By Susmita Abani:
It’s my penultimate week of working in a motorway maintenance office. I rise from my desk to stretch my legs and smile at one of our senior staff as he enters the room and stands at the door. “Who’s the graduate that’ll be replacin’ ya, Su?” he asks. As I respond with a name, his smile quickly becomes a grimace. “Another girl?” he complains in jest, and I laugh along, ignoring the fury bubbling in my chest.
As a 17-year-old high school graduate, I felt my decision to pursue studies in engineering was admirable and bold. Defying the glass ceiling, and stereotypes alleging women are incapable of excelling in technical fields, I pushed through my degree and entered the workforce by landing a position in one of Australia’s largest construction companies. In two short years, the novelty had mostly shattered.
It’s no secret the engineering demographic world-wide is heavily skewed towards men. According to an Engineers Australia report from 2012, 14% of accepted engineering positions at university comprised of women and only 10.7% of the engineering workforce were female. An interesting research from the United States showed poor retention of female staff in the industry, with nearly 40% withdrawing from the field following tertiary education. The justifications cited for these departures included “organizational climate, characterised by non-supportive supervisors or co-workers and general incivility… [also] working conditions, like frequent travel, lack of advancement opportunities or low salary.”
As a civil engineer, I sympathise with these observations, realising that the construction industry is essentially a professional boys-club. There’s a very masculine tough-it-out attitude permeating the industry, expected in a career that requires frequent contact with the outdoors, travelling, long hours and physical labour. Those equipped with boisterous and domineering personalities are coveted and most workers are accustomed to communicating via a tirade of expletives, using crass humour as a means of expressing comradeship.
Of course, there are women who embrace this culture with less indecision. But many women, by nature, have an affinity for organic themes (people, animals, plants) or are hardwired for emotive expression – and thus unsurprisingly feel patronised in a workplace that silently discourages emotional language. While the ability to adapt and grow is important for any profession, I believe a line must be drawn where a drastic personality change is anticipated for a job.
I often wonder then, if attempts to motivate a gross increase in women’s entrance into engineering by affirmative action are futile. But on the flip-side, is it not also un-feminist to insist that all women should have identical career aspirations to men? It’s imperative to note here that young girls exhibit as much calibre in maths and science as boys, and hence the under-representation of women in engineering is not reflective of an inferior technical aptitude, but rather a complex manifold of other causes including individual choices, lifestyle priorities and industry-wide misogyny.
The real goal for engineering thus transcends the notion of literal gender equality in the workforce, and instead must focus on achieving a gender-neutral workforce benefitting both genders alike. In Australia for instance, the organisation Mates in Construction rose from statistics showing “suicide levels within the Construction Industry are up to two times higher than those for other workers and workers have six times more likelihood of dying through suicide than through workplace accident.” They discovered that men often viewed the act of sharing their struggles with colleagues as an indication of unmanliness, and craved an unbiased outlet for releasing emotional burdens. These results petition for a change in detrimental attitudes in which the male identity is bound by pride, strength and apathy – and also perceived to be superior.
Perhaps gender balance does not mean 50-50 participation by men and women. Perhaps it should propose an environment providing equal opportunity and encouragement to women keen to join the field, and where shaming is absent, such as the association of external ‘toughness‘ with domination and technical aptitude, and ’emotion‘ with weakness. A neutral workforce eradicates biases in the selection and promotion of individuals, while acknowledging that gender equality should not entail the mimicry of masculine qualities. When these issues no longer exist, a clearer picture of equality in the workforce will perhaps emerge where equality in numbers is not a pre-requisite.