Building a better engineering profession – step by step

This is a working post. Add your thoughts.

Two caveats though:

  1. I don’t want to include anything explicitly about gender or race or difference. The point is to create inclusive spaces that fundamentally caters for the needs of women and people of colour and people who are different. When these spaces work well they work well for men and white people and white men too.
  2. I don’t want to include anything that drives behaviour underground. So nothing that involves the PC police.

So, what do I want in a supportive workplace?

  • Flexi-time.
    This is the single most important thing to me.  I started wanting this because I am not willing to sit in traffic, but it also allows me to volunteer, to do the really important things that just doesn’t fit neatly into a job – like looking after my estuary – Zandvlei. For families, it can mean that both partners can be both bread-winners and care-givers, sometimes even together. It opens up space to get your intellectual fix, because work is awesome, to allow your partner to do the same, and to spend time together as a family, every day, without needing to relabel sitting in traffic as family time and without being exhausted and dragging yourself through a few minutes of ‘quality time’ before bed.
    Maybe what government can do to incentivise this is force companies to consider the workday starting the moment employees start travelling, and then leave it to companies to innovate how to dodge that.
  • On that note, “create a culture of volunteering in diverse fields, as a way to broaden exposure to different people and circumstances—building active citizenship and empathy.” – Rory Williams (@carbonsmart). This also has immediate positive economic returns on new projects. Networking. Proven.
  • Remote working.
    I like working from home. I can get everything done but in a place where I can wear pajamas, take a nap at 2pm, have my dogs next to me, have good airflow, no noise, and good natural light, and I don’t have to sit in traffic. I can fit in shopping and admin and I imagine parents can pick up kids from school and stuff. From speaking to colleagues I know not everyone likes working from home, but it should be an option.
  • Paid parental leave with remote working options or whatever. I don’t have kids, so I don’t know what the issues are here. Please help.
    It takes a community to raise a child, how do we bring communities back into childcare? Bring a grandparent to work? This is also an urban planning issue, we need to work closer to where we and our wider community of caregivers live.
  • Better distribution of pay. CEO’s can’t get bonuses of R50m if some employees only get R50k a year. How do we do this? Even better, all salaries should be public knowledge in a company. In this case the rules of compensation are clear. There have been some interesting social experiments run on this, the results are not as catastrophic as many people think. Universities do this to a certain extent.
  • Do projects that have big picture value.
    I asked my boss how she thinks we can get to a better profession. She said “It’s the ethic of how we work together”. If we work towards a bigger goal, individual success will come. Yes, we need to pay the bills, and in her Centre about 70% of the projects are bringing in the money. But then there are also projects funded from her ‘slush budget’ that allow people to dream, to explore the boundaries, to contribute to what they are passionate about.
    “By focusing on the process and outcomes of the work itself, engineers could feel excited about ‘being at work’ and learn about social issues without feeling threatened by the idea that someone is trying to ‘reprogramme’ them to think differently about other people.” – Rory Williams (@carbonsmart)
    “If engineers consider how their project work can be done differently to achieve positive social outcomes, this could indirectly reinforce positive attitudes in the workplace. People will feel they are contributing to a bigger social project.” – Rory Williams (@carbonsmart)
  • Bias-awareness training.
    I’m not saying report on bias, or fine people or stuff like that. That’s PC police stuff and it’s a pain in the ass. But training that can help see bias might help. This is an idea that is picking up momentum, as a recent Quartz article highlights: “Bias isn’t like an upset stomach that an individual can take an antacid to fix; it’s a chronic issue that affects entire organizations, industries, and even societies. Individuals have racist, sexist, and homophobic biases because our families, schools, workplaces, and popular culture are racist, sexist, and homophobic. The outcome of any implicit bias training shouldn’t be to cure people’s bias or make them more objective—it should be to make people bias-aware.” “When people are bias-aware, they are able to act with less bias without fixating on being unbiased.” “For example, someone might say, “I believe that I’ve selected the best people on this panel, but know I’m biased toward men. Let me look one more time with that in mind and see if the outcome changes.” While the decision may not end up changing, the process of being honest and nonjudgmental about one’s own bias adds both accountability and intentionality.” “Organizations are built by biased people working together to be self-aware, instead of objective people working to stave off their irrational biases. Our relationship with bias is one of healing and growth, rather than a “fight.” And our life experiences that contributed to who we are today are assets, rather than sources of shame.”
  • Mediation, communication training.
    I think we have a lot of parallels in engineering with the current US situation. People are starting to talk about how to transcend this, with a recent article on mediation being very useful to me. Conflict is important. The power of stories is to help people find  a way through that conflict. The goal is not to make people agree, or share the other side’s belief. The goal includes to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation, to “help people regain their peripheral vision”. “If we want to learn the truth, we have to find new ways to listen. If we want our best work to have consequences, we have to be heard. “Anyone who values truth,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind, “should stop worshipping reason.”” This will also make meetings go so much better. Win-win.
  • Support groups for minorities (yeah I know, broke my own rule here, talking about the genders and POCs but the majorities don’t need to attend so it’s OK). Misogyny is like addiction. White supremacy is like addiction. So tackling it is like tackling addiction. The addicts don’t need to attend this so it’s OK. I don’t know how we do this. Please help.
  • Professional development support, mentoring.
    Help bridge the gaps for young engineers, and women, to for example negotiate for higher pay, how to have tough conversations with senior colleagues, how to present arguments in meetings, etc.

Rory Williams (@carbonsmart) suggested a voluntary ‘social compact’ for engineers to sign. What would it contain?

Bigger questions:

  • How do we adapt in the engineering profession to allow high profile executive posts to open up to talented individuals who are not disagreeable, type A psychopaths?
  • How do we reward leadership? What do we value? And how do we mentor that? Let’s “find a way to reach an honest assessment of the complexity of human personality, while also drawing a line at what is unacceptable.”
  • If things like misogynist or racist behaviour is a form of addiction, driven by lack of belonging, lack of self-identity, and need support to break it, how do we break this addiction and support the addicts on their road to recovery at scale?
  • Can big companies change?
    Perhaps companies just turn bad once they’re larger than 150 people. Small business are more nimble, and more able to play by their own rules.

3 Replies to “Building a better engineering profession – step by step”

  1. From Facebook discussions:
    -On paid parental leave:I think this would help keep women in the work force, but think it could harm small companies that don’t have the large budgets to cover this. Same as starting to pay employees the moment their commute starts-works for large companies, not sure how a small business owner would sustainably manage this when margins are tight. One option would be to have government sharing the burden with businesses.

    Perhaps flexi-time and remote working can help with this?

    1. First comment
      I think it would help if people could work 3/4 time for pro rata pay and bemefits … it is fairly possible for families to operate with two parents doing 1.5 time between them. This would still be difficult for single parents. It would also help people with other constraints – especially health or disability issues. It connects with the flexitime and remote working. In which note: the key for these things to work is scheduled team-time.

      Comment 2
      Love the combination of bias awareness and homogenous group support. These should work in concert. The difficulty is to prevent the formation of the caucus mentality … we need people to be constantly reminded to think “all of us together” not us vs them.

      Comment 3
      The pay issue is a huge one. Works all the way down to the cleaners. Basically what we do with our money demonstrates our values.

      Comment 4
      We need to refuse to reward overwork. We need to refuse to reward aggression. We must refuse to reward the super-performer because that means they are not doing team. These behaviours must be noted with kind intervention to improve way of life.

      There is other stuff but that is it for now!

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