About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

If I were a senior manager and you were a lady

It is easy enough to complain and deconstruct, harder to make positive suggestions for change. Here are a few things I would try to improve the gender and race balance in my organisation if I was a senior manager:

1) Have a party. There is every possibility that I would be the first or one of the few to be in such a position. I would drink champagne and try to enjoy my achievement. I would now be a role model for younger women, and it is important that role models have fun.

2) Appoint a core team of advisors, from inside and outside the organisation. This would include experts in gender, race, technology, engineering and leadership. I would listen. I would pay them. I would ask them to work with me on devising new systems and taking action.

3) Take all my managers, heads of department, major groups and informal leaders on a one day retreat. This would include smart and interesting training presented by recognised leaders (not generic training consultants), and action planning for each of the participants' areas of accountability. I would audit progress and updates on action plans annually.

4) Create a special fund for recruiting women and people from minority racial groups. I would make it a requirement that every selection panel include at least one woman on the short list. If no decent women apply, then I would pay for a head hunter to find a suitable woman to be interviewed. If a woman or person from a minority race was selected as the best candidate I would provide additional resources to make sure we were in the best possible bargaining position to convince them to join us. I would ask my HR department and its lawyers to find a way to make this happen, not give me excuses why it couldn't.

5) Head hunt the best women and people from minority races in every field that was of strategic importance to my organisation. These would be the most outstanding people in their field. I would make my organisation the best place in the world for them to work.

6) Keep listening to the women and people from minority races who work in my organisation. I would do everything I could to address their concerns, make changes to accommodate their needs, and make my organisation the best place in the world for them to work. I would make strong counter offers should they be recruited elsewhere. I would arrange for exit interviews for every woman or person from a racial minority to find out why they are leaving, where they are going and what they thought of their experience with us.

7) Make paternity leave compulsory and provide the necessary support for this to have minimal disruption.

8) Devise a 'little sexism' and 'little racism' reporting scheme. This could be tricky given legal frameworks for bullying and harassment, but it would be a completely anonymous and confidential means for getting to grips with the culture of the organisation and everyday experience of discrimination on the ground. It would be a way for people to share their experiences without the trauma of adversarial complaints procedures. I would publish highlights and analysis annually, along with gender and race monitoring statistics.

9) Make gender a key focus for my media and publicity team. I would set targets for gender and race balance in media representation or press releases. I would ask them to make a big deal about the achievements of all women and racial minorities in my organisation. I would audit all websites, advertising and brochures for gender and racial representation.

10) Encourage known misogynists and racists to consider whether their skills might be more appreciated elsewhere, no matter how much 'value' they add to the organisation.

I am not a senior manager. I am just a senior lecturer. As I try to put my head down and get on with my work I hope others are willing and able to take up this challenge, to keep up the critique, and generate and implement new, practical ideas for change.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Voice of exclusion

I have been studying, practicing, researching and teaching engineering for the best part of 20 years. I am a woman. This makes me unusual. Engineering is an uncommon choice of undergraduate course for women. Those who start, finish at a lower rate than their male counterparts, and are less likely to pursue engineering as a career. Like many women I abandoned engineering in my mid-twenties, leaving a fairly prestigious graduate post to pursue a social science PhD. It was a random coincidence of difficult personal circumstances and a unique recruitment opportunity at UCL that brought me back to engineering nearly 8 years ago.

Perhaps it's because I have left and come back, possibly because of my training in social science, or maybe because I was born feminist, but since I have returned to engineering I have become hyper-aware of the gender imbalance in my discipline and profession. This is very tiring. It is doubly arduous knowing the statistics and theories about gender and engineering, and at the same time dealing with my own little instances of exclusion. Being able to explain my experience as a member of the minority gender makes things harder, not easier. I wish I could erase the monitoring statistics and feminist theory from my mind, but I can't. I wish I did not have to brush off moments of ignorant discrimination, yet I must.

It is particularly disheartening for me when I come across bad theories about gender and engineering. I am frustrated by high feminist theory, that is barely accessible to me with my social science PhD and untranslatable to more conventional engineers. I get angry when I see sloppy analysis of data, particularly when it is used to support one of the most fashionable explanations for the persistent absence of women in all professional spheres, from the boardroom to the engineering lecture hall - the truism that women don't succeed because they lack confidence.

Engineers who are women are less confident in their professional abilities than engineers who are men. The question is why? And the answer more often than not turns out to be good old fashioned sexism, of the kind we like to pretend doesn't exist. Not big sexism, like women not being allowed to vote, but little, everyday sexism, the kind we brush off. Little sexism isn't something you can fight with a petition or a march on Parliament. It is not something you can argue in a tribunal, but it wears you down, it makes you feel unwelcome, it saps your confidence. On any given day, it can be outrageous or annoying, but over a career it all adds up to more than enough reasons to stop pushing yourself, stop testing your boundaries and striving for the top. It is certainly a reason to 'choose' to stay home with your babies, if you are lucky enough to have any.

