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Alice Chang, Samista Jugwanth, Shamiso Kumbirai of Aurecon

Thinking

Gender in civil engineering – building an equal future

Commentary in Civil Engineering magazine by Alice Chang, Samista Jugwanth, Shamiso Kumbirai

This article is reproduced with permission from Civil Engineering magazine - it was first published in its October 2018 edition.


We need to talk

The editorial, “Out on a rib”, by SAICE’s former CEO, published in the July 2018 edition of Civil Engineering, sparked a strong reaction from both women and men who found the article to be insensitive and offensive. For example, Salona Moodley wrote: “I have to state that when I read that article I was deeply disturbed by it and kept trying to make sense of the context in which it was written, and the more I thought about it the angrier I became.” Lynne Pretorius echoed this: “I cannot but unequivocally state my disappointment at the statements made in the CEO’s letter. These views, expressed in such a widely read magazine, I find inconceivable, have left me disturbed and cannot be left unchallenged.” Prominent organisations such as WomEng expressed similar outrage: “WomEng is deeply outraged with the latest edition of the SAICE magazine and [the] comments by [its] CEO … We find [these] comments derogatory, condescending and patronising.”

Although the matter has since been dealt with by SAICE, the article and the response it elicited have made it clear that gender equity and equality in the civil engineering profession are still major concerns. We therefore thought it was important to unpack some of the broader issues that the article raised. We have collated thoughts and opinions from women across the industry, and hope to provide a fair view of the need for discussion, growth and change.

What is needed is for male and female engineers to be able to engage humbly, openly and honestly with one another and share their experiences. We need to put away the boxing gloves and create safe spaces where everyone, men included, can speak their minds about gender issues in the workplace without fear of judgement. Unfortunately, inflammatory articles and the associated social media furores have the opposite effect, leaving people feeling outraged, angry, disappointed and vilified. This is where conversation and change break down.

Examining the facts

We understand that the gist of the “Out on a rib” article was two-pronged. Firstly, research by Leeds Beckett University and the University of Missouri has, supposedly, shown that women (particularly in more equal societies) naturally choose more people-oriented careers, whilst men choose more mechanically oriented careers. Secondly, women are less likely to occupy high-profile executive positions because they are not willing to take on the high work load, choose to have children and focus on their families, and are more agreeable by nature. Given these two points, it was argued that we should be questioning investment of resources in attracting more women to STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers.

Our concern is that there is so much more to the picture than what was portrayed in the article through the above arguments. It is worrying that the role of women in the workplace, and all the associated politics and dynamics, are viewed so narrowly and so simplistically.

Let's start with why

As several people had pointed out in their responses, the paper in Psychological Science that was quoted in the article requires much deeper interrogation. The paper actually found that girls perform similarly or even better than boys in science. However, in almost all countries the majority of girls’ best subject was reading, whilst boys’ was mathematics. As a result, in countries where girls are more empowered to choose whatever field they want to, they tend to choose ones suited to their strong verbal skills. The research by no means implies that girls are less suited to STEM careers than boys, simply that they have many career options available to them.

As Shamiso Kumbirai explained, the concern with this research being related to civil engineering in the way that it was, claiming that girls are naturally more inclined to choose caring careers and hence not engineering, is the insinuation that, “as an industry, we are not people-centred and caring.” The opposite is in fact true – civil engineering is an applied, practical form of engineering that by its nature is centred around people. “The very definition of the word ‘civil’ relates to people and their concerns/well-being,” says Shamiso. Civil engineers plan, design and build infrastructure for people. Over the past decade there has been a massive movement in the direction of design-thinking, of taking a people-centred approach to design and planning, where we start to actually think about the end-users and how what we build can best serve their needs. We are starting to realise the importance of developing African solutions to African problems.

Creating great infrastructure that we can be really proud of requires so much more than just a skill with numbers – it requires an ability to interpret and understand the needs of the client, to empathise with the end user, to get down to the root of the problem and develop a solution that is fit-for-purpose, to balance social and environmental needs, to communicate effectively, to think out of the box, to apply known principles and standards, to think long-term and see the big picture, preciseness and attention to detail. No single person embodies all of these characteristics, so we work in teams, and this is precisely why diversity is so important. People of different genders, races and backgrounds each bring a unique perspective and set of skills and strengths to a team, and together can form a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. This is why we should care about attracting more women to STEM – because diversity of thinking, empathy and communication will make our profession better. Bianca Forlee and Saaligha Gool expand further on this: “Who cares what that study found? Is that really the most important question to ask with respect to the future of our industry? He could have also written an article looking at World Economic Forum (and other) reports suggesting that, with the fourth industrial revolution, the jobs of the future will require significant investment in STEM fields.

