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.

THE MAM TOR PROBLEM

There are two problems with Mam Tor:

1. It’s a chuffing great hill and exhausting to climb,

2. A road fell off the side of it.

The first one is the good sort of problem, the kind that is enjoyable, a challenge, and easily solved. The second is the kind that gives the Highways Agency a major headache and gets resolved by ignoring it and pretending it’s not there. Well, sort of. The road was abandoned and now looks like a scene from Fallout, which is kinda cool. The old road is accessible by foot, which is the way I explored the whole of Mam Tor. The story goes like this:

 Mam Tor: The Problem
I have a ridiculous amount of work to do, having taken a week off to get my first year report sorted and my house move done and out of the way. But I was bored, and I was not going to spend my holiday doing all work and no play! And so, I asked a mate if they’d like a jolly jaunt to the Peak District. Mam Tor lies between Edale and Castleton, and we began our journey at Edale Railway Station. Upon leaving the train you are plonked on a desolate platform in the middle of nowhere – but take a few steps beyond the concrete and you find yourself in a green idyll. Everything about this part of the world is truly beautiful; detached from the grey, grimy, yet marvellous world of cities that I usually inhabit.We set off south toward Mam Tor, sort of making it up as we went along,but roughly obeying the map in the railway station. To my utter delight (no, really), we soon found a car park with some public toilets (I had been holding it in since Manchester), but not only that, it was one of the checkpoints from a 27-mile walk I’d done a year previously. So I had a wee and got all nostalgic about a car park, and then we were on our way again.

We got on to the main road and found a path down to the base of the hill (you don’t fully appreciate the ‘down’ bits until you’ve done a fair bit of ‘up’), which was flanked by innumerable foxgloves. These were so beautiful, and followed us most of the way across the hill. Tons of buttercups too, a bit like nature had joined a flower-arranging class and was showing off its skills.

dog roses
dog roses

foxglove
foxglove

buttercups
buttercups

foxgloves in the forest
foxgloves in the forest
And then the ascent. I was pretty sure I’d done this bit before as well, but my memory wasn’t as clear. I may have been distracted by the angry sheep, some of which had horns and looked like they could do some serious damage. So I just climbed the well-defined, yet sometimes precarious, path to the top; in as nonchalant a fashion as possible. Because sheep notice that sort of thing. Pausing for a rest every so often, it felt good to look down the hill to see how far we’d come and how far we were from the scary farm animals (haha, I grew up in the countryside, would you believe?). I’m in much better shape than when I did the 27-mile hike, and this time it felt good rather than agonising to feel the pull on my muscles and hastening of my breath.

I didn't hang around to get a picture of the sheep, but this sheep turd was unthreatening enough to pause for.
I didn’t hang around to get a picture of the sheep, but this sheep turd was unthreatening enough to pause for.

We made it to the top, and – more memories. We were at a junction in the path that I’d formerly crossed, by walking along the top of the ridge. While tempted to abandon the mission and just climb up the bigger, more impressive hill, the route to the old A625 was downhill, and therefore a desirable option. The path down the hill was well-trodden and carved out in to the hill like a mini-gorge, but also so smooth as to not have enough footholds. But it’s ok, there was plenty of gorse to cling on to in the event of slips (OUCH OUCH OUCH). We followed the path down towards Castleton, with yet more foxgloves and angry sheep, and entered a wooded area. Out the other side, we were at our destination.

Here are some pictures from the cool forest-y bit at the end of the path down the other side of Mam Tor:

IMG_2558
root staircase

IMG_2559
wood, trees, etc

IMG_2560
almost there

IMG_2562
flowers

The rain started, and we sought shelter under a tree to change into our waterproofs. I used my electrical engineering knowledge (ha) to advise that it was perhaps a poor idea to shelter under a tree in the thunderstorm, and seeing as it didn’t look like stopping any time, we diced with death no longer and set on our way. The next photos were all taken when the rain sort-of-looked-like-it might-stop-if-you-really-really-wished-for-it-to-but-it-was-never-actually-going-to.

