When I said we need to talk … this was not what I meant.

Dear Manglin

You seem to share a consternation that seem also to be an increasing trend in society. Let’s call it populism.

Others more qualified than me have pointed out the factual flaws in your recent article (there’s a screenshot in the first link in case you feel like deleting this one…). I want to dig a bit deeper. I don’t want to lambaste you, because that just sends you and others like you further underground to continue these arguments where we can’t constructively engage with them. I’m rewriting your article. Womansplaining, if you will. I’ll accept at face value what you say, but also accept that part of your mandate as CEO of SAICE is to nurture the growing field of civil engineers, some of whom identify as female. Another mandate as CEO is to be a politician. So if I don’t convince you to change your views, I hope that this article gives you a more nuanced way of expressing them.

Just, before we start: a helpful method of self-checking whether something may be seen as sexist is to reverse the roles. For example: would you say to your male colleagues “you know I am your friend”? Probably not – the ones who are won’t need it spelled out, and the rest probably won’t tolerate it. It’s sortof something you say right before you fire someone. Not really the tone you want to set. In the article I just left these out altogether.

Also, as a profession who values the scientific method, link to the studies you refer to. It adds credibility. I’ve indicated these places as [link], for you to fill in when you re-submit.

The article:

Engineering is in a quandary. Despite the profession’s best attempts, and in keeping with trends in egalitarian gender equal societies, it seems that women still prefer to choose care or people orientated careers, while men tend to choose careers that orient them to things and mechanics. A study [link] also showed that countries with most female graduates in Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers were some of the least gender equal countries. [Now here you need to place South Africa in context. Are we gender equal? How do we compare to this study? I’m guessing not, which is confusing because then shouldn’t we have the most female graduates in STEM then? But your article explains that we’re not.]

South Africa, being one of the most unequal countries in the world and not doing very well on gender equality  seems to buck this trend, because we don’t seem to have female graduates shining in STEM, either. Of SAICE’s almost 16 000 database, 17% are women. Of our almost 4 000 student members, 31% are women. Of our almost 5 850 graduate members, 21% are women. But the most striking is of almost 6 000 professionally registered members, only 5% are women. The increased representation of women at university level (31%) and graduate working level (21%) in comparison to say managerial and director levels (5%) might be explained by the same interpretation of data in the legal profession. About the time when graduates progress into middle management, many families start having children.  The way our society currently functions is that women tend to carry the greatest share of this load.

The reality is that women have the perception, whether it is true or not, that they “have had to work twice as hard to prove themselves.” As engineers we need to understand why this is the case. During August, women’s month, I undertake to host SAWomEng to explore why this is the case.

We also know that women get paid less in the work place. Coupled with studies that women’s earnings contribute more to the wellbeing of the family this is concerning. The engineering profession takes this seriously, as we – excuse the pun – build the country. What influences the life choices that let women accept lower pay for the same standard of work?

Fortunately, where work was the same for exactly the same hours worked, women earned more than men [link, link, link] which I hope indicates due credit for the multitude of emotional labour women do, in addition to setting the meetings, bringing coffee – actually, we should argue to include these soft skills like organising meetings and acting as mediators during conflict in the professional engineering accreditation. Although we may see a lot of men losing their accreditation then. Maybe some training, first.

The fact that more men occupy high profile executive posts is problematic. This work load and extreme performance requirements for people who are skilled in things and mechanics, and more often than not unskilled in emotional intelligence, overly ambitious and often unaware of the greater complexities of society and therefore displaying a tendency to oversimplify wicked problems is a recipe for collapse. For people who do not need to negotiate the emotional and physical trade-offs of running a professional team (acknowledged or not), a family and hopefully a personal life too, expecting expertise in choosing what is important and where to allocate time is not fair. Yet, the people who are trained for this from birth in an imperfect society (mainly women) often are not seen in these positions. That seems like a tremendous oversight.

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? Surely that would create value to society and to the unfortunate souls who currently fill these posts. A current groundswell resisting the power of shareholders is a welcome development.

Engineering is a highly creative profession and coupled with the strengths women show in both STEM related fields and the creative arts, including reading and writing, this should really be a field of choice for women (as explained by Kamentha Pillay). Why is it not? The nature of work is currently changing, as it should. Can we improve the profession not just for females, but for everyone?

Speaking for myself, as a hands on and very involved father of our own 5, 3 and 1 year olds, I resent how much of my children’s development I miss. I resent that they find the women in their life more amenable. If I had the chance to prove myself by spending time with them, they will see that I also have potential to be amenable.

The engineering profession needs to obtain a deeper understanding of gender equality and equity to more efficiently make use of constrained money, time and resources. I pledge that the engineering profession commits to playing a leading role in investing time, effort and resources towards more gender equal societies. That way, I might get to spend more time with my kids. SAICE commits to lobbying for the effective spend on resources currently invested in women in STEM careers, to attract the type of skills they have up to now been forced to acquire in a broken world. Together, let’s build a better one.

This article was greatly informed by responses to Manglin’s silly little article.
Especially Kamentha Pillay and the SAWomEng statement.

The title refers to a previous blogpost “Engineers, we need to talk”

4 Replies to “When I said we need to talk … this was not what I meant.”

  1. I really love the different spin you have put onto the very badly considered article. Perhaps Manglin Pillay has actually done us a favour by writing so badly that the righteous outrage has prompted healthy debate. My biggest fear is his views are really widespread amongst the male senior managers in engineering.

    I’m proud to be in the engineering field seeing competant women engineers getting involved. I’m embarrassed to be a man and to be associated with a patronising view from someone who should know better.

    1. Thanks Tim

      We can’t change who we are, but we can influence what we do. Engineering and other fields can do with a lot of great people, caring and working together, and speaking up to help change these views. I think many male senior managers have these views because they have never been challenged. We can do more to gently and constructively challenge them, at the very least make it known that it’s not OK. Perhaps they also have never had the chance to see how phenomenal it is when diverse teams work together well, so they don’t have that experience to draw from. Let’s change that.

  2. This is so well written. I wish I had the ability to write that well.
    I hope a lot of people read it. They will all learn something.
    Well done.
    Giam Swiegers

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