Here are some of my own moments of little sexism. It is an indicative sample, not a comprehensive account. I am robust, and survived each encounter intact, but when I find myself thinking 'what are you doing here? you don't belong', moments like these might explain where those thoughts come from.

I am 17. I have just graduated from high school, dux of my class. My Mum and I are drinking tea in the church hall. An old lady is chatting to us and we tell her I am heading off to uni. She asks 'what will you study? Are you going to be a teacher like your Mum?'. 'No', I reply, 'I'm doing engineering'. The woman nearly chokes. 'Well that's unusual for a girl isn't it?'. We laugh it off, but a little voice starts whispering inaudibly in the back of my mind.

I have finished my first year and landed a job at our local mineral processing plant. In the induction I am told that this is an 'equal opportunity worksite'. I am assigned to a project that is monitoring a significant process change. I collect and analyse samples over the night shift. I share a 'lab' with two process operators and we get along, which is just as well since there isn't much space in the little hut. On my second shift I walk in to find 'Annie' posted on the wall. Annie isn't an operator or an engineer. Annie doesn't have any clothes on. I gather my kit and go out on site to collect my samples, and the boys do the same. I make it back to the lab before them and carefully take Annie off the wall. I am wondering what to do with her when I notice that my shaky hands have screwed her into a ball. I throw it in the bin. The boys come back, we go for smoko (Australian for tea break). Not a word is spoken, but that little voice is getting marginally louder. It whispers 'you don't belong here'.

I have graduated and am working at an aluminium smelter on the other side of the country. The company has an affirmative action policy. At least 20% of the operators are women, with higher representation amongst engineers and managers. Once more, I am working the night shift. The crew includes Shirley, who started at the smelter because she couldn't face nursing any more after the death of her father. She also likes the money and drives a red sports car. It is smoko and we are chatting about wives and girlfriends and work. Jason's girlfriend is out of work so I ask 'why doesn't she apply here?'. 'I wouldn't want that', he says. 'Why not?'. 'Well, I just wouldn't want my girlfriend doing this kind of work'. 'What about me? What about Shirley?'.'That's different. Shirl's one of the boys'. I ask Shirley if she thinks she is one of the boys, and she says no. I concur that I too have no desire to be a boy. We get back to work. The voice gets louder.

My career moves me back and forth across Australia a few more times until I overshoot and find myself in London. I am PI on a research project involving several departments at UCL. James is the programme manager. James and I are meeting for the first time with the head of one of the departments we hope to work with. He is an eminent professor. We shake hands and I introduce myself. 'Ha!', he laughs, 'you've got a funny accent! Like Crocodile Dundee'. Unfortunately I have left my machete at home, so we politely get on with the meeting. He speaks to James (the administrator) for the entire meeting, barely making eye contact with me (the PI). I conclude that despite, or maybe because of, his H-factor, this professor is a dick. He is also a big cheese and popular amongst other eminent professors in the faculty (even those with 'accents'). I get on with the programme, but the inner voice is now quite clear - 'you are not even worth talking to, you do not belong here'.

I am at a drinks reception with the Dean, a few other professors and a senior administrator. It is getting late and the crowd has thinned. The administrator turns to me and says 'what is a pretty young woman like you doing hanging around with a bunch of old men like us'. The Dean looks embarrassed. The inner voice is quiet. The voice of exclusion has spoken out loud.

I agree to join a committee looking at gender initiatives in science and engineering at UCL. We are presented with the statistics about the number of women professors and the rate of increase at UCL. The statistics are diabolical. I decide not to continue on the committee, not due to time pressure but because I am simply not robust enough to deal with such depressing numbers and the lack of serious action to change them. The voice is now screaming for me to get out, to find somewhere I belong, because all the evidence points to me having made a terrible mistake in laughing off that old lady after church that Sunday, all those years ago.

I am not leaving. I will stay, I will keep working, and I will keep talking back to that inner voice. But this is tiring. All the inner work to counter the outer moments of little sexism, year after year is draining. For now, I have decided to try my best to disengage from the wider project of understanding and counteracting sexism in engineering, both big and small. I just need to be an engineer.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Why I worry about desalination

Global desalination capacity is currently growing at around 9% per year, much faster than the global economy (3.5%) and population (1.2%). Most of the growth is occurring in the Middle East North Africa region, but capacity is rapidly expanding in Israel, the US and Australia. London's first desalination plant was commissioned in 2011. The Water Corporation of Western Australia commissioned its first desalination plant in 2006 and will triple capacity to 145 billion litres per year by the end of 2012, providing a 'climate independent' source of water meeting around half the state's demand. By the end of 2013 desalination is predicted to meet 85% of Israel's domestic demand, following the construction of a 100 billion litre per year plant at Ashdod. Desalination is seen as a core element of climate change adaptation, a response to drying climates.