The image (right) is from Google Maps, with a section of the road just… missing. One night in 1977, following the legendary hot summer of ’76, and a period of heavy rainfall, half the road disappeared. Thankfully it was overnight during a less busy time. Astonishingly, one lane of the road was kept in use until 1979, when it was decided that it was no longer sustainable or safe to maintain the road.  a625

 

looking up to the road from the footpath
looking up to the road from the footpath

you can still see the road markings
you can still see the road markings

IMG_2568
deterioration of the surface

where a section of road has fallen away, you can see the layered construction
where a section of road has fallen away, you can see the layered construction

the road is warped and looks like pictures I've seen of earthquake zones
the road is warped and looks like pictures I’ve seen of earthquake zones

landslide
landslide

IMG_2574
road surface cracking under tension

storm drain inlet structure intact even though the road has fallen away underneath
storm drain inlet structure intact even though the road has fallen away underneath

how much damage is due to erosion, and how much due to weathering?
how much damage is due to erosion, and how much due to weathering?

exposed soil, perhaps as a result of a recent slip
exposed soil, perhaps as a result of a recent slip

that dip in the road is actually a precipice
that dip in the road is actually a precipice

looking up at the higher road section
looking up at the higher road section

IMG_2583
this drain is still attached to the road, but is purely decorative

crumbling road surface
crumbling road surface

more road markings
more road markings

road to...
road to…

Some of the rain got into my waterproofs, but because it was pretty hot as well as rainy (yay British summer!), I was also feeling a bit sticky from my own sweat. So it was kinda gross, but worth hanging around to take these pics.

After leaving the old road, we headed further down the hill in to Castleton, where it started to get sunny again. We walked past many caverns (no time to visit, boooooo!) but we did end up in a comfortable pub, giving us time to dry out and recover from the first part of our trek (yes, we were still only halfway through, but the rest of the walk was on the flat back to the railway station at Hope). A pint tastes so much better when you’ve walked seven miles to get it.

NEW IMMIGRATION RULES FOR NON-EU CITIZENS

It’s been a week in which I’ve wanted to write on lots of topics that have been reported in the media – and I don’t have time to do it all.  But there are a few things that are really important in engineering at the moment so I’m going to stagger them over the course of the next few weeks and hope they’re still relevant by the time I get to publish them!  And here’s number 1:

This week, the UK government announced plans to allow non-EU citizens to remain here only if they earn over £35K pa after 6 years in the country. Immediately the response was that it will hit the NHS due to the very high numbers of nurses from overseas. Also that there are many low-paid jobs that the native British just don’t want to do, which immigrants often end up working in. Our immigration rules are complicated, counter-intuitive and harsh as it is; and this is another arbitrary rule to add to the never-ending list.

So, we know that professions that we consider to be traditionally low-paid will be affected, but there’s more to it than this. The current rules already break up families, with a marked effect in academia. UK universities seem very keen to attract overseas staff and students (they bring in more money than UK nationals due to their having to pay a higher rate of fees and maintenance), but immigration rules stand in their way. International students are under higher scrutiny than UK students simply by virtue of the fact they have to demonstrate attendance and their whereabouts just to stay in the country. And academic positions are often short-term contracts and poorly paid. With little certainty of an income, academics and their families live in fear of being kicked out if they or their spouse earns below a certain threshold. And being married to a UK national isn’t a guarantee of being permitted to stay, either.

And worse: if academia is considered a respectable profession, what about engineering?  The trouble here is that you won’t be poor in this industry, but you’re also unlikely to be terribly rich either.  I do a well-regarded, complex and important job, one which I have done for the last 13 years.  I work in a sector with a shortage of skilled staff (despite exposés of the ‘myth’ of a skills shortage – check out this excellent breakdown of the facts from the Huffington Post).  And I’m not quite at the £35K mark yet.  So if a highly-educated and experienced British national can’t fulfil the criteria imposed on immigrants, what hope is there for someone coming to our country from abroad to fill vacancies that we desperately need them to work in?

I currently work with many people from abroad, and I do worry that I will start to see my colleagues disappearing.  It’s bad for me, for the projects I work on, and for engineering generally.  What is the government thinking?

