Old boy club dominates engineering

The chief executive of the South African Institute of Civil Engineering (Saice) published a column in the July issue of Civil Engineering magazine, questioning whether South Africa should be investing so heavily in attracting women into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields because“evidence” showed women are more “predisposed” to caring and people-oriented careers.

Presenting outdated tropes about women preferring motherhood and “tasks related to caring”, and questioning what it means for women to “work twice as hard”, Manglin Pillay’s arguments have been met with anger.

His argument is not unique. It’s garden-variety sexism and it thrives in these climates. But it is significant because it’s coming from the head of one of the largest voluntary engineering associations in the country, in one of the largest construction industries on the continent. Saice must urgently respond to this outrage.

But it doesn’t stop there.

According to the industry body Consulting Engineers South Africa, women make up only 4% to 6% of total consulting engineering professionals, while the number of female executives appointed over the last year has decreased from 13% to 12%.

Pillay’s article acknowledges that Saice’s statistics of professional women reveal similar trends, while simultaneously pretending that they are the result of a natural pecking order in which men are somehow ordained with the capacity for hard work and women are preternaturally moved to raise babies.

He fails to even acknowledge, let alone pledge to address the deeply misogynist environment that prevents women engineers from excelling in technical professions. Yet to focus on Pillay’s comments alone without addressing the sector as a whole will not take us any further.

It is imperative that the profession starts to grapple with the limited access to career growth opportunities, harassment in the workplace and deep structural disadvantages.

Obtaining an engineering degree is challenging, but succeeding in the engineering sector does not require being a rocket scientist. Most engineering knowledge is empirical, obtained through trial and error, and is transferred from senior to junior engineers over a training period. For this, technical mentorship is key to advancing in the engineering profession after graduation — reflected in the structure and requirements of the technical registration process to become a certified engineer.

With mentorship comes exposure, with exposure knowledge, with knowledge experience and with experience opportunity. Globally the bulk of engineering knowledge still resides with men, trained to be technically-minded, but not to maintain professional relationships with members of the opposite sex. Consequently, many senior engineers pass on their knowledge to male (and often white) graduate engineers, in whom they see reflections of themselves.

These attitudes have real world implications. In advancing one’s technical career, practical experience, site exposure and the opportunity to take on complex engineering projects are as important as mentorship. Who gets to work on engineering sites, how those site conditions are designed and who they’re built to accommodate, and what opportunities are afforded to whom affect the level of women’s representation in the engineering profession.

Women are laughed at when requesting to be responsible for site and project management; others are told that their hands are too soft to work on site. Without this hands-on experience, women cannot progress and are left behind while their male colleagues advance, or ready themselves to obtain their professional registration.

Individuals like Pillay fail to recognise how difficult it is, in such circumstances, for women to excel professionally. When you are referred to as “little girl” in a project launch meeting, introduced to new team members as the secretary or are consistently applauded on the merit of your appearance instead of the quality of your work, the work environment becomes increasingly hostile.

Women routinely talk of being propositioned by their male colleagues and managers on remote sites, and corporates refuse to provide safe housing and transport options for women on construction projects. Dealing with harassment, bias, discrimination and aggression slows down women from using their already limited time to build their careers.

So to answer Pillay, this is why we work twice as hard — because we end up spending so much of our time providing individual tutorials to men such as him, who feel entitled to explanations of things that are otherwise plain for all to see. Women do not raise their voices for fear of risking their careers. Being “that woman’” — the one who stands up and speaks out — comes at the cost of our technical careers. Women are tough, strong and capable, but often our reward for doing so results in us being labelled difficult, pushy, disagreeable and not “team players”.

If engineering in South Africa is to fulfil its true mission to society, men of Pillay’s ilk need to go. But more than that, individual companies and institutional bodies such as the Saice need to chart a new course for the genuine inclusion of women into the profession.

For individual companies the steps could include:

  • Make channels available where women can anonymously raise issues of discrimination, sexual harassment and aggression in the workplace;
  • Assign representative committees for dealing with these issues in a swift, professional and public manner;
  • Ensure that employees face consequences, and are named and shamed if they marginalise and bully other employees;
  • Publish statistics on salaries and promotions by gender, race and job level;
  • Publish statistics by gender and race for registration timelines, project assignment, allocated site experience, size and scope of projects managed by young professionals; and
  • Set goals, plans, budgets and reporting on the promotion of women in the workplace, including open disclosure of maternity leave policies and opportunities for re-entering the profession after rearing children.

Professional bodies can advance women in their sub sectors by:

  • Acknowledging that women empowerment and sector transformation requires the promotion of women in the sector, as well as the attraction of women to the sector;
  • Actively seeking out and compensating female engineers to be part of panels assessing professional competency; and
  • Publishing statistics of female members, professionally registered individuals, pay scales and registration timelines in the sector.

A statement of apology is required from Saice and a reckoning with its sexist chief executive is long overdue. But that’s not enough. Dealing with prejudicial attitudes requires holistic introspection and a bold set of changes in how the profession views itself and the women who choose to enter it.

We are tired of men like Pillay, but we are never too tired to defend our rightful place.

Wiebke Toussaint is the co-founder of Engineers Without Borders South Africa. She holds a bachelor degree in mechanical engineering, and is an advocate for transformation, diversity and the adoption of human-centred design in the engineering sector. She has mentored many rising young engineer across the country. These are her own views

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