SELF-WORTH

This isn’t a confidence-boosting, self-help load of waffle.  This is actually about something totally wrong-headed I heard from an acquaintance with, uh, clearly different aspirations to me.

More than a difference of opinion, this is about some seriously harmful and life-limiting stereotypes that are still with us even in the 21st Century.  Worryingly, this is just one occasion of many that I’ve heard a variation on this theme, and there seem to be social penalties for those who don’t comply.

So I was on my way to the water cooler, when I happened upon two colleagues discussing marriage (not to each other, but I have no problems with that – more in a future post).  These two individuals were a younger woman (late 20s-ish), and an older gentleman, with, ahem, traditional views.  The younger woman was engaged, but not looking to get married and have children just yet.  You might not agree with that attitude (it doesn’t entirely align with my thoughts), but that’s what she wants, and what she’s getting in her present relationship.  Good for her.

And literally everything that was said after this point was a cringe-inducing train wreck of a conversation.  So the older chap suggests that:

  1. She should hurry up and get married because all men are commitment-phobes (I will address the myriad contentions I have with this idea below, but for now let’s just celebrate that at least this guy is an equal-opportunities sexist);
  2. [I feel it necessary to point out here that these were his actual words, because this is just such a bizarre phrase to actually come out of someone’s mouth]  “A person hasn’t achieved anything in life until they’ve had children” (he literally said this, and again, detailed analysis of the blindingly obvious to follow below).

And then he starts to engage me in the conversation.  Now there are some people that I work with that I can be my passionate, political and skeptical self with.  This guy is not one of them.  But seriously, I’m not going to keep my mouth shut about this.

WEIRD BLOKE: “Don’t you agree, Science Lady, that our sole purpose is to pass on our genetic material?”

SCIENCE LADY: “Um, no, actually.  There are plenty of ways to live a meaningful life.”

WEIRD BLOKE: “But you’ve already achieved things with your offspring, haven’t you?”

[here I need to point out that for numerous reasons I do not talk about my children at work.  This guy knows it’s something I consider inappropriate, but decorum certainly isn’t his strong suit]

SCIENCE LADY: “It’s complicated.  I don’t like to talk about it.”

WEIRD BLOKE: “But you know, you’ve fulfilled your purpose in life.”

SCIENCE LADY: “I have lots of things to live for, and not everyone wants to be a parent.  Many people choose not to, or are unable to have kids.  And they provide a valuable role as caretakers.  If everyone is focused on nurturing children at the expense of everything else, how can we develop as a society?”

[older gentleman looks aghast]

WEIRD BLOKE: “I don’t know what you mean.”

SCIENCE LADY: “We need other people to perform tasks that benefit the community, so that the whole environment provides suitable conditions for children to flourish.  And for some people, that’s a role they’re better suited to than parenthood.”

WEIRD BLOKE: “Oh, well I think you’re wrong.”

[awkward silence]

So that was depressing.  It’s amazing what things you learn about the beliefs of others when they let their guard down.  Anyway, time for some Grade-A ranting:

  1. So men are all commitment-phobic? Well, that’s not true, although men may generally have different requirements for wishing to settle down that don’t match those of many women, thereby creating this impression.  I also think it’s a lot to do with maturity, and the notion that other things in a man’s life need to be sorted before he allows himself to be vulnerable.  And the unrealistic ideals society has about relationships (oooh, another post on this, too!).
  2. It doesn’t really say good things about him, given that he’s saying how fickle his own gender is. Doesn’t matter if he’s repeating society’s lie, it’s still bullshit.
  3. This young woman is clearly happy in her relationship choice, and she doesn’t need some weird bloke telling her that she should do it differently.
  4. If someone is living with a person, and they’re engaged to be married, there is a certain amount of commitment inherent in that situation.
  5. While I have “passed on my genetic material” (could we make it sound any more clinical?), I have many ambitions, dreams, and goals. I want to be successful, to be remembered as a contributor to society, to enhance the lives of others who aren’t necessarily blood relatives.
  6. Unfortunately, having children does pose some restrictions on one’s life, especially in a society that still leaves most of the child-rearing burden on one parent. And many people don’t like kids, don’t want the responsibility, and just want something else from life.  They don’t need anyone’s approval or opinions on whether their lifestyle is valid.
  7. Some people are unable to have children, for a huge variety of reasons. Some of them are OK with that; many of them aren’t.  Attaching moral value to a distressing situation that cannot be resolved is cruel and simplistic.
  8. The world has 7 billion inhabitants and rising at the time of writing this. Numerous studies have demonstrated that there are too many of us, consuming resources at too great a pace, for the planet to be able to support us.  Of course many people will want to have children of their own, but forcing people down this route is slowly killing us all (have a great day, but don’t forget the ever-looming reminder of your own mortality!).
  9. This statement shows that this individual views the child-free as less worthy. You may think, “oh, well that’s just one individual’s bigoted opinion”, but there is evidence that those who choose to stay single and/or childless are seen as less mature, stable, and with lower status (Career-wise, not having children penalises men, and having children disadvantages women. Talk about a zero-sum game.).
  10. Women in particular are the recipients of an inordinate amount of questioning regarding the status of their reproductive organs. Not only is this intrusive and downright inappropriate, the sexist expectation that all women are incubators-in-waiting needs to be sent back to the 1800s.

So that was my Tuesday.  Let’s see what pisses me off tomorrow!

WHAT ABOUT THE MEN PART 3: THE DIET COKE EFFECT

Who remembers the Diet Coke advert with a bunch of female office workers ogling a shirtless site worker? <pssst… it’s 11.30>  At the time, it was a pretty funny ad, subverting the idea that women’s bodies are visual currency for men.  It made its point, and was a wildly popular ad, but it was 20 years ago, and the world has moved on since then – or has it?

Some of the women I work with speak about men in the same way; like they are objects on display for our entertainment.  It’s worse when its about colleagues of ours – it makes me cringe.  I work around the corner from The Birdcage – which I would like to visit, but not for this – which regularly has male strip shows with “Full Monty Guaranteed!”.  Call me a prude (ha, ironically maybe), but I think it’s rather distasteful.  Not to mention that the hairless, chiselled male bodies that we’re supposed to find attractive, look like children to my sex brain.  Ew.

When men speak of women in this way, they are rightly criticised.  But in 2016, it’s apparently OK for women to treat the other half of the human race like pieces of meat.  Sure, it seemed empowering 20 years ago, but it’s just embarrassing now.  There’s hypocrisy in that the same people who salivate over male bodies would get angry at men doing the same to women.  But there’s a worse hypocrisy; that I’m scared to call people on it because this is a socially accepted behaviour – and I’d be the weirdo for complaining.  I don’t feel that it damages men as a whole, sexism still has a disproportionately worse impact on women, but it does affect the way individuals see the world, and how they behave in relationships.  It’s toxic for the ogler, and for the ogl-ee.

Here’s a cheerful article on the rise of eating disorders among men.  It’s far more common than we had allowed ourselves to think.  I’d love it for gender equality to not be a race to the bottom where everyone is marginalised to an equivalent degree – we can do so much better than this.

CORPORATE FEMINISM PART 2

Ages ago (well, here, actually), I posted about successful women who reject feminism because they think they don’t need it any more.  Social changes have helped them to get to where they are, and they become blind to the problems that other women encounter. They buy in to the idea of a true meritocracy, where we are 100% responsible for our own successes and failures, and that your background, education, connections, wealth, etc. have nothing to do with it.