As well as coming across as incredibly insular and unfriendly, I really feel the UK is setting itself up for a fall.  Certain industries, e.g. healthcare, engineering, the sciences, are going to start losing staff; we will be unable to produce.  We will lose many skilled, but low-waged employees (I say low-waged, but the median income in the UK is about £26,000, so immigrants are actually being held to a ridiculously high standard here), and we’re not exactly training up many of our own people to fill those vacancies.  UK higher education has had its funding slashed of late, and tuition fees are currently set at an astronomical £9K per year for British & EU undergraduates.  Many vacancies I have applied for, or seen other people recruiting for, want people who already have experience.  It’s the old problem of being a new worker – every job wants you to have experience, but you can’t get the experience because no-one will take you on.  We have a huge problem with not investing in staff (from wherever), and combining this with immigration policies to keep out those who do have the skills is bad news for UK industry.  Even if we do suddenly sit up and realise we need to train British people to do the work, well, it’s not going to happen overnight.  We’re tearing down a system that is already broken to replace it with something far worse.

I do wonder, have we got to a point where we can either choose to bolster our low birth rate with immigrants to fill the roles of the missing British people, or do we just allow our population to dwindle and wind down our output correspondingly?  It’s a scary thought, but it could become a reality if we make it even more difficult for outsiders to get in.

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 9 – MOTION CAPTURE AND ROBOTICS

This was a super-cool adventure in the biomechanics lab at Manchester University, which is located in, uh, the Optometry building.  There was nowhere else for it, ok?

The research is designed to understand the nuances of human movement, to apply the findings to humanoid robots. The aim is to make robots move in a more natural, less clunky way. I’m sure that somewhere along the way there will be some Uncanny Valley-like results, but it’s all a step (ha) on the path to more humanlike robots. On a more serious note, the work has applications in medicine, for rehabilitation and developing prosthetics. Often university research sounds rather arcane and peculiar (Ig Nobel awards, anyone?), but it has real and relevant applications.Before the testing day, I was informed that I needed to be of average fitness as I would be performing walking and jogging movements in a gym for three hours. I do consider myself pretty healthy and active, but I was worried that they were expecting some sort of endurance hero to turn up. Fortunately they weren’t, and it was just repeated brisk walking over short distances.
The Biomechanics Laboratory
The Biomechanics Laboratory

When I turned up, the lab was set up with tracks on the floor and motion capture cameras on the ceiling.  At this point I realised this was going to be pretty futuristic and fun, and I was so glad I’d taken an afternoon off to help with this work. As is the case with all research involving human participants, the session began with the completion of consent forms.  This is to comply with the requirements of the University Ethics Committee, and also gives a chance for questions to be answered, and a little more detail about the work to be revealed to the volunteer.  Unlike any other study I’ve taken part in, this activity was accompanied by coffee and cake.  Researchers, take note!  It was quite a long afternoon, so we also had breaks and chatter throughout the session, to break up the repetition.

Following the initial registration process, I changed into a vest and shorts provided by the lab (this was necessary because my limbs needed to be exposed and I had to have various items of electronics fixed to my body).  I was then weighed and my height was measured.  It seems that I have got heavier (by 1kg) and shorter (by 1cm), which is the worst combination.  Damn you, properly calibrated scales!  This was necessary to calculate my BMI (it was a requirement of the study that participants were of normal weight – BMI 18.5 to 24.5).

Then I had a multitude of sensors fixed about my person.  It took about half an hour to get all of the kit on, and the placing of the devices was meticulous.  There were three different types of sensor used:

EMG (electromyography) sensors, measuring the activity of muscles involved in walking.  I had a number of these placed on my legs and lower back, to identify which muscles are active during which movement activities.

Pressure-sensitive insoles to measure my gait.  I also had to wear shoes provided by the lab, and due to my totally non-ergonomic feet, I required a 7 on my left foot and a 6 on my right.

You can see the marker pen still on my wrists a few hours after the experiment
You can see the marker pen still on my wrists a few hours after the experiment

Reflective motion-capture markers, which were placed all over: my shoulders, elbows, knees, wrists, ankles, hips, chest and toes, plus a snazzy felt hat with markers for my head.  In order for these to be placed correctly, one of the researchers had to feel for the exact part of the joint to place the marker, and draw on me with a felt pen ready to glue the silvery reflective marker balls on to my skin.  they also precisely measured the length of my hands and feet in order to relate the position of some of these markers to the rest of my body – my left hand is 187mm long and my left foot 236mm long.  Not sure what I will ever do with this information, but it’s kinda cool.

