Gender Balance in Engineering

The February issue of the Structural Engineer includes a letter to the ‘Verulam’ letters section on ‘Gender Balance in Engineering’. I wrote a letter in reply, but it didn’t make it into the March edition, so instead I have reproduced it below, with thanks to Suzy Madigan, who checked it for me. The original letter is here:

Cliff Billington’s letter on gender balance in engineering is shocking, but is an opportunity to confront many of the tropes and prejudices that are such a barrier to positive change in the engineering professions. Sadly Cliff’s views are far from rare, and the fact that the editor considers them only “slightly controversial” and does not condemn them outright is indicative of how far our profession is from where it needs to be.

I have sat in meetings where more qualified women are ignored, while the views of less experienced men are listened to. I’ve seen women with considerable design flair and ambition sidelined to focus on business management and project administration while men with egos take the credit and glamour of being the star designer. Fantastically talented women leave the industry, or are unable to return after having children, because of endemic discrimination and inflexibility. I have had repeated conversations with men in the engineering sector where they categorically deny, like Cliff, there is any problem whatsoever. Yet I don’t know of a single woman who thinks all is well. Most shockingly, I have sat in an Institution Council meeting where a young female engineer was dismissed and belittled by an Institution President after highlighting how inspiring it can be to have senior female role-models in the profession. The Institution Council itself is a striking example of the abysmal gender balance in this profession. Two female presidents after 111 years is some progress. It is not enough.

There should be no need to explain why Cliff is wrong. There should be no need to point out the huge reservoir of talent that we miss out on by alienating and excluding women. There should be no need to demonstrate that engineering is short of women not because of women, but because of the multitude of unconscious and deliberate barriers the profession and its members, who are overwhelmingly men, put up to prevent positive change. There should be no need to explain how much more pleasant, engaging and just normal a workplace is that has both men and women – and conversely how weird a “code-drafting committee” without women actually is. There should be no need to justify gender equality. Sadly there is a need for all of this.

The editors “don’t think Cliff is pushing a case for deterring women from becoming engineers, rather than arguing that this should not be seen as problem.” Well, perhaps they should re-read his letter. It is exactly the insidious attitudes epitomised by this writer which deter women from joining or staying in professions which seem like an old boys’ club. Women shouldn’t have to feel like they have to spend their whole careers proving themselves to be just as capable as people with different sex organs.

Inaction is a deliberate choice, and maintains the status quo. It’s not just the job of women to change this. It’s time for the Institution, its (male) members, and their employers, to make more concerted and deliberate efforts for change. This should be top of the agenda of Council, and no longer something that it simply pays lip-service to. Those men who say “but I’m not sexist”, and “I’m not the problem”, but look on and do nothing to change things are part of the problem. Those employers who have lots of female graduates but no women directors are part of the problem. Those organisations and individuals which turn a blind eye to harassment in the workplace are part of the problem. The tired and sexist trope that the profession is a meritocracy must be retired. In fact the profession structurally advantages men at every level.

So let’s build on the positive call from John Nolan, Nick Russell, Ian Firth and Tim Ibell that prompted Cliff’s letter, and see more action from the Institution, from employers, and from both the womenand the men in this profession, and reap the benefits of gender equality in the next decade, not the next century. Cliff’s letter is a clarion call for change.