Discussions about the global water crisis usually begin by pointing out that only 0.01% of all the water on the planet is available for human use - 97% is saline and the rest is either frozen or inaccessible. Desalination puts an end to that. Desalination effectively makes all the liquid water on Earth available for human use, but at what cost?

The most obvious cost of desalination comes from its energy requirements. Most new desalination is based on reverse osmosis membrane technologies, which have seen dramatic improvements in efficiency and cost in recent years, but remain an order of magnitude more energy intensive than conventional water treatment technologies. Desalination represents the ultimate trade off between climate change mitigation and adaptation - burning fossil fuels to avoid the impacts of increasingly frequent and intense droughts. Isolated desalination plants such as those in Sydney, Perth and London are powered by renewable energy, which is clearly preferable. However, in the wider context of moving to a low carbon economy, water utilities along with other sectors would be reducing overall energy use and switching to renewables, rather than using renewable energy to justify unprecedented energy demand from this new technology.

The thing that really worries me about desalination is that it essentially changes our relationship to water and the environment. Water, the great connector of life, becomes merely an industrial product, subject to the economic rules of substitution, with technology stepping in to meet endlessly growing demand at increasing cost of production. The people of the modern states of Western Australia and Israel, always tenuously perched in their desert surroundings, can now live without limits, fundamentally reorienting their sense of place and respect for their locality.

But the promise of no limits is always illusionary. As the adaptation-mitigation trade off shows, Prometheus is always punished. Water consumption inevitably leads to water pollution, as it flows through our homes, offices and factories, and back out again, contaminated, through our drains, to be treated once more, using high energy processes, before discharge to the environment.

Desalination is undoubtedly necessary in situations of acute shortage, as a stop gap measure in extreme events. Moving the entire basis of a water system to desalination, such as is taking place in Israel and Western Australia, is another matter. It is a responses to climate change that more firmly than ever entrenches the patterns of development that led to climate change. Living without limits is what got us into this mess. Breaching those limits is a very worrying place to go looking for solutions.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Feet on the ground

It is graduation season at UCL. I like graduation. For one thing, it appeals to my Catholic sensibilities - men and women in funny hats and gowns, the procession, sitting still for long periods, speeches about the meaning of life, music to open and close. My suggestions for singing and incense have not yet been taken up, but I go every year and enjoy it nonetheless. Of course the best thing about graduation is seeing my former students, remembering their trials and triumphs as they cross stage, meeting their families and lovers, and celebrating with them as they step out into the world on their own terms.

Anyone who has ever attended a university graduation knows that it takes a long time. There is a long list of names to be read out, and a long line of people waiting for their moment. We all find ways of occupying our minds. Members of the platform party face the slight pressure of being on view the whole time, knowing that folks in the stalls may well be occupying their minds by scrutinising our every scratch or twitch. We should look dignified, interested, happy and awake at all times.

I occupy myself with shoes. As the graduand walks to the stage I look at their face and smile, then as they walk in front of my I take note of their only other distinguishing feature, their shoes. Over the last few years I have noted with horror the rise and rise of the heels on women's shoes. As a woman who came to consciousness in an age where stilettos were thought of as modern man's answer to foot binding, shoe fashion of the last five years baffles me. You simply cannot participate in society on equal terms with people in flat shoes if you are struggling to walk. What if one of the people in the flat shoes decides to attack you? How will you run away? I like high heels and wear them occasionally, but the trend towards higher and higher shoes is bewildering and dangerous. With models tumbling off runways, surely this craziness has to end? This year as I walked to the venue I wondered if I would see an end to the madness, following what I hope is the fashion trend against super stilettos and mega platforms, and back to wearable shoes.

First up were Biochemical and Chemical Engineering. The horror. The heels. Higher and more structurally implausible than ever. Smart, elegant women, wobbling dangerously across the stage on the path to becoming an engineer. Then the inevitable happened. The shoes claimed a victim. A woman tripped and fell as she left the stage. She picked herself up, the Dean checked that she was OK, and the ceremony continued.

Next were Civil and Environmental Engineering, my class. Much to my relief our women were on the whole wearing flattering, flatter shoes. Some wore heels, but very few were in the spine deforming, ankle twisting, nose bleeding range. This could indicate that our students have met their health and safety learning outcomes to a higher standard than their colleagues in the other departments, but I like to think it is because they are more hip. Our women are in the vanguard of foot fashion, and are marching on their way to becoming professional engineers with both feet on the ground.