In addition to the above, I needed to wear transmitters for the EMGs in a snazzy tool belt around my waist, plus transmitters for the insoles were strapped to my calves.

When all of the gear was on, my height and weight were remeasured, and I had gained a centimetre in height and two kilos in weight (not surprising, given how much of the damn stuff there was).

I then stood in front of the display screen in the middle of the lab, and I could see virtual me moving around in the form of a number of white dots (silly dance obligatory at this point).  The researchers also had two screens in which they could see the pressure maps of my feet and the electrical output of my muscles.  The motion capture data was collected by a number of cameras on the ceiling of the lab, and the pressure and movement signals were transmitted over the wi-fi to the recording equipment.

My first task was to stand on one leg and then switch to the other, for both feet.  This is surprisingly difficult, and I didn’t realise how crap my balance was until this point.  This was necessary for a baseline reading.  Then the movement tasks began.  I had to perform seven different actions, involving walking for a short distance, and only slightly energetic.  The researchers recorded the data output for each of the seven actions, repeated ten times each.

Walking around with all the gear on felt a bit strange at first, but none of it got in the way of my ordinary walking style, which was really important as they wanted to record people’s normal, unimpeded movements.  The type of movements that the researchers are interested in are to do with changes in speed and direction, the type of movements for which we can easily distinguish between the characteristics of man or machine.

The experiment took about three hours to complete; one of the longest studies I’ve taken part in.  I got paid £20 for my participation, which isn’t loads, but given that I got to feel like I was in Avatar for an afternoon, it was definitely worth it.  The team are still looking for more participants, aged 18 – 40 with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, to participate in trials starting in September.  Details will soon be published on the University’s Research Volunteering page.

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?

DUBLIN

My work offers me plenty of scope for international travel, and that is just what I’ve been up to this week. I’m working on a project in Ireland, and I’m loving every second of it. The work is challenging and varied, and did I mention that I get sent to Dublin every couple of weeks or so? Even though I’m working, I love the excitement of going to a different place. So many people say “oh, it’s just work”, but those people have no souls.

So here is a little about my time as an engineer working abroad for the day:

Because Ireland is so nearby, and you can book a flight for less than the cost of a railway ticket to London (this is more to do with the fact that rail fares in the UK are exorbitant, rather than flights being cheap), a day trip to attend a meeting is feasible.  However, because you’ve had to make a concerted effort to get to the damn meeting and make sure you’re thoroughly prepared before leaving the country, there is a certain pressure on you to make it worthwhile.

My adventure began at 5am, with me thinking “oh, this will give me plenty of time to make my 8am flight”. I got ready quickly, had all my stuff packed, passport to hand, had checked in online already. Nothing could possibly go wrong. I got in the taxi, thinking I had loads of time, and in fairness to me, I did. Upon arrival at Manchester Piccadilly station, I noted that my preferred train had departed 1 minute earlier. Not to worry, the next one is in…. forty minutes. Crap.Ok, ok, I’ll see if there’s an indirect route I can take. Yes! I went to Wilmslow and got a local stopping service back. Slightly less panic. The train gets me to the airport at 0704, so that’s easily doable. Let’s just hope that security is quiet.

Nope. Upon arrival at T1, the queue was huge and chaotic.  Why, why, WHY??? I was stood internally panicking in the queue, getting more and more frustrated at every single minor transgression imaginable.  Screaming children, people clueless about what you can / cannot take on a plane, people not knowing where they’re going.  All of them a trigger.  It’s a miracle I managed to hold it all together. It got to the point where there was a real possibility that I could miss my flight, so I ended up being one of those annoying people who gets rushed to the front of the queue and treated like royalty because of poor planning.  But if the airlines didn’t do this, the system wouldn’t be able to operate efficiently and smoothly.  Sometimes people get it wrong, but the system is set up in such a way that it can only work if people are in the right places at the right times. Sometimes you have to obey rules you don’t like and put up with annoyance and discomfort.

So after getting priority treatment at security (sorry guys), I literally had to run to the gate.  I just made it.  The adrenaline rush I was feeling at this point was totally unsuitable for someone who needs to sit still on a plane for the next 45 minutes, but at least I was actually On The Plane.

