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Profession: Why aren't we all feminists?

If the dictionary definition of feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”, then shouldn’t we all be feminists? Ruby Kitching explores feminism’s role in the construction industry.

gender ident

NCE is addressing gender imbalance in the civil engineering and construction industry by trying to understanding the role feminism has to play. Is there a role for feminism in civil engineering?

Well, if women make up only 6% of the engineering workforce (according to the Royal Academy of Engineering) but 50% of the general population, could it be that engineering is an unattractive career choice because the profession does little to uphold “equality of the sexes”?

If there were more feminists, or at least people who understood feminism, in the construction industry, would it be better placed to achieve a gender balance?

As one industry chief ­executive puts it, “this industry is dominated by men and has been set up in a way which suits men. It’s not that men are trying to be sexist, it’s that, from their point of view, they don’t see a problem”.

If the Oxford English ­Dictionary definition of feminism is to be accepted, there is a definite lack of feminism and feminists in the industry: normal working practice is gender biased - in favour of men.

The term feminism carries the history of 100 years of campaigning, some of which is characterised by “irrational, over-emotional women burning bras”, says one chartered female civil engineer working on a major UK project. And this is, perhaps, why many construction industry leaders ­approached by NCE felt uncomfortable signing up to a feminist charter.


“But when you think about it, there’s nothing wrong with the word, it’s just that it carries connotations,” added the engineer. “When you see the definition, you think ‘of course I’m a feminist’ - I’d be shocked to think there might be people I know who aren’t.”

Even prime minister David Cameron, when pressed last year on a Channel 4 News interview, admitted to being a feminist, based on the dictionary ­definition.

Atkins UK and Europe chief executive David Tonkin is proud of his company’s push for gender equality, and is happy to declare himself a feminist.

“When you see the definition, you think ‘of course I’m a feminist’ - I’d be shocked to think there might be people I know who aren’t”

Female chartered engineer

“There have been extremes in the way the word feminism has been used in the past. I would like to say that I am a feminist in that centre ground of feminism,” he says.

According to writer Kira Cochrane, the UK is currently experiencing the newest wave of feminism. In her book All the Rebel Women: The rise of the fourth wave of feminism, she explains how the current movement is defined by a series of direct campaigns against inequality.

Subjects being tackled and reported extensively in the media include campaigning for the Sun newspaper to remove its “Page Three” image of women, to keep a woman of achievement on British bank notes, and an online campaign documenting sexism experienced by women, called the “Everyday Sexism Project” (see box).

Project founder Laura Bates was prompted to start the campaign after realising that many women experience sexism in “reams of tiny pinpricks … so niggling and normalised that to protest about each one felt trivial. Yet put them together, the picture was strikingly clear”.

Everyday sexism

Below is a selection of comments made to women engineers during their working day:

  • My HR manager told me on our first day: “If you are going to report sexual harassment, first think about what you were wearing that day.”
  • I’m a mechanical engineer, got told at an industry function: “You don’t look like an engineer”. I asked him if it was the breasts.
  • Having my boss panic “You’re not pregnant, are you?” when I ask for an afternoon off to go to a doctor’s appointment.
  • I worked on a team with a male colleague and if I disagreed with him he would interrupt and say something like: “That’s enough, go and make some tea now, you’re good at that.”
  • I have to climb and stretch a bit to open the window in my office. An older male colleague walks in and says in a spine chilling voice: “You doing that for me darling?” 

Is this what is happening in engineering? Are persistent “pinpricks” driving women engineers away? If more accounts of sexism were openly discussed, could the engineering industry create a more conducive environment for women to excel? The British Transport Police, for one, is using experiences collected by the Everyday Sexism Project to help train its staff.

Many of the best clients, contractors and consultants are doing much to address the gender imbalance in engineering.

But why are they bothering? Plainly because it makes business sense, as everyone is scrambling for the best people in a diminished talent pool.

But the trend that is emerging from companies approached by NCE is that women are leaving the profession even after investing time, money and effort in university degrees and gaining professional status. This is also evident at the senior management level, as very few female engineers who enter the industry progress to board level.

The engineer NCE spoke to says that many female engineers who are performing well and rising up through the ranks have become accustomed to everyday sexism and don’t want to start complaining about the little things; they don’t want to be noticed for being female; “they don’t want to rock the boat”.

Examples of sexism, she says, include: “You’re in a meeting and you’re automatically assumed to be the one who will take notes; a man addressing the project team doesn’t naturally look to you for the answer to a problem; it’s assumed you will organise the tea and coffee.”

“Giving rights to one set of people does not mean they are taken away from another set”

Hannah Farrant, Atkins

While all these situations can be dealt with through humour or direct redress, they create a feeling of uneasiness. The simple way that even size small PPE often swamps female engineers on site is another way in which women carry a sense of not feeling welcome, says Amey graduate ­Philippa Jefferis.

She considers herself a feminist due to her belief that “men and women are fundamentally equal and should be treated as individuals, without linking it back to their gender”.

She concurs that there is a common misunderstanding in the term, but feels that to swing the gender demographic pendulum back to centre requires a big push in one direction, so merely advocating equality isn’t enough: “fem” words are necessary.

“The word [feminism] is needed, perhaps even with some of the more negative connotations, because it is primarily about addressing the fact that our society focuses on being “manly” as successful, so we need the “fem” focus for now to help balance out everything - and then we can [all] become equalitists,” she says.

Cultural change is needed, says Arup director Duncan Wilkinson. “There is a lack of diversity as a whole in the civil engineering profession, not just [in the case of] women, but culturally. Clearly the female bit is the most obvious, because women make up 50% of the population, but the percentages of black and Asians in the profession are not aligned with the numbers in society as a whole and we should ask, why? There is a similar lack of parity when it comes to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender].”

NCE is campaigning for the construction industry to address its attitude towards gender equality because, actually, there are some successes in terms of the uptake and academic success of girls inSTEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at school.

According to Women in Science and Engineering, girls in 2012 achieved better or equal A* to C GCSE combined grades compared to boys in all STEM subjects, and 82% more girls took physics GCSE in 2012 than in 2009.

Atkins tunnel design engineer and feminist Hannah Farrant explains how her interest in feminism stepped up when she noticed the percentage of women diminishing rapidly as she made academic choices towards becoming a civil engineer: “As far as I could tell, boys were no better at these subjects than girls, and yet the further into higher education I went, the numbers decreased.”

Farrant is comfortable being labelled a feminist, as a firm believer of gender equality. “It’s about helping women to achieve what men already have, and this does not mean at the expense of men,” she explains. “Giving rights to one set of people does not mean they are taken away from another set.”

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