DOWN TO EARTH

 

There’s a double-edged problem with social class in my engineering sector that I see repeating itself over and over. I’ve worked in the industry for 15 years and this thing doesn’t seem to have changed. I find it sad because it’s off-putting and it holds people back.

There are many who (rightly) see engineering as a respected profession, with certain standards of presentation and behaviour. Good. But then there are some who take it too far, and it becomes a way of excluding people who are different, who don’t quite fit the mould. The success stories I’ve observed are predominantly male, white, and over 6′ tall. Frequently, issues related to one out-group are intertwined with those of other groups, and often, people fall into more than one category.Then there’s the other stereotype, the amiable salt-of-the-earth. This is limiting for both those within the group, and exclusive for those who feel they’re out of it. One place I worked at was reviewing CVs and they laughed at an applicant for having a Ph.D. Apparently they were too much of a “geek”. It’s really worrying that in a profession that requires intensive training; education and aspirations are openly mocked.

So what happens if you fall somewhere between the two groups? Well, you don’t really fit anywhere. And as much as we like to pretend we live in a meritocracy, the playing field is not level. Being well-connected is often more important than having the right credentials. There’s also a fine balance between standing out and being left out. I’ve often heard it said that women (this might apply to any other ‘out’ group or minority, too) should use their gender as a positive, to distinguish themselves from the rest of the competition. But I don’t really like this argument for two reasons:

1. It’s just encouraging division. If you’re being noticed just because you’re female, then you’re reinforcing the stereotype. It’s up to employers to apply anti-discrimination legislation and encourage diversity.

2. It’s using a gung-ho attitude to deny that there’s a problem. “We can do it!” does nothing for those who feel that they aren’t getting anywhere, and it makes it look as though the problem has been solved.

So attitudes need to change, for sure. I sometimes feel like my industry is still 30 years behind everyone else. But other industries probably have their quirks and nuances too. Things will change over time, but definitely for the better? I think the situation I’ve experienced is quite unusual in that there’s a two-tier system of acceptable class, dress and behaviour, especially seeing as the two groups in this case are quite distant from each other – the gap stretches from upper working class to upper middle class, with nothing in-between. What does it mean? Is it reflective of society? Does it highlight inequality?

 

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