I’ve been in this situation myself, I grew up in a family that I hesitate to even call working-class (because they didn’t actually work), I left the dead-end town I grew up in, and went to University (against my parents wishes).  I now have a great job, I’m comfortably well-off, and my life is completely different (and better) to what I would have had if I’d followed in my family’s footsteps.  It feels like everything I’ve done, I did for myself.  But that’s not quite true.  I was very lucky to have received such a good education (my teachers were way better role models than my parents), and the drive to get more people attending Uni from lower social classes meant that my study was subsidised.  I wouldn’t have been able to access the same opportunities if steps hadn’t been made in the name of equality.

Which brings me back to one example of rampant internalised misogyny, so blatant it sounds like I must have made it up.  But no.  This was no satire or Poe, these were genuine actual successful women, lording it over the rest of us, as follows:

I was invited to attend a Women in Engineering event (it wasn’t run by one of the big engineering institutions, and I’m not telling you which one it is anyway, for self-preservation reasons), and I expected it to be fairly similar to most other evening do’s I attend professionally: a talk, networking, fancy canapés.  Well, it did have those three things, but some extra bonus items too!

A presentation on how women can become more successful and ascend the career ladder more easily, with literally no advice on answering that question.  It did, however, have plenty of snarky in-jokes about how men get all uppity if women start promoting themselves or demand recognition.

The networking post-presentation was part-good, part-bad.  There were some people there who were involved with Engineers Without Borders (like Medecins Sans Frontiers, but with bricks and steel beams), who talked about their work overseas, and how it can be a good way to advance your career (Yes! Solid, specific and useful career advice! At last!).  Those individuals were all women under 30, and they saw two important challenges that they could overcome with their projects:

1. There are places around the world that not only need investment and innovation, but they are also full of opportunities on a personal, industrial and political level;
2. Women and young people are under-represented in our sector, and they have found a niche to get around this problem.

Good work guys! This was definitely the most inspiring part of the evening (excluding the free wine). And then there were some other people, at director-level, who basically talked like a bunch of old, white men straight out of the 70’s. When I spoke about feeling limited and underestimated, they said that this was impossible, because they’d never experienced it. If we spoke about the problem of women being viewed as aggressive when they are assertive, that was a myth too, because they’d been doing fine for the last 30-odd years. Us silly girls must be over-sensitive or something.

And all of this hurts, not just me, but all of us. Because sexism and other prejudices and biases are very real. While my school education was genderless, I encountered a few strange attitudes when I arrived at university. Generally my tutors were 100% normal human beings with no discernible biases, but one in particular used to “compliment” me (repeatedly) for being a woman studying the subject. Yes, I was probably a bit of a novelty (er, twenty years previously, even then), but it wasn’t the only thing that defined me.

In the workplace it got even weirder, like some of my colleagues had been brought up in another epoch or something.  Things have come a l-o-n-g way over my short time in the industry (15 years).  And this is in part due to huge effort by the government, engineering institutions, and individual firms, to attract a more diverse workforce into the profession.

When we say that we’ve outgrown the support systems, or that they are no longer important because some individuals have achieved success against the odds,  we are dismissing the needs of those who aren’t as fortunate as us.  Because there are still real barriers in the way, for all sorts of reasons.  Empathy is important here, because in order to effect social change, you have to understand things from another’s perspective, and acknowledge that not everyone achieves success purely on merit.

Is it a protective mechanism? Like if we admit that the system helped us to get over hurdles, we’ll reveal that we didn’t do it all by ourselves and are some sort of fraud?  We need to be more honest about this, and not begrudge those who have been luckier in life, but accept and understand that their life took a different path to that of many others.  And that it’s ok to make up for it in other respects if you started off with less.  And that it’s our duty to support and advance each other for the success of humanity.

As an aside, the next event I was invited to by this group was a shoe-shopping trip.  No, I’m not making that up.  No matter how much I love shoes, I somehow don’t think I would have fitted in.  I declined their invitation.

