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The women issue | Confidence conundrum

Engineering Equality

Did you spot it? Regular New Civil Engineer readers with a keen eye may just have noticed something different about last month’s issue.

The May print edition was something of a social experiment. From cover to cover, all of the content was written by, contributed to and featured only women (the adverts were also predominantly absent of men). However, we refrained from letting you know – avoiding any hints or any direct suggestion in our editorial that gender equality was on our minds more than usual.

The idea seemed simple enough – we wanted to begin to redress the gender balance – just a tiny bit. But with press day looming large, the enormity of the logistics challenge became apparent. New Civil Engineer’s editorial team is broadly gender equal, but it was still a challenge as the men had to back off from their researching and writing roles. Then the bigger challenge became clearer – and it related to the interviewees who were going to help us form the content.

Finding excellent engineering projects to visit is often enough of a challenge in itself. Getting approval from all parties to allow us unfettered access to engineers without giving away editorial control is tricky. And when it comes to projects abroad – that challenge doubles. Add on the need to find schemes led by women… well you can almost give up.

Elsewhere in the magazine we sought expert engineers for their views. Here we added another obstacle in the hope of doing the job properly. As much as we appreciate the offer of help of many of the engineering spokeswomen we do regularly get, we wanted to avoid seeking views of those who are in danger of becoming over-exposed and branded token women engineers.

So we were fishing from a wider pool in theory, but a new challenge emerged when we met with and called our subjects. The supertheme of the month Healthy Transport was not overtly more contentious than any other New Civil Engineer topic of recent months. Yet most of the staff journalists felt the female interviewees were far more cautious and reserved than many of the men spoken to on a more regular basis. On one occasion, one of the proposed interviewees would not be drawn to offer an opinion on an aspect of air quality. It was not her core subject but yet was one that she had previously studied at a very high level.

The root cause potentially relates to something akin to what is known as the imposter phenomenon, suggests Anne Laure Humbert, a senior research fellow at Cranfield University’s Global Centre for Gender and Leadership. “I think a lot of women do not feel confident in themselves and feel they are just waiting to be found out for being an imposter; for being a fraud in what they’re doing,” she elaborates.

The reason why there are so few women in engineering or scientific subject areas is often because of the stereotypes that are there at a very young age

Cranfield University senior research fellow Anne Laure Humbert

“But I think this is a product of their environment. It’s not that they’re less confident in themselves in the first place, but really the cues that you get from the environment. What is it on a daily basis you are exposed to in your culture that gives you the tokens of appreciation, the marks of esteem and recognition?”

This is a universal problem, perhaps reflected in the well cited statistic that men feel able to apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.

However, there are solutions at a social and organisational level, Humbert suggests.

engineering equality

engineering equality

“The reason why there are so few women in engineering or scientific subject areas is often because of the stereotypes that are there at a very young age,” she says, adding that this is referred to in her academic work as the “ideal scientist” or the ”ideal engineer”. The typical view conjured up for the former is the older white man with mad hair. The latter is a small variation of the last detail and is instead an older white man with oil or grease on his hands.

A very practical solution is to ”demystify the profession and provide alternative images” through outreach work and paying attention to the language and images used. But more attention must also be paid to ensuring that engineering solutions address the needs of the whole population – gender is a fundamental part of this, says Humbert.

She cites the example of crash test dummies – the seatbelt is not adapted to the morphology of women, particularly those who are pregnant. This is just one example of why it “really matters” that who is being designed for is fairly understood by engineers.

Getting girls and women into coding and maths as “something that’s really cool”, will also hugely help. And Humbert stresses this can be done at any age and experience level because the challenge of using the latest smartphone or any other technology affects everyone.

I would love for middle managers and senior managers to be routinely leaving work at 4pm

Cranfield University senior research fellow Anne Laure Humbert

For organisations, attention also needs to be paid. “It’s not only the problem of getting into engineering but also how they’re getting on when they’re there,” she adds.

One thing Humbert is very committed to is encouraging a change of thinking from accommodating women into engineering environments toward transforming the environments so they are better for women and men. For example, making hours more flexible so men or women can do the school run while still achieving at work. This, she says, should be about rewarding efficiency rather than long hours, as is happening in Sweden with the trial of six hour working days.

“If we all worked a little bit less and were more focused on tasks and outcomes at a time when there are ways of quantifying work in different ways, why would we choose not to do it?

“Management has a role in driving this. To some extent the drive is also coming from millennials so there will be a pressure for this to happen more and more. The middle managers and senior managers will have a role to play in driving this forward, but also in setting an example. I would love for middle managers and senior managers to be routinely leaving work at 4pm. And being efficient, leaving with work done, having worked at 120%.”


Why engineering equality?

support equality management 3x2

support equality management 3x2

Conceived last year, the idea to create a women-only edition of the magazine was partly a response to frustrations surrounding our previous coverage of gender equality. Too often New Civil Engineer faces a backlash and is accused of being overly obsessed with the topic amid assertions it is not a real problem, which then conveniently means everyone’s off the hook when it comes to changing the status quo.

“In my opinion this is a reflection of what we call the post-feminist environment,” explains Humbert. “It’s not that gender inequality has been solved. It’s a denial that gender equality still matters. That you just don’t want to expose yourself. You don’t want to be labelled as a feminist, or worse. I’ve just heard an anecdote where a woman raised an issue related to gender and she was called a feminazi.

“I suspect this is behind the strategy of some women lying low; not wanting to be singled out.” But this perpetuates the problem and there is a problem. If there was no issue, then all the companies exploring initiatives to encourage gender balance would have given up long ago. But they have not. Primarily because the quantifiable evidence points to the fact that an equal employ of men and women is good for business – teams are more productive and so money talks.

As to our social experiment, where do we go next? Let us know your thoughts.

Readers' comments (1)

  • I did notice, and it brought a smile to my face! Congratulations on a good idea. I hope that the inclusion of lots of female contributors continues so, that one day it isn't a special occasion and requires extra effort from the team. I particularly like that you looked for engineers less frequently heard from.

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