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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.

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.

8 comments:

  1. Oh, what a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing this. It's extremely enlightening. But please do not dismiss 'high feminism' as you call it as I do think there are pedagogical ways of making people understand.

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    1. Thanks Clementine. I agree that there is much in feminist theory that is potentially useful, but it is really hard for many of us to access. Most discussions about women in engineering happen in a theoretical vacuum and go around and around in circles, based on personal anecdote, excel graphs and popular news articles. It would be really useful if more theorists could engage with these issues and the women they effect, to try to break through these apparently intractable problems.

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  2. FWIW I think we need a lot more people just living in ways that violate outdated gender bollocks. Not that we don't need blogging or representation: but I would expect the movement to be pyramid shaped, with a few advocates on behalf of the majority of the affected; and there sure seem to be a lot of self-avowed feminists putting up with the things they hate while talking about them at length. (not you, of course).

    I'm not quite sure I have the right understanding of high feminism, as I am barely literate in social sciences, but it does seem odd that the language used to talk about exclusion is itself exclusionary.

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    1. Too right! I actually think this is what a lot of feminist and queer theory is trying to get to - living and thinking beyond gender. Unfortunately writing about it seems to require lots of complicated language, which is where we get lost. Most of the time I just get along with my own little life, which has never had much respect for gender roles. Thankfully the people I care most about seem to love me all the same.

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  3. You do not need to disengage. You need to know that it is not your responsibility it is all of ours. Shared.

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement Anthony. How about I just have a little rest and let you and some of the other boys pick up the slack for a while?

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  4. Hi, I am also a woman in a male dominated field, software engineering. I studied in Spain and I got some raised eyebrows when I said I was going to become an engineer back in the day. I remember, that my degree in Spain back then was called Computer Engineering, and the statistics said that when they had changed the name from Computer Sciences to Computer Engineering a few years back, they lost a big percentage of women. So I have always believed that women are generally scared of "engineering", probably because of the cultural and sexist connotations of the word. And what does it mean to be an engineer? I didn't realise the true nature of engineering until I started to act like an engineer, before I was just studying engineering or wanting to become an engineer without knowing what that means.

    To be honest, I have had a few moments in my career where I felt out of place particularly at the beginning, I didn't know how to make a point or push back on bad ideas/designs. Then I decided that my job is to change things for better, so I am always going to feel somewhat out of place. And it works for me. In my view, being an engineer requires to be able to have a strong opinion and to be able to disagree with others, which some people are not capable of (men and women).

    I'd like to encourage more women to challenge preconceptions and do their best at changing the world, in whichever field they decide to be, including engineering, of course. Thanks for your article, it is truly enlightening.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Computer Science is a really interesting case. Apparently it is an increasingly popular career choice for Indian women - it is well paid, indoors and safe, so is seen by parents as an acceptable choice for daughters. In the US much early computer programming was done by women, partly as an extension of secretarial work. Then somewhere along the line the boys took over (possibly when people realised there was money in software).

      Nice to hear your words of encouragement. It is very useful to remember that if you feel like you fit in you are probably not making a difference.

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