PROUD EUROPEAN – TATTOO STORIES PART 2

Wow, we actually did it.  I honestly didn’t think the Great British Public would fall for the Brexit rhetoric.  But, collectively we did, and now we’re in a right pickle.  All those things that the Remain campaign, and pretty much every economist everywhere, said would happen – well, they’re starting to happen.

In the space of one week, an MP was murdered, we potentially instigated the break-up of the Union, destabilised the largest peace project in the world, screwed the economy, and the Prime Minister resigned.  Good job, Britain.

Wearing my heart on my sleeve (well, abdomen).
Wearing my heart on my sleeve (well, abdomen).

My first act of rebellion (against the collective poor decision-making of the UK public) and coping (with a momentous, yet daunting, political outcome) was to have a Brexit tattoo.  I tend to have body modifications to mark major events in my life, a bit like collecting merit badges.  I already had the navel piercing, and a replica of the teardrop EU flag going around on Facebook was easy to fashion from it.

But something that we’re all coming to realise is that by acting smart, we actually weren’t so smart.  It was obvious to us intellectuals that Brexit was a bad idea.  We had the facts, and they supported the arguments made against leaving the EU.  We assumed that others would make a carefully-considered rational choice, like we would.

NOPE.

While the public shouldn’t be patronised, we also have to be careful not to overestimate them.  Sure there are a ton of thickos in the UK, but that’s only half the story.  Intelligent people can be swayed by appeals to emotion and patriotism, convincing themselves that the rhetoric is reasonable.  The heart is more powerful than the head of an untrained mind, and there are many emotive goings on in the UK right now.  It’s interesting to hear people’s reasons for voting to Leave.  There’s much talk of people regretting their vote, but data on actual numbers of “Bregretters” is scant.

So what’s going on?  We know that those who thought that leaving the EU would reduce immigration / send everyone back to where they came from were wrong – this was stated by numerous sources in the run-up to the vote.

What about those who wanted to “take back control” and be “free”?  Take back control from whom, give it to whom, and what constitutes freedom?  “Taking back control” and “freedom” are nebulous phrases, and my sceptical eye saw right through them.  Maybe Brexiters found meaning where I didn’t.

From the behaviour exhibited in the last two weeks, it seems that people voted along tribal lines.  It was as though Remain was a vote for The Establishment, and Leave would somehow Stick It To The Man.  And we had a handy scapegoat ready: immigrants.  Yes, those saying that the Brexit vote was about immigration were right, but not quite in the way we expect.

The UK is a terrifyingly racist and xenophobic place, with casual discrimination rife.  But that’s the kind of stuff that accumulates, so that any single instance seems minor, and easily dismissable.  But Brexit brought that right out in to the open.  The anti-immigration slurs, the racist stereotyping, the “just saying what everyone else is thinking” was given legitimacy by the outcome of the vote.

But is this problem actually about racism?  Yes, and No.

Indeed, it’s likely that the racists all voted Leave (even if not all Leave-ers are racist), and the event has opened a Pandora’s box of underlying fear & hatred.  There had to be latent racism in the first place for things to develop as they have.

However, if you look at the demographic of those most likely to vote Leave, we see that this lines up with some of the most disenfranchised and impoverished people in the country.  And they have been targeted with anti-foreigner propaganda by the mainstream media (tabloid and broadsheet alike).  Added to this is the class problem of not wanting to be pushed around by one’s “betters” (the proliferation of conspiracy theories illustrates this point nicely).  The working classes have had a rough deal from the government in the past, and there is a distrust of those who claim they know what’s good for us (Michael Gove was actually correct when he said that people were “sick of experts”, although he didn’t seem to mean it in that way).

So, are the poor all a bunch of angry racists? No, of course not. But unresolved social problems have led to a culture where immigrants are an easy target for abuse, and with an absence of relatable voices to counter this, it seems logical from where the poor are sitting. Of course there is huge diversity among working-class people. Those fortunate enough to have a good education, and supportive home environment, might see the world differently (I fell very much into this camp, & it was one of the drivers for me wanting to go to University – I just didn’t fit in mentally and ideologically with most of my peer group). Sometimes age and experience bring the realisation that the Dream Of The Meritocracy is just a dream – that life’s not fair and it might not be one’s fault that their circumstances aren’t great.

