Monday, 7 March 2016

International Women's Day: Why I'm Pledging for Parity in the Rail Industry

The theme for this year's International Women's Day is to Pledge for Parity: "to change everything, we need everyone" because everyone can contribute to creating an inclusive culture. So what does that look like in engineering, and particularly the rail industry? I highly recommend the ICE's series of Engineering Change short talks (you could use these as conversation starters in a team briefing this month!)
Engineering change takes all of us - yes, you too! (image (c) Institution of Civil Engineers)

From valuing women and men's contributions
equally to challenging bias, we can all
contribute to a fairer workplace
Why does it matter? My story

Although I still (annoyingly frequently) get older people declaring "Ooh, that's really unusual" when I tell them my profession, as a female engineer, I generally enjoy myself at work and I rarely notice the gender disparity.

For one thing, I studied in a cohort at Clare College, Cambridge where 5 of the 9 engineers in my year were girls (unfortunately, other colleges have considerably worse ratios and the overall course ratio is approximately 25% women). For another, I've chosen to work in the field which most interests me, ground engineering, where the deficiencies of civil engineering departments to attract sufficient women have been made up by geology courses which appeal equally to men and women, so my immediate colleagues have always been 50:50.

However, looking wider shows that this is not universal. I worked for a large engineering consultant in Leeds where 200 people delivered highways, flood defences, buildings and a range of environmental disciplines. Again, the presence of ecologists, archaeologists, architects and planning consultants made up for the low ratios in some of the teams, noticeably highways (why are women more likely to work in buildings and flood defences than highways?)

The York office of the same company was a different story, being solely rail (signalling, electrical, track and civil engineers). For over 12 months, I was the only woman regularly in the office other than the receptionist.

The office expanded and more women joined, but half of these were in lower status roles such as project management (with apparently few opportunities for training in the civil engineering which they were managing) and document control roles. (Tip: one of the best ways out of the skills crisis is to train your existing staff - night school and day release should be as available to a 40 year old wanting to diversify from HR or project management into engineering as a 22 year old apprentice!)

What does inclusive language look like?

Clare Brint is proudly supporting
International Women's Day
Imagine a few typical engineering scenes. You open a quotation from a contractor, which states that the work will be done by "number of men - 4 plus 1x site manager/COSS". You're talking about the contractor going to site the next day and what "he" might need to do the job. You discuss meeting up with a major client for a new contract and you immediately fall into using the pronoun "he". You receive emails addressed to "Dear Lady and Gentlemen", as if you needed reminding that you're the only woman on the project team. (Tip: there is an important difference between celebrating what makes us unique and using language which emphasises that one member of the team is different from all the others).

These are all examples of "unconscious bias", where we have a picture of what we expect a certain role to look like, and in engineering it has an uncanny tendency to ALWAYS look like a man (unless you're talking about the receptionist or admin assistant who just as frequently is assumed to be a woman). The English language doesn't help here, since we have no gender-neutral singular pronoun (it's repetitive to say "he or she" all the time, and some people object to "they" in the singular, although you could make a good argument that "the contractor" or "the client" is always a team anyway). My challenge is this: one day every week, I'm going to deliberately try to break the habit and use "she" or "they" as standard, except where the person is known to me personally (in which case, I could use their name!) What will YOU do? Here's how to make your own pledge.

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