The gender agenda

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:
Dear Paul, I read your introduction to the Eureka blog with interest. I take your point that it ...

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This month's issue of Eureka carries an interview with Philippa Oldham, head of transport and manufacturing for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. In the piece, she describes her experiences as a female engineer and makes it clear that, with a couple of isolated exceptions, they have been overwhelmingly positive and that her male colleagues have been supportive.

All of which leads one to ask why it is necessary to highlight the fact that a woman has succeeded in engineering at all? There is an argument that says that to do so is self-defeating as it only serves to emphasise the rarity of women engineers. Stressing this scarcity, it is argued, serves to dissuade other girls from joining the profession and thus the status quo of male domination is maintained.

There is a certain inescapable logic to this argument. Indeed, one has great sympathy for any female engineer who rises to the top of her profession because at some point she is almost bound to be asked questions that relate to her gender rather than her skills or achievements.

Clearly this is not right. No one woman can be held as representative of her sex - no more than can any man. Equally, it unreasonable to ask every woman who makes it to a certain level as an engineer to act as a role model. For this reason, as a journalist, I have some sympathy with the argument that it is both reductive and counterproductive to focus unduly on gender when talking to or writing about a female engineer.

That said, there is no way of getting around the fact that engineering in the UK is an absurdly male-dominated profession. Estimates put the number of female engineers in the UK at a paltry 7% of the total. Given that stark and shameful fact, it would be not only difficult, but disingenuous in the extreme to try and ignore the gender issue when talking to one of that 7% about their career. As elephants in rooms go, that is a pretty big one. One, in fact, that it would require an almost superhuman effort of will to ignore.

Of course we all hope for a time when the question of gender is no longer relevant in discussions with or about a particular engineer; when all it is necessary to mention are the person's achievements, ideas or skills. However, the sad truth is that that time has not yet come. And, until it does, it remains vitally important that the message that there are simply nowhere near enough women in engineering is iterated.

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I cannot believe this article is present in this magazine. I've been working in enginneering since leaving school and i'm now a bit north of 40. I've likely met less than 20 women directly working in engineering so far in that time. Is this a shameful fact due to the discrimination of the fairer sex by power hungry male engineers. Don't be ridiculous, the majority of women have absolutely no interest in engineering, let alone want to work in it.
Thirty years ago your article would likely have been relevant, however in todays world prejudice against women in this way has gone the way of the dodo, at least in the western world.
Engineering needs engineers it doesn't need female engineers, it doesn't need male engineers, it just needs engineers. I don't know why your making such a big deal over the gender based percentage split, if woman don't want to go into engineering thats up to them, but don't your dare suggest the lack of female engineers in todays world is down to men.
I must take issue at some of the statements in the later part of your otherwise sane and thoughtful (on line) editorial. Basically my point is that society at large needs to change its attitudes to gender, just as much as does the work-place, and that some of these changes will upset women just as much as some of the changes in the work-place upset men.

Firstly Philippa Oldham’s comments echo those made by my (late) first wife, who like me was a building services engineer. She always said that if she just got on with the job, asked for help and gave advice when appropriate, and accepted that the office couldn’t be organised like a WI or ladies drawing room meeting, then she had nothing but respect and friendliness from her male colleagues. Our trade suppliers and local plumbing “shops” were amazed when she made initial contacts but settled down once she showed she knew what she wanted. My second wife works in a fringe medical capacity in the NHS and says almost exactly the same thing, except that it is in dealings with “the administration” that she gets gender based reactions. Perhaps I would extend Philippa Oldham’s comment to state that the more technically competent and technically oriented girls and young women are the fewer if any gender based problems they will encounter.

But I do take issue over the numbers game, where numbers alone are considered to be the relevant criterion. I doubt that there is reason for “shame” or comments on absurdity if the numbers are analysed in context. The percentages for incoming people ought to be based on the % of the applicants of each of (all?) genders accepted. Similarly when looking at the number of women on boards of directors, the comparison should be made between the % of the cohorts of people of all(?) genders who joined in any year who have made it to the boardroom. In my company women are arguably over-represented in the higher echelons on this basis.