I feel this is one of the greatest injustices meted on the poor – that it is their fault for their lack of social mobility – if only they’d work a bit harder, or aim a bit higher, they too can make it.  Sure there are numerous examples of such individuals – and thousands more who didn’t make it.  The message coming from higher in the food chain is that they only have themselves to blame, and what can you do with a message like that?  You’re doing everything within your power to improve your lot, and it will never be good enough.  With no encouragement from the wealthier society, and no way out for most, a scapegoat often is the only route to alleviate the pain of knowing that you’ll always have it rough.  Maybe if we acknowledged the struggles of those in the lower social classes, stopped talking down to them, and were honest with them, we wouldn’t have so many uninformed views about immigration.

The UK has been terrible at selling the benefits of political collaboration and immigration to its people, in a way that doesn’t happen in other EU countries.  Most UK residents are fed tall tales of Red Tape and Restrictions On Our Liberty, which are a load of made-up bollocks.  Immigration is spoken of as if it were a threat, when the truth is that we either have to decide whether to promote growth through immigration, or allow our falling birthrate to accompany a corresponding reduction in output.

This site is incredible [clicky!]; it debunks the Euro-bollocks spouted by the popular press.  When you understand the ways that the (almost always) innocuous truth has been twisted to make a good story, our collective impression of the EU begins to look ridiculous.  Amazing what a few pesky facts can do.

Our government has historically been one of the most restrictive 1st world countries in terms of personal freedoms.  We have governed by carefully allowing the public access to just enough information to present the illusion of liberty, while heavily censoring certain other information.  For goodness sake, we put a book on trial in 1960, and we’ve barely moved on from that in 2016!  The lack of trust in the minds of the public is a breeding ground for prejudice and conspiracy theories.  A lack of control over one’s life begets a search for meaning, and without answers there are numerous rabbit holes to fall down.

So was the Brexit vote about racism?  Yes and No.  Was it about classism?  YES.  And until we face up to that, the problem will not go away.

M*********ING VOTE!!! (OBVIOUSLY NSFW)

WAKE THE F**K UP OBAMA AD Samuel L Jackson Voting Ad

This video was for the Obama election campaign in 2012, but I feel the spirit is the same for our referendum today.  If you want a better world, then you need to vote for it.  None of that “but my voice is only one in a sea of many” crap, voter turnout in the UK is so low that an unused vote is a route for bizarro fringe parties to take hold.  Don’t even get me started on “protest voting“.  Demographically, older & richer people are more likely to use their vote, and younger & poorer voters more likely to stay at home on Polling DayThe ones not voting are those who will be most affected by the outcome.  And at the moment, older voters lean more towards Leave, and younger voters towards Remain.  If us young’uns don’t get out there today and participate in the democratic process, then we have no-one to blame but ourselves if we get the wrong result.  People gave their lives for us to have this right, and we sadly lost an MP to political extremism only last week.  What matters more than a human life?  The right to vote is more than just a right, it is an honour.  Use it as you wish, but please use it.

I SAW SOMETHING

One of the aspects of living in a large city is that you see things that just don’t happen in the rest of the country.  My parents, who live in a tiny village in the Home Counties, complain about neighbourhood problems frequently, and I don’t even bother comparing their plight with the myriad social ills that you can find in the middle of Manchester.

One of our biggest problems is homelessness. The council doesn’t seem to have control of the situation at all – there were numerous protests (read: campsites outside the Town Hall) last year, and the main result of this was the Council invested more in moving the protesters on. Social housing is difficult to find; the wait can be years. What is someone supposed to do in the meantime? And what if you have a crisis that needs to be dealt with now? Most of the shelters have closed down, and yet many of the people who need them probably wouldn’t fare well there either. Rules on behaviour, alcohol, drugs, pets, curfews etc, etc, just don’t fit with the erratic lifestyle of someone with a set of other problems that have led to their situation. And so the only place left is the streets.