I love flying, everything about it is fun (as long as there’s no undue panic involved).  I like getting ready to go, listening to the familiar safety procedures, taking off, watching Manchester disappear and seeing the clouds below me. Each trip is an adventure, even if I’ve already done it a hundred times before. Upon arrival at Dublin Airport, I was annoyingly early for my appointment.  There were no convenient flights to get me there just before the meeting, so I had to take the one that got me there three hours early.  Oh, well.  Time for a bit of sightseeing.

I got myself a coffee in the airport bar (it’s called The Oak, and it’s very stylish and reasonably priced – this is a thing I noticed about Dublin: how cheap it is.  Even when they are trying to rip you off as a tourist, the prices don’t even come close to day-to-day UK prices), and planned my excursion.  The airport is quite far from the city, so either a taxi or a bus is needed for this bit.  I got a taxi last time, but I don’t have a spare €35 to fritter away on a chaffeur, so I opted for the bus instead.  Having never done this before, I went to the tourist information centre upstairs in the airport, who were incredibly useful.  I had an inkling that I needed to get the 700 bus or similar (this is a special bus for clueless tourists like me), but they offered me a cheaper and more convenient solution in the form of one of the commuter buses that the ordinary folk use.  Wow, really immersing myself in the culture here.

Buses work differently in Dublin to how they do in Manchester.  In fact the whole transport system works completely differently.  It works Very Well, but only if you know how to use it. Dublin is one of those annoying cities in which you either need exact change on the bus, or you have to buy in advance.  I was pretty clueless about this, but there were plenty of helpful people at the bus station (perhaps a little too helpful, or maybe too chivalrous, perhaps). They have a ticket where you pay a fixed price and it’s valid for 90 minutes (they have barcode readers on the bus to track you!).  This is enough to get you from the airport into town, and I’d be interested to see how much bus you could get into 90 minutes.  Well, you want to make the most of your investment.

On the way in we drove past a shop trading in Key Cutting and Virgin Mary statues.  Which is an interesting business model.

Philip P. Lynott 1949 - 1986
Philip P. Lynott 1949 – 1986

I wanted to see a bit of the city, but I had one item to specifically tick off my list: Get a photo of the Phil Lynott statue.  As you can see from the photo (right), I was successful in this part of my mission. I then took a leisurely stroll to my meeting, in a glorious converted Georgian townhouse.The meeting went very well. I’ve been at some meetings in which I wasn’t sure why they’d invited me, but this wasn’t one of them. I had a lot to talk about, and so did other people.  Pretty much everything discussed was relevant to me, and I made the most of the day.  My opinion was respected, and the team was really mixed.  It seemed a bit more “with the times” than some other meetings I’d previously attended, and I hope this is reflective of other engineering meetings elsewhere. I felt after the meeting that I’d done my best, and that we’d achieved what we’d set out to.

But that’s not what you want to hear about.  Back to lovely Dublin! My flight home was quite a late one (again, no other convenient flight so I had to get one at a peculiar hour), and I decided to use the time to buy a present for my lovely (and if he doesn’t like it, I do, so I’ve done myself a favour either way).  I’d been advised by my Irish colleagues that there are some cheesy tourist shops around (they called these the Fiddle-dee-dee Shops), but I actually found a really cool alternative homewares store, reminiscent of Manchester’s Northern Quarter.  As previously mentioned, even though it was very tourist-geared, it was surprisingly cheap.  I wonder how cheap it is to live as an ordinary Dublin resident?

And then, time to go back to the airport.  I left a good amount of time to do this, because I had been burnt earlier that day on the flight out.  But, I just wasn’t prepared for the complete catastrophe that is the Dublin rush hour.  During the day, Dublin is actually a very quiet city.  Like Canterbury, but with less people, and more city. During the evening rush hour, the population appears to increase thirty-fold, and nothing moves.  I got really nervous on the bus back (the local bus; proudly using my recntly obtained insider information) that I might miss my second flight.  But I didn’t have to worry too much because although the first half of the journey was undertaken at slower than walking pace, the driver belted it down the R132 to the airport once we were out of the worst bit, and I actually made it there at a sensible time.