In any event the numbers game “works both ways”. It can demonstrate that women are favoured over men in many non-work aspects of society, i.e. for 16 hours out of the 24 for five days of the week and 24 out of 24 for two days. In education we now have a girl friendly teaching method, and with it, surprise, surprise, a growing number of disaffected young men. The NHS spends more on women per capita than on men, and that is excluding all child bearing and rearing, and men die 5 to 7 years younger than women. In spite of the almost double lengths of retirement that this implies, men still pay the same pension contributions. At least the retirement ages are being normalised. And maternity leave….giving the same leave to men, forcibly or as an optional perk, simply compounds the problems. But it took a woman, Stella Rimington(?)the late boss of MI5 to convince the cancer charities that as much money should be spent per capita on dealing with male only cancers as is spent on female only cancers, or at least the spending should be based on the number of related deaths. And what about that statistic that at any time there are between ten and twenty times as many men as women in prison. Is society still sexist enough to believe that men are dispensable and are inherently more evil than women? Arguably there needs to be a radical attitude shift as a quid pro quo for changes in the work-place.

On a more personal level, having re-married and fathered children while working part time as an engineer and part time as a house person, I’ve found that few organisations from nurseries to shops accept that baby changing and child health and ordinary child care activities are being carried out by men. I have received some open hostility and times without number that change in conversational manner when “a man” enters the room. In my view society outside the workplace has not changed its attitudes to gender by anywhere nearly as much as has the work-place. In short there needs to be a general societal acceptance of the way that not only male but also female sexuality works, both where it is useful to society and to the work-place and where it is definitely not. A bit outside the scope of your excellent magazine I agree!
Dear Paul,

I appreciated your article today and the perspective you presented on the scarcity of women in engineering. What I didn't agree with was your conclusion that at 7% it is a "stark and shameful fact."

I have three daughters and a son, and all are wired differently from me. They have no interest in engineering. Period. Instead, they have all opted for the caring professions - teaching, social work, translation for the deaf, social issues. Their mother is a nurse, and I put it down to her side of the gene pool.

Now, I find it interesting that over the years of watching my wife in her work, I can count on one hand the number of male nurses that she's worked with. Why isn't there an outcry about the lack of male presence in nursing? Having spent some time in hospital recently, I noted that ALL of my nurses were female. All silent from the media.


When my children were growing up, I encouraged them to pursue what interested them. During that time, I read a snippet of research that I'm sure you'd find interesting. I wish I could provide a link, but I suspect it remains on paper and may not have made the transition to the webworld. This research disclosed that women's and men's brains are wired differently in terms of verbal expressive abilities (women are more verbose and their focus is on being as thorough as possible to explore all psycho-emotional issues in a conversation, while men are more interested in 'just the facts'), mathematical skills (men hold the edge), 3D/spatial visualisation abilities (men are better), and focal interests in the sciences. I suspect that if you looked at the number of women working as scientists/researchers with the biological sciences you'd find that the figures are far more representative of our population demographics. I also suspect that they may be the majority in those fields. There's no outcry there, nor should there be.

I think what we see in engineering after many years of opportunity is simply the stark fact that women, generally, just aren't interested. And if that is the case, they shouldn't be forced along a path that is not necessarily 'natural' to them. As in nursing only a small percentage of men are inclined to that field, in engineering only a small percentage of women are inclined to pursure that profession. I think we've long ago passed out of the land of mental and cultural roadblocks to anyone pursuing anything without having to consider questions of gender, except in terms of sheer physical ability. Bricklaying is, frankly, for robust men. I'm not built for it. Most women aren't. Nursing is the domain of compassionate women.

We forget, in these kind of gender-led discussions, that people do make choices according to what interests them, not by simple-minded considerations of what is 'appropriate for my gender.' We all have the same opportunities to pursue our interests, to read, research, talk to people in a profession, talk to friends with similar interests, etc. If there exists an inclination borne out of an interest, then human beings tend to follow what interests them. I just think that we have more female nurses, because they're more predominantly wired that way. We have more men in engineering, because men are more predominantly wired that way.

A little story

When my son was nine months old, he experienced his first Christmas. My mother had spent months making cuddly stuffed toy animals for him. On Christmas morning, we opened the box and offered him a toy. He held out both hands palms outward, fingers extended, and refused to touch them. Next on offer was a Matchbox toy car. He reached out and snatched it from my hand. My girls were delighted with the cuddly toys.

Much of the answer lies in the genes!
Dear Paul,

I read your introduction to the Eureka blog with interest. I take your point that it perhaps is reductive to talk to women engineers about being women engineers. However, highlighting their successes as Engineers, and making sure you search for successful women to feature is vital as they provide good role models to younger women as to what can be achieved in the field.

You can highlight a woman's career without asking her 'what it's like to be a woman engineer' any more than you would ask a man what is was like to be a male engineer.

I agree that the day has not yet come when we can take our eye off the ball on this one. Making sure you highlight them is the key - but not solely for the uniqueness of their accomplishment as a woman in Engineering.

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