We can’t solve the addiction and mental health problems by providing more homes or relaxing society’s rules. But we can make progress on homelessness by tackling those social problems that make it more likely.

There are a number of settlements around the city; along the canal banks, under the Mancunian Way, up near UMIST, and plenty more. These people live in clusters of tents, because it’s better than a shop doorway. Seeing homelessness has become so commonplace now, that if I were to give every homeless person in the city centre a quid, I’d easily blow a month’s salary in a day (and I have a reasonably well-paying job).

All Human Life Is Here
All Human Life Is Here: a tent village beneath the railway arches (on the left of the shot) on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal, overlooked by the Manchester Hilton.

Living on the streets is not good for you, mentally or physically.  Statistically, the homeless are more likely than the general population to have ill-health generally, to have less access to healthcare, and to die prematurely.  I’m actually amazed that in the decade-and-a-half that I’ve been here, I didn’t see a dead homeless person; until last week.

I was walking towards my boyfriend’s house late at night, and up ahead of me on my route, I could see something that looked wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  As I got closer, I could see a man in a sleeping bag slumped in an unnatural position against a shop front.  He was lying in a way that one wouldn’t be able to relax and sleep in, and he wasn’t responding to either of the two police officers stood by him, radioing in what they’d discovered.  All signs indicated that this poor chap was no longer alive.

I don’t know what he died of, and it doesn’t matter much to me.  Another human has left this earth, a human who took a humble place and yet was still a part of the society that shapes all of us.  As I walked home, I felt shock and sadness, and I wanted to put down what I had seen on paper.  So I did what any self-respecting hipster would do, and wrote a poem about it.  Here it is:

Tonight it is hot.
Hot enough for me to stroll semi-clothed through the city centre.
And yet,
A shiver runs down my spine.
In front of a shop that sells kitchens for more than the value of my one bedroom flat,
A homeless man lies slumped and still.
Two doleful police officers stand watch,
Waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
This is Manchester, in 2016.

If that man lives on only in my words, then a part of him does remain. I never even knew his name, and yet he changed me.

CASHBACK!

I’ve just met a “charming” fellow (read: absolute dickhead), who seems to have a rather confused and/or dated view of relationships. Let’s just say I didn’t warm to this chap too much, mainly because everything that escaped their mouth appeared to be for the purpose of self-promotion and/or offending people for the merry hell of it. What a card! So they entered into this piece of rhetoric with both the gusto and wit of Alan Partridge, and described how he thinks he’s “punching above his weight” because his girlfriend is younger than him. Uh, a whole 4 years younger. It’s not exactly J. Howard Marshall and Anna Nicole Smith, is it?

So this was a little weird, and it sounded kinda dumb.  Is that still how we place a value on people these days?  Their age and nothing more?  And the younger the better?

One of my friends sarcastically remarked that Mr. Science Gentleman must really have scored because our age difference is far greater than that.  But that’s the thing, isn’t it?  What the hell is this strange assumption about?  If I was more than a decade older than my boyfriend, would I have grounds to think of myself as particularly lucky?  Perhaps you could call me a cougar or something else to arbitrarily categorise me.

I don’t think so.  For me, it’s more complicated than that. I see my partner as an equal, but often I have dated older people.  But not always, and I don’t see age as either a barrier or benefit.  Some people may do, and based on observing other people’s relationships, they don’t follow a rule book.  If you want evidence of this, look at the marriage records.  But there are stereotypes about what makes a good partner.  And when we are faced with something that challenges this, ranging from disability, to fetishes, to polyamory, to simple preferences, the weird ideas and jokes all come out.