The women of the Engineering Class of 2012 are smart, beautiful and ready to take on the world. I have no doubt that they will succeed. I can only hope that more of them will choose footwear that will leave them no excuses for not keeping up with those in flat shoes.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

I lost my phone: a cautionary tale from the back alleys of the Internet

For many years I was the happy owner of an out-of-contract Blackberry. It served me well and I saw no need to upgrade to a snazzier model. Then one fateful day in April it disappeared. Vanished, somewhere between my house and my community garden, never to be seen again.

So I plunged into the murky world of the online phone market. First, I did a quick survey of Facebook friends of android versus apple, with no sensible resolution. Then I realised that Google already had all my contacts, calendar and dirty laundry, so decided they were the path of least resistance. I researched the best phones, found the best deal and placed my order. I decided to go for a refurbished Samsung. Apparently this was the 'best phone in the universe in 2011' and I figured buying a refurbished model would be good for the planet by helping reduce the global mountain of WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment).

My new, refurbished phone arrived. I spent a late night and a morning setting it up with my email, Facebook, twitter, LinkedIn... and tried to call my brother to tell him the good news. He could hear me loud and clear, but I couldn't hear him (nothing new there according to him). I had a beautiful little pocket sized computer, but no phone. Back to Google, Samsung and the retailer and I deduced that this is a hardware fault and posted the phone back to the warehouse and awaited the replacement.

Replacement arrives, I waste another sleepless night setting it up again, and I am away. Two months go by, and I am more or less happy with the phone until one day I decide to take it jogging. People in London will remember June as wet month. The Samsung couldn't cope with the moisture in the pocket of my raincoat. It survived the run but peacefully passed away somewhere in the third set of the Wimbledon men's final later that day (make up your own Murray metaphor).

Back to Google and the forums and I deduce that the phone is dead. I phone the retailer and they tell me I can take it in to their high street partner to see if I am eligible for repair or replacement under the manufacturer's warranty. I take the phone in and am given a dinky little replacement for calls and SMS. Over the next few days I follow the progress of my repair on-line and by the end of the week the diagnosis is confirmed. Samsung warranty does not cover British summer rain.

I am still in contract for the dead Samsung and don't have insurance so I head on-line again to find a good deal on a lower spec, HTC handset. I find a very good deal with what looks like a UK based retailer promising delivery within 2 days and fast refunds, and place my order. After 3 days the order hasn't shipped so I Google the name of the retailer and find that it is not actually in the UK but is based in Hong Kong, and many, many people are displeased with their service and refund performance. I decide to hold tight and after about 10 days I rent a car and drive to collect my new phone from the delivery company warehouse.

Eager to rejoin the third generation I start up my new phone and it speaks to me in Arabic. Back to Google and the forums and I figure out how to navigate the menus to change the script and spend another late night setting everything up. I am an Australian in London pretending to speak 'English (Lebanon)' to set up a phone that thinks its 'home' time zone is Taipei.

A few days later the Cameroonian Olympic team disappears and I go back to the high street repair centre to return the dinky little courtesy phone and pick up the dead Samsung. By a stroke of luck the repairers have 'lost' my dead handset along with 79 others in the consignment from the workshop and are obliged to give me yet another 'refurbished' handset as a replacement.

I head straight for eBay. Three days later a winning bidder agrees to pay almost the exact amount I paid for the multicultural HTC. He has a 100% positive rating from 53 transactions. Four days after that he admits he can't actually pay. I notice that the positive feedback is for eBay Sri Lanka. This would seem to be his first transaction in the UK and I charitably assume he is a new arrival. We agree to the no sale, I get my fees refunded and relist the item, this time with a 'buy-now' price slightly less than the cost of the HTC. Lucky me, WillliamsGary772 buys the phone within minutes! 

A few confusing emails and several eBay and PayPal invoices later, WilliamsGary772 asks that I send the phone to his daughter in Nigeria, rather than to his address in London, since it is a gift for her and he is in Russia on business. Some eBay-esque receipts and requests for shipping numbers arrive in my email inbox, but no funds have made it to my PayPal account. A call and an email to eBay confirm that WilliamsGary772 is indeed a fraudster. I spend the rest of the morning changing all my passwords on all my accounts, with the fervour of a teenage girl who has just found her brother's skinny mate sorting through her undies draw. The phone is relisted, without a 'buy-now' price. I have already had two more requests from West Africa for cash sales. I will leave it listed until the auction expires in 3 days. If I still haven't found a legitimate buyer I will take my friend Patrick's advice and throw the Samsung in the river. I may stick some pins in it first.

So what lessons do I have to share?
1. The Internet is a dark and murky place.
2. The best way to buy a phone is to walk down your high street, walk into a well known retailer, speak to someone behind the counter and sign a contract for the phone you want and the data you need.
3. Cherish your Blackberry. Do not let it out of your sight for a minute. They have cosmic powers.