Taking off in the dark, I could see the lights of Dublin arranged in perfect rows, marking out the suburbs and arterial routes.  It was splendid, and something totally artificial.  We don’t need spirituality or miracles to find beauty in the world.  We can create it ourselves.

A LOVE OF ENGINEERING?

Recently, I’ve been a bit ranty about things that really piss me off about working in engineering, and my critical comments might imply to some that I don’t enjoy my work and that I wouldn’t want to encourage other women (or anyone) into the profession. Well, it’s true that there are times in which I get frustrated with crappy attitudes and ingrained biases, sure. In terms of where the industry is going, my experience has showed me that those making the big decisions (perhaps company owners, senior staff and leaders in the field generally) DO want to encourage more women and people from a diverse range of backgrounds into the profession, and support initiatives to make this happen. Even during the mere 15 years I’ve spent in the industry, there has been a noticeable increase in moves to recruit from non-traditional parts of society. The problem is dealing with individuals. There’s no way to legislate for individual prejudices (quite literally – if you face discrimination at work from an individual, you take the company to court – but then, the company really should have done something about it), and a combination of the message not filtering down from the top, and bad behaviour not being communicated to those higher up the chain, leads to a disjoint between the message and the reality.

It’s not all awful, all the time, everywhere, but there are still problems. And the fact that a big deal is being made about the industry becoming more inclusive can lead some people to believe that we’ve fixed everything already and that there is no such thing as prejudice anymore. Which just ain’t so. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a distance to go. I love the work I do, it’s just that when I encounter outdated ideas about my role and capabilities that I feel it prevents me from getting things done.

And would I recommend that women go into engineering as a career? Well, a friend asked me what I would say to encourage his daughter to be an engineer. And I said, “I wouldn’t”. But not for the reasons you think. She needs to make her own mind up. There are so many worthwhile careers she could pursue and engineering is just one of them. Even within engineering, there are a vast range of jobs, places to go, things to see, achieve and dream of. What we need to do is sell engineering as a great career choice, on a par with other highly regarded professions (which it is!). Then engineering can shine on its own merits and recruit not only the numbers it needs to survive, but the best.

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

BEING BUSY VS. BEING CHALLENGED

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of working on a team that’s understaffed.  The company was taking on more work than we had people to perform it, and we were all stretched way beyond the limits of time and sanity.  I was already allowing my studies to suffer because of the pressure to work longer hours than is reasonable, encroaching on the time that I should have been spending at university.  But I felt a strange sense of satisfaction at being just that little bit too busy.  My brain needs stimulation, and in that role, the work just wasn’t very intellectually demanding.  The juggling of many repetitive tasks provided a breadth of work that sort of replaced the depth of a more engaging research project.  Sort of.  It was a poor substitute, but it was what I had to work with at the time.  Churning, not learning.

That sort of thing’s not good for me, and it’s not good for my projects. I didn’t expect to still be working at that level 15 years after university, with less responsibility than I had in my mid-20s. Sure, someone had to do it, but I felt that my ambitions were being overlooked. I was rushing to complete a thousand trivial deadlines, with none of them getting my fullest attention. My drive and enthusiasm for my work dwindled to the point where I was really just paying the bills and looking for an exit strategy. Academia has a terrible reputation for being harsh and non-meritocratic, but it’s my best hope of actually finding work suited to my abilities and being taken seriously.  And, in the long run, it’s where my heart lies.  It  doesn’t matter whether it’s me or anyone else who’s having a boring time.  I believe people work best when they’re achieving things for themselves.  Being emotionally invested in the work gives more reason to succeed, both individually and as a team.  This report from Kingston University Business School covers a lot of the things I’ve identified in my own life, and I hadn’t even read it until after I’d started writing this post (amazing coincidence, huh?).  I’d recommend you read the whole thing, especially if you’re an employer.  It’s based on evidence collected by the Kingston Business School Engagement Consortium, and an analysis of previous work in this area.  Although direct interviews with employees on the topic of engagement at work are rare, this document references around 40 other studies.