Humour shouldn’t always be PC, and we should admit to occasionally being amused by the offensive and taboo.  But it does get a bit boring after a while.  Have we really not come up with any new material since 1975?

ENCOURAGING WOMEN INTO ENGINEERING

This is a thorny topic for me. On the one hand, yes, this country has a shortage of engineers, and a great way to resolve that is to encourage more women to take up roles in this field. On the other, I think that a lot of the highly-publicised profiles of women in STEM careers are not representative of the experience of most women who work in these fields. And the statistics support this. Women in comparable STEM roles to men are paid less, valued less, and progress more slowly. How could I recommend that sort of future to another person?

And then we face a chicken and egg issue. Without a representative workforce, the prevailing culture will remain unchallenged and unchanged. But the workforce will not be more representative until there are more women and minorities working there.

The UK government has been advised on the consequences of not supporting more jobs in engineering, and it is recognised that if women do not enter or remain in the profession, we are effectively cutting the talent pool in half.

The Guardian featured an article (link below) promoting careers in engineering to females. This is great for visibility, but it really doesn’t tell the whole story.

What’s it like to be a woman in the engineering industry?

All of the women in this piece talk about the exciting things they do in their work, which is great. Engineering can be fulfilling and rewarding, and fun. But the politics, culture and personalities in the industry can get in the way of actually getting the job done.

One of the engineers in the piece talks about proving herself in a male-dominated industry. This is something I’ve encountered many times. Why should women have to prove themselves any more than men should? Or have to work harder than men for the same pay? Oh, except it isn’t the same pay.

Another says “My advice is do not hide your femininity at work and relish in your different perspective – act on what you believe is important”. Two things: most successful women I know in my sector of engineering act very masculine. And if you do look quite feminine, people will comment on it. And if you act quite butch, people will comment on it. So either way you’re damned, but if you try to be one of the boys you’re more likely to succeed. Another: “relish in your different perspective”. Well, it would be great if different perspectives were acknowledged, but in my experience groupthink is encouraged and anyone with a contrasting idea is swiftly put in their place. Where are these workplaces that encourage this sort of thing? Because I haven’t found one yet.

Someone else says “There are many women where I work in very senior roles which just goes to show that gender does not affect ambition and that you should always aim high.” Well, I agree with the last part. Ambition is genderless. But I’m not seeing the women in exec-level roles. I attend events specifically for women in engineering, which have a core regular attendance of maybe 30 people. I enjoy meeting other female engineers, hearing success stories and about other projects. But that’s just a small handful of people. How many other engineers out there are male? Women make up just 9% of engineering professionals in the UK.

“You’re not treated differently and gender isn’t an issue”. That may be the case where you work, and I’m very happy for you. I wish that all workplaces were the same.

“I think it’s fantastic to see more and more women joining our ranks in what used to be a traditionally male industry”. Well, yes, that’s the overall goal. Things are changing, but we’re really not at the point where we can say that it used to be a traditionally male industry. 91% male is a pretty overwhelming figure.

I suppose it makes me sad that we’re still having these conversations these days, or that there is a need to target women specifically to encourage them into STEM subjects. If the playing field were truly level, everyone would feel welcomed and we wouldn’t be talking about certain groups being “turned off” by certain subjects. I feel that very little has changed with regard to the perception of women in my (rather niche sector) over the last 15 years. The only place I’ve truly felt an equal is at University, being on a fantastic undergrad program with great tutors and the chance to shine. A step into the world of work was a shock. Of course study is different from the workplace, but I was totally unprepared for the marginalisation and disillusionment that I experienced. It seems that my goals become further and further out of reach, while they are easily attainable by others around me.

A final thought. This article in the Harvard Business Review details research carried out on women’s career trajectories, and finds that common beliefs about women’s career progressions are unfounded.

