positive bias – is something that is a good thing to do.

Elsewhere others are catching on. Politicians including Labour leader Ed Miliband and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg recently wore T-shirts produced in part by the oldest equality lobbying group the Fawcett Society emblazoned with: “This is what a feminist looks like.”

Prime minister David Cameron sits with some of our more cautious industry leaders in not outright embracing the label but his and others’ reticence is perhaps unsurprising.

Particularly because the UK should be hanging its head in shame at being named the worst in Europe for its record of employing women in the world of engineering, according to official labour survey results.

The government could do something about it too. Perhaps, for instance, by following the example of Sweden, a country that believes widespread employment of all adults is good for the economy. Its national government invests in a range of initiatives including parental leave, pre-school and after school care.

But while we wait for something bold from the British government, and while some argue the toss about why you should care, it’s easier to simply accept the fact that it makes good business sense.

Ultimately our aim is to make it boring and part of normal life to be working in civil engineering in the UK and be a woman, or for that matter disabled, gay, lesbian, transgender, black, Asian or anyone part of any minority who feels uncomfortable about it right now. Here’s to 2015 and many more years of talking about it.

Five agenda raising wins as seen in NCE in 2014

18 December: Environment Agency chief executive Paul Leinster heads up an impressive list of industry CEOs willing to declare themselves feminists in the name of raising awareness of gender equality issues.

13 November: Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne reveals he aims to ensure that 30% of his overall workforce is made up of women by 2018, a move that requires the rail infrastructure company to more than double the proportion of women it employs. His targets include 20% of senior positions to be held by women by 2016 and 30% of its graduate intake to be female by 2019. Currently 6% of senior positions are occupied by women and typically, 20% of the graduate intake are women.

11 September: Aecom’s chief executive for Europe Steve Morriss declares himself a feminist. “I would absolutely describe myself a feminist,” He said, adding that his understanding of feminism was clear and that describing himself as such demonstrated his commitment to tackling “ignorance and prejudice”. “Ignorance and prejudice are things which get in the way of us and our clients doing the right thing and improving society,” said Morriss. “[Feminism] is a name which reflects our support for society - I can’t see many who would stand against that.”

26 June: Highways Agency and Thames Tideway Tunnel chief executives Graham Dalton and Andy Mitchell declare themselves feminists ahead of respective events to support National Women in Engineering Day. Mitchell also demanded that 50% of his workforce be women by the time the project is completed in 2023. Meanwhile Dalton hosted a seminar for 70 roads industry leaders in which he challenged them to do more to tackle the under-representation of women in the highways industry.

19 June: Atkins UK chief executive David Tonkin becomes the first CEO to tell NCE that he is happy to declare himself a feminist alongside other enlightened leaders. “There have been extremes in the way the word feminism has been used in the past,” said Tonkin. “I would like to say that I am a feminist in the centre ground of feminism.”

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