I want a challenge, and I want to take calculated risks.  If I  find that  my work feels really ‘safe’, I’m not innovating and I’m not doing myself any justice.  I grew up in a family with very low aspirations, and as a result I loved attending school – where I knew I would find that challenge my brain craved.  If I find things too easy, I get lazy, and I’m really worried that might happen to me.  It’s one of the reasons I write here – I’m looking to write more and maybe do this to earn a crust if I get the opportunity.  I’d love to stay in academia, but be a science communicator / journalist.  Independence, baby.

ART & ENGINEERING

Recently, there were calls for engineers to consider the arts in their work.   I think this is great, as it forces us to consider the wider implications of our work and introduces the public to the beauty of good engineering design.  Currently at MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry), there are some really cool arty exhibitions that I highly recommend you go and check out!

MOSI is free to get into, but it’s great if you can make a donation.  In 2013 they were faced with closure when their parent organisation faced a funding crisis.

Anyway, on to the exhibitions:

The Sounds Of Others
This was amazing!  It was informative, arty, and a little bit creepy, too!

Unfortunately this has finished now (23rd November). Booooo!  In the ante-room before the main exhibition, there was a chart displaying the frequency of different animal noises.  The accompanying leaflet has a miniature version of the graph printed on it, which is now framed and on the wall in my living room.

We then walked through a dark, curtained corridor to the main room.  This room was very dimly lit, with a wooden bench in the centre.  To each side of this was a large speaker with a digital display.  The displays each have a text description of the animal, and a numerical output where 1.000 represents the sound being played at normal speed.  Below 1, and the sound is being played slower than in nature.  Above 1, and the frequency is increased.

The exhibition begins with an animal sound coming in on one speaker, at speed 1.000.  This plays for about 5 seconds, to allow the listener to identify the sound with the animal named.  Then it gets slowed down / sped up (you can see the numerical value getting higher or lower correspondingly).  Then the second speaker kicks in, with a sound that is like the other animal when sped up / slowed down.  And then the first sound fades out, and after another 5 – 10 seconds or so, the new sound is manipulated and a new animal noise gets played from the first speaker.  And so on.  Some of them are pretty darn eerie.

The idea is that when you compare different animal noises at different frequencies, you can make them sound the same.  Starlings slowed down to 0.5x sound like human children, and a whale sped up sounds like red deer.  Most of the freakiness is in the slowing down / speeding up phase, and it is enhanced by the fact you’re in a very dark room.  The numbing of some of your senses and the enhancement of just your hearing makes it a unique experience.

3D: Printing The Future
This one’s still on, so I can go back to have a closer look – there is a lot of very detailed stuff in here! There are loads of 3D-printed objects in the room to look at (I mean LOADS: there are a good few thousand random 3D things, and all so intricate and complex), with a special focus on a few products. The exhibition looks at how 3D-printing is changing various technologies, and is extremely visually appealing. The page on MOSI’s website (link above) has further information, including a video debunking 3D-printing myths. Open until 19th April 2015.

Wellcome Image Awards 2014
This exhibition has been in the station building at MOSI for a very long time, but is due to close in two weeks! Get yourself down there, this series of pictures is awesome, and it’s free! Plus it’s in the world’s first railway station (the booking desk is still in the entrance hall – coooool), which does make one wonder when they built the second one. Where could you go if the network only has one station? Hehe! Back on topic: this is a series of photographs taken at the microscopic scale. There are things here from the worlds of medicine, chemistry and engineering. When viewed close up, things don’t look the same. But we can find new patterns and beauty in them. This exhibition gave me some quite bizarre thoughts: some of the pictures are of disease, and they actually look very beautiful. Kinda odd to find magic in something destructive.

Harmonious Society
This exhibition is also over.  I’m so glad that I went.  It was an art installation created in conjunction with the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art.  The exhibition featured the work of over 30 artists, presumably on a rotating basis as I only saw three separate pieces.  The most interesting was a silent film which was… indescribable yet memorable.  A bit odd, and I wasn’t really sure what was going on.  But strangely compelling.

There’s a lot more stuff coming up, too. The great thing about MOSI is that while it has many exhibitions that are a constant feature, it has a large number of changing exhibitions and also an archives section that the public can access parts of. This makes the museum relevant and always interesting. I might even go so far as to say it’s better then the Science Museum in London. How about that, eh?