Rethink What You “Know” About High-Achieving Women

It’s also referenced in this article from NYMAG:

Stop Blaming Women For Holding Themselves Back At Work

KARMA

The recent comments by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on women’s ‘superpowers’ remind me of being taken on for my last engineering role. With great expectations of managing my own team and making the important decisions, I got put on a dead-end project, with incredibly unchallenging work, no respect or status, and no prospects for progression or promotion. I was put on this team to do a job that I was over-qualified for, that allowed me no management capability, and was extremely menial.

I had been placed in a junior role, despite having graduated 15 years previously. I was being spoon-fed and micromanaged, when I was working autonomously and managing projects in the not-so-distant past.

So I did the right thing, and spoke to my boss about my concerns. Their response? “Just keep doing your work, and it will be recognised”. Recognised for what? For being the go-to-girl for everyone’s donkey work? For being the engineer that no-one takes seriously? To be the person of whom others wonder why they even work there?

It was pretty obvious that their statement was secret code for “be a good little girl and do as you’re told”. This is exactly the message that Nadella is sending to all working women. “Don’t make a fuss. Don’t try to change things. Don’t dare challenge the status quo. Us men will take care of it.” Yeah, I’m sure they will.

Did things change for me?  It appeared so, at first.  Assurances were made, new opportunities were spoken of.  And then back to square one.  I fell into the trap of being a good “producer”, and so that was where they wanted to keep me. Plus ça change. Plus ça mème change.

WE DON’T GET IT

There’s a cartoon from Robot Hugs that did the rounds recently,  about how sexual harassment of women is a real thing, and explaining why it may go unnoticed and how society implicitly condones it.  It’s a straightforward and reasonable consideration of the issue, with advice on prevention that no decent human being should find problematic or objectionable.  I shared the cartoon on Facebook, as I had seen many of my friends (50+) do with only supportive outcomes.  But my experience was different (identities obscured to protect the guilty):

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Nicely summarised in this tweet from Bailey, but scarier:

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Let’s look at the comments with a bit of context (Haha, probably the word people criticising sexual harassment least want to hear – “context” is a great tool for telling people that they just don’t understand or are being killjoys. Yaaaaaaawn. At least I’m not going to talk about banter. Yeeeesh.)

Anyway, I’m in red.  All other commenters are male, and before you ask, no, I’m not critical of all of them.  Here goes:

Comment 1 (blue): On the face of it, this looks like a noble sentiment.  But it’s falling into the trap of saying that because everyone is capable of being unpleasant to everyone else, that we should ignore cries of sexism because we’ve solved that problem.  Which detracts from the very real issue the comic is talking about.  Dismissing the problem doesn’t make it go away.

Comment 2 (green): Well, women can be unpleasant to both women and men.  It’s unfortunate that some people feel that they have to comment on strangers appearances in public, but this isn’t about “presenting the other side”.  The fact remains that street harassment is experienced by women far more frequently than men. And that’s just the cases that are reported.

Comment 3 (red) is me, and I may have overstepped the line a little here.  I do believe that Mr Green was harassed, but perhaps I shouldn’t have asked (at least on a Facebook thread) about details.  This might have implied that I didn’t believe him, and I’m sorry for that.

Comment 4 (pink) is really easy to dismiss as stupidity and/or wilful ignorance, but just take a look at the comments to any article or post on feminism on the internet, and these attitudes are everywhere.  Why is that?  Is it a lack of education / experience, or a desire for things to remain as they are? Personally I feel much of it  is a misunderstanding of what feminism actually is (i.e. political, economic, and social equality for women and men), rather than a hatred of men.  Some of it will be fear of change.  This attitude is unacceptable but shouldn’t just be dismissed.  Ignoring the disaffected leads to all sorts of problems, and completely fails to address the issue.

Comment 5 (blue): Words fail me at this point.

Comment 6 (orange): A lone voice of sanity.  Robot Hugs is indeed excellent, and you should read more of it.

Click here for Manchester University SU’s policy on sexual harassment.