Who runs the world?

I was home in Australia recently for a visit, planned to coincide with my nephew’s first birthday. As has been the tradition in every Australian household for the last 40 or so years, I opened the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book to look for some inspiration. Not having looked at the book in 15 years, I was surprised by how outrageously gendered it was – the ‘for boys’ section had a truck, pirate and rocket, while the ‘for girls’ section had dolls, a sewing machine and a stove (I chose the classic swimming pool, which is apparently ‘for everyone’).

It isn’t just cake that has had me thinking about gender and gender equality recently. Gender pay gap reporting, PROCESSIONS marking the centenary of votes for (some) women here in the UK, and conversations around International Women’s Day back in March, to name a few.

As a female engineer, I have been aware since the first time I stepped into a university lecture theatre that I have chosen to work in a pretty male-dominated industry. My university was so proud to have 20% females in the engineering intake the year I started. It didn’t really bother me at all while I was at uni (to be honest it was a bit of a relief after spending high school at a gossipy all-girls school). And since starting work I have never felt at a disadvantage because of my gender, but every now and then something will happen that I find a bit concerning.

Concerning anecdote #1

Last year we had a big team building trip when my team merged with a couple of others. During the trip, one of the speakers asked all the females in the room to stand up. Looking around at all the others standing up I got super excited – there were so many of us, it seemed like about three quarters of this new team was female! But it turned out the gender split in the team was pretty much exactly 50-50.

It is a common phenomenon that people perceive there to be more women in a group than there actually are. In an interview with NPR, Geena Davis pointed out:

​We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.

Within engineering, the environmental discipline seems to have the largest proportion of females. Yet when I have actually stopped to count the number of each gender in the supposedly ‘female-dominated teams’ of which I have been part, they are actually pretty balanced. Even as a female, I seem to suffer from the same unconscious bias as those men in the study.

Concerning anecdote #2

Earlier this year I attended some industry events around International Women’s Day. Interesting, the gender balance at those events was very different to most events (i.e. majority were female). At one, the speaker asked two questions:

  1. Of the females in the audience, who feels ‘stuck’ (i.e. not progressing) in their career? Despite the fact that most of the audience was female, there were very few hands raised. It seemed the question had missed the marked rather than eliciting the speaker’s desired reaction, until they asked the next question –
  2. Who knows of a female colleague who is ‘stuck’? And about half the hands in the room shot up.

Obviously something doesn’t quite add up here. While there is potential that multiple people in the room were thinking of one very ‘stuck’ person, it is also likely that there are more ‘stuck’ women than care to admit it to their peers and themselves.

For the first time this year in the UK, employers with 250 employees or more were required to publish their gender pay gap. According to the Government Equalities Office:

​In the UK today, women earn on average 18% less than men. The gender pay gap exists because women tend to work in lower-paid occupations and sectors, and occupy less senior roles. Many women take time out of the labour market and work part-time because of unequal sharing of care responsibilities. Stereotypes and workplace culture are also factors.

(The gender pay gap also exists in Australia – check out this informative data explorer.) 

In large engineering companies that I have worked for both in the UK and back in Australia it is certainly the case that there are fewer women in senior positions than men. But there are other factors that contribute to the pay gap as well. In addition to the reasons noted above, an interesting one is that women tend to stay in the company longer than men, so don’t have the larger jumps up the career ladder that likely accompany a new role. It isn’t surprising that this is the case – I have spoken to women who are literally planning when to have children around the maternity leave policy of a company they have recently joined.

These are issues that concern women (people!) in all industries, not just engineering.

Concerning anecdote #3

Also during the industry events around International Women’s Day this year – I realised I was becoming quite frustrated at the way many people (mostly, but not all men!) were talking about the difficulty of achieving gender equality in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, maths).

And I don’t deny that there are difficulties. Issues raised included:

  • There are fewer female graduates in STEM fields (but those females tend to be higher performing).
  • There are even fewer specialists when recruiting at senior levels.
  • Organisations need to ensure that they aren’t letting equality get in the way of quality (whatever quality means, aren’t teams stronger when there is a diversity of perspectives? and if half the people in the world are female, then surely half the ‘smartest’ people in the world are female).

It took me a while to work out what was annoying me about these statements (not the italics, that is my mental commentary). While distractedly ruminating after an event it suddenly dawned on me – the most grating comments were all based around the fundamental assumption that with all other things equal, females would be less interested in studying and working in STEM fields than males. That even if we addressed all the barriers to entry, cultural norms and biases that are currently standing in the way – and waited 30 years for the next generation – that there still wouldn’t be equal numbers of women in all levels of an engineering company because they just don’t want to be there.

But I really don’t believe that is true. Maybe because I love maths and science so much, I really can’t comprehend that females are inherently less interested in STEM fields. Once I had distilled this very frustrating implicit assumption, I challenged other attendees with it. To my surprise some actually agreed with that assumption even when it was made explicit, but to my relief many others were just as outraged as me at the concept.

In her TED talk Reshma Saujani (founder of Girls Who Code) points out that girls are raised to be perfect, while boys are raised to be brave. Listening to it on my way home one day, I was struck by this observation:

Most girls are taught to avoid failure and risk. To smile pretty, play it safe, get all A’s. Boys, on the other hand, are taught to play rough, swing high, crawl to the top of the monkey bars and then jump off head first. By the time they’re adults and whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date, men are habituated to take risk after risk. They’re rewarded for it…Our economy, our society, we’re losing out because we’re not raising our girls to be brave. The bravery deficit is the reason why women are underrepresented in STEM, in C-suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere you look.

Girls Who Code is a US non-profit​ ​organisation working​ ​to​ ​close​ ​the​ ​gender​ ​gap​ ​in​ ​technology​ – but I think Reshma’s key points are equally applicable to STEM professions more broadly (and probably other industries too).

While there is a long way to go in resolving the issues surrounding gender equality and the pay gap, there is already much being done by individuals, businesses and non-profits like Girls Who Code.

So what can we all do to make a difference?

Encourage girls to be brave (and also take STEM subjects at school and look into uni courses relating to STEM fields). Let your child dream of being an engineer, fire truck, unicorn, marine biologist – no matter their gender. If you see something that you are uncomfortable with, call it out. Destigmatise paternity leave and male caring roles (and never, ever call looking after your own kids ‘babysitting’). Be transparent with hiring, promotion and pay decisions.

I’m sure there are a million other things that can be done, but at least this is a start!

Further reading, links and resources:

  1. Not sure how this relates to sustainability? Check out the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5.
  2. Equality needs to go way beyond gender. Ethical Unicorn has some wonderful posts about intersectionality and supporting others.
  3. Gender equality is not just an issue in the engineering industry…listen.
  4. One day I may write an entire post about menstruation. In the meantime…read, support, buy.
  5. Emma Watson’s feminist book club gathers an array of perspectives from female authors (yes, I’m a little late to the party on this one). I have already read this month’s books (highly recommend both!), but have been browsing the back catalogue.
  6. Future Crunch wrote an excellent post around International Women’s Day on Dismantling the Patriarchy.

Photo by Michelle Tsang on Unsplash
And some final notes:

  • ‘Why the brownies?’ I hear you ask. Back in Australia I saw climate comedian Tejopala Rawls perform. He made a joke about the pressure that vegan brownies must feel to fight the patriarchy (…I think you had to be there…). Now it seems that fighting the patriarchy and brownies are intrinsically linked in my mind.
  • In case you were worrying, neither my siblings nor I let gender-specific birthday cakes influence our choice of profession – I am an engineer and my sister is a doctor, while my brother will soon graduate from his social work course (so proud!!).
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