We will need the best people to tackle future problems in the world. Given the persistent gender disparity in STEM, can our country afford not to invest in recruiting women into the field?”

The same can be said for the management argument. It was claimed that high-profile executives are typically competitive, workaholic, disagreeable type-A personalities devoted to their jobs. This is a sweeping generalisation, and probably very offensive to a lot of male managers. It is also an exceptionally outdated view of what it means to be a leader. Over the past few decades, people have realised the danger in this style of leadership – both in terms of individual well-being and company longevity. The major international corporate scandals of the past decade have sparked new development in management research and theory around servant leadership, values-based leadership, authentic leadership, prioritising wellness, work-life balance, etc. If executives in engineering companies really do possess the stereotypical A-type qualities, should we accept this? Should we not instead want managers who are great leaders, authentic, able to balance personal and professional needs, firm and strong but fair and empathetic? There is no doubt that women and men are equally suited to such roles. If our engineering executives do truly value ”shareholder aspirations” over people, then we are going to have a real challenge in retaining our much-needed talent in the engineering profession in future.

The childcare conundrum

Given the arguments made above for why we should want to attract and retain female engineers, the question then is how? What are we doing wrong?

Firstly, we do need to look at how we think about parenting. Samista Jugwanth explains it well: “The gender inequality that we face in our work environments has its roots in the stereotypes perpetuated over generations – stereotypes such as that women are more ‘agreeable’ and caring; and that to us, ‘important enterprises’ consist of a house and family rather than our vocations. Wanting to put domestic life as a higher priority is perfectly acceptable and admirable, as long as it is a choice one makes – not a role prescribed by stereotypes.” We need to accept that some women will choose to have children and some will not or cannot. This is a deeply personal decision and one that should never be judged or probed in a work setting. Of those who have children, some women will choose to raise their children full-time, whilst others will choose to go back to work, both laudable decisions. However, if we want to enjoy the benefits of gender diversity in our profession, we need to do whatever we can to create working environments that are supportive of people balancing work and childcare.

Progressive maternity leave, paternity leave, flexible working hours (with fair pay based on output), remote working and onsite day care are all options which have proved to be successful. What is most important is that these policies address the needs of both parents. As Bianca and Saaligha put it: “The fact is that women do leave our industry, and it is for several reasons that can be addressed through a change in company policy and culture. Companies still have policies that are geared to men in the workplace, which were formulated in the 1950s.” Offering paternity leave and flexibility for fathers to attend to their children’s needs would go a long way towards changing the stereotypes around childcare. For every male engineer who can only take a few days off to spend with his new-born, filled with regret that he has to be at work instead of at home, there is a new mom wishing she could share the parenting burden with her partner. Making it easier for both parents to care for their children would certainly contribute towards creating a more gender-equal society. Assumptions around which parent should be responsible for the majority of childcare are deeply rooted in societal norms and affect both men and women. To assume that men do not share an equal desire to care for and spend time with their children is wrong, but our workplace structures rarely support this.

The bigger picture

Having said that, assuming that the difficulties of retaining women in engineering relate only to raising children is limiting and untrue.

We cannot deny that patriarchy, chauvinism, sexism and sexual harassment still exist in varying forms throughout our industry. One only has to look at the stories and examples from social media, callers on the radio and published responses to the “Out on a rib” article to see this. Whilst every woman’s experience of the civil engineering industry is unique and influenced by many factors, we are confident that every woman has at least one story to tell of a situation which made her feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

Stories such as women being asked inappropriate questions about personal matters like sexual history (like the woman mentioned in Alice Chang’s article in the same July 2018 issue of Civil Engineering), having no access to female bathrooms on a construction site, having their authority and achievements undermined in public platforms like awards dinners, being asked to make the tea every month at site meetings, not receiving the same opportunities to work on construction sites because of perceptions around safety, having sexual comments made about their appearance, and even more serious forms of blatant sexual harassment. Some of these examples may seem like small things, but they can really undermine a woman’s credibility and make her feel uncomfortable and unsupported in the work environment. Furthermore, when a woman who complains is told that she is “too sensitive” or “can’t take a joke”, it disempowers her and reinforces the gender disparity. Bianca and Saaligha feel very strongly about this: “Just because something is outside your reality, does not mean it is untrue. Every time a story/comment comes our way, it is further acknowledgment that people do not believe us when we try to explain our reality. [We’re] tired of having this debate. Why can’t people believe us and, instead of telling us why we’re wrong, ask how they can help to change it?”

What we should aim for is creating work environments where all people, regardless of their gender, feel welcome, included and supported. It is really that simple. Considering that we spend about half our waking life at work, no person should ever have to endure a work environment where he or she feels uncomfortable or demeaned. Most of the time we are unaware of our unconscious biases and how they influence the way we react to people. We are also often unaware of how our words and actions affect those around us, especially when dealing with people of different races, genders and backgrounds to our own. The key to changing the status quo is to open up the communication channels and create the platforms needed for us to engage with one another empathetically.

Promoting for potential

Discussions around how to get more women in management positions have led to a perception that the system is now in favour of women. The smaller pool of professionally registered female engineers is often an excuse for the slow increase of women in management, and thus questions are asked when young female engineers are promoted. When a female engineer was recently promoted in her company, she questioned whether she deserved her promotion (and whether others would perceive that she deserved it), or whether she was promoted based on her gender. The question is, does that matter? Research by Catalyst has shown that in the past women were promoted based on their performance, whereas men were promoted based on their potential. If the drive for increased female representation means that women are now also being promoted sooner, based on their potential, what is wrong with that? That particular female engineer has since embraced the fact that, firstly, she deserved the promotion based on her performance and that, secondly, her company and managers saw enough potential in her to join the management ranks.

Conclusion

As active SAICE volunteers, we empathise with Salona’s views: “I have been involved with SAICE for a few years now, and there are many inequalities that this organisation needs to take a hard look at.” We are all passionate about civil engineering and the role it plays in the development of South Africa, and we are committed in various ways to SAICE and other institutional bodies. We expect SAICE to be leading the change in terms of diversity and inclusion. However, this requires support and involvement from all members to do their part in changing the status quo. We would really like to challenge all engineers to think about the future that we would like to build for the profession. What kind of a world do we want our daughters to grow up in? Do we want them to limit their dreams based on their gender? Or do we want them to believe that they can accomplish anything that they set their minds to, and become anything they want to be? Do we want our daughters to have senior female role-models to aspire to in the engineering profession? Do we want them to work in an environment where they feel comfortable, safe and supported? Do we want them to know that their career advancement is based on merit and potential, not impacted at all by their gender? If we want a different future for our daughters then we need to start making changes now.


About the authors

Catherine Blersch (catherine.blersch@gmail.com), Profesionally Registered Civil Engineer and founder of Splice Consulting (www.splice-consulting.com). She serves on the SAICE Western Cape Branch Committee.

Alice Chang (alice.chang@aurecongroup.com), Associate and Professionally Registered Civil Engineer at Aurecon. She serves as vice-chairperson of the SAICE Western Cape Branch Committee and as a member of SAICE’s Young Members Panel.

With input from:

Bianca Forlee, Civil Engineer at Inani Infrastructure.

Lynne Pretorius, Professionally Registered Civil Engineer and Director at ITS. She is the Immediate Past-President of CESA.

Saaligha Gool, Civil Engineer at Mott Macdonald.

Salona Moodley, Civil Engineer and a Manager at Johannesburg Roads Agency. She is chairperson of the SAICE Environmental Division.

Samista Jugwanth, Civil Engineer and eThekwini Water Lead for Aurecon.

Shamiso Kumbirai, Civil Engineer at Aurecon, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and CESA 2018 Young Engineer of the Year.

Viola Milner, Civil Engineer at JG Afrika. She is a past chairperson of the CESA YPF Western Cape Committee.

WomEng, represented by Hema Vallabh and Naadiya Moosajee.

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