Sexism in Engineering and Science – you only know what you know

Being a woman in engineering I’m in the minority. Only 11% of practising engineers are female and although I’ve never had my ponytail touched as an engineer (but I have as a bartender and waitress), I do come across situations that do not make me feel welcome based on my gender.

Plot of what women with engineering degrees who never enter engineering are doing now (source)

Plot of what women with engineering degrees who never enter engineering are doing now (source)

Studies show that 40% of females who have engineering degrees leave the profession or never enter the field, and that seems like a terrible waste of resources for me as an educator, and for you as a taxpayer.

In a recent study, psychologists found that the biggest pushbacks female engineers receive come from the environments they work in with an “old-boys club” still existing in many engineering organizations with many calling the engineering workplace unfriendly and even hostile to women.

As a lecturer of engineering, our intake hovers around 25% females, which is much higher than many other institutions and we work hard to develop industrial relationships with local companies to ensure our graduates move on to great jobs after finishing their degrees. I spend 4 years mentoring, teaching and advising these students during their undergraduate degrees and want to ensure that my students move on to safe workplaces which utilize their engineering talents and knowledge with equal opportunities and respect for their expertise. Today in the New Zealand Herald I was reported to have “slammed engineering firms sexist advertising“, and I did.

But more than that I wanted to highlight a company that publically demonstrates behaviour that I would consider sexist and objectifies females.  Why am I picking on this one company specifically?  Mainly because they have been shameless in being openly public about their “risky” advertising campaign and have a facebook page that seems to reflect a culture based around harassment, bullying and objectification.  I’m sure they are not the only company in the world that does this, but they are one which  when approached, don’t seem to accept that what they are doing is harmful or detrimental to women, especially women in engineering.

Article from the New Zealand Herald reporting on our conversations with a local business owner

Article from the New Zealand Herald reporting on our conversations with a local business owner

The thing about sexism, actually the thing about any “ism” is that you only know what you know.  I don’t know much about racism as a black male in Baltimore right now, other than what I have read online as I try to educate myself about the situation.  My perspective can only come from my experiences as a person of mixed race who has encountered racism throughout her life, but my personal experience will be very different to a black male in Baltimore who may feel victimised for different reasons after a long build-up of many events in their life.  I can only use my own experience to be empathetic to their situation and to take time to think about my opinions about racism in different circumstances.  It’s also why I don’t expect some males who have worked in the engineering industry for a long time to necessarily see how their workplace may be hostile to females as things are running the way they always have, but they only know what they know, and probably haven’t experienced the objectification or felt vulnerable as a minority in a workplace.  By trying to have open conversations with others, as frustrating as they can be sometimes, I think they are crucial to evaluating our own thoughts and opinions about sex, race, gender and religion.

Where form follows function, photograph of truck from local engineering company

Where form follows function, photograph of truck from local engineering company

When one of my female engineering students brought to my attention a local engineering firm whose business trucks  included a large photograph of a bikini clad female and the tagline “where form follows function”, I’ll admit my hackles were raised.  How on earth is this not objectification of women?  I have no real issues with women in bikinis being used in advertising where there is relevance, perhaps a sunscreen product or beachwear catalogue, but this is sheet metal, under no circumstances to my knowledge as a materials engineer, are bikinis ever worn.  Geez, there are a whole bunch of PPE and safety rules against this in real life! But again, giving them the benefit of the doubt, I checked out their company online.  Surely this was just a marketing campaign to draw attention to their company, which although sexist, was a one off, and even though there had been a complaint to the advertising standards agency, it had been dismissed, so I was obviously just being a little sensitive.

Facebook profile picture for business page of local engineering firm

Facebook profile picture for business page of local engineering firm

Heading over to the facebook page of the company I was greeted to this lovely lady for their profile picture. Now it looks to me that this female is also breaking all of the PPE safety gear expected in a metal working lab, and I hope it’s summer otherwise she will be freezing!

I’ll let you peruse through their page, but this one picture was not in isolation and some of the other pictures implied a corporation that was not at all female friendly or inviting including this public photograph of an employee being tied to a pole at work and drenched in canola oil.  Although this may not be sexist, it does not imply a culture that I think any female (or male) would feel safe working in.

Image taken from public facebook page of company showing how an employee has been tied to a pole, then covered in canola oil. (source)

Image taken from public facebook page of company showing how an employee has been tied to a pole, then covered in canola oil. (source)

Perhaps I’m being too harsh, and I’m always willing to have mature conversations with people about sexism, their perspectives and experiences, so some of my engineering students and I decided to head out to this company to see if they would chat to us about the issue so that we could hear their side of the story and expose them to the next generation of engineers, of which 25% are female.

When we arrived we were lucky enough to speak with the Director of the company who immediately saw a group of females and greeted us by trying introduce one of his single male workers to the girls telling him that he could “set them up on a date, as he was a nice single lad”.  Seriously, before we had even introduced ourselves as professional engineers, he spent over a minute pimping out his male employee (who seemed very uncomfortable about it all) to what I think he assumed was a group of girls looking for a man.  He also didn’t to seem to think anything was wrong with that when I explained that his introduction was probably not the most professional way to greet engineers who he didn’t know.

Conversations between myself, my students and the company director

Conversations between myself, my students and the company director

Without getting into too much detail about the 10 minute conversation we had, I was startled that when we asked him about whether he thought his companies van was sexist, he replied no and said it was a “bit risky” but he didn’t see the harm in it.

Tell that to your 6 year old daughter as she sits in the car stuck in traffic staring at a bikini clad woman who is stating that “form follows function”.

I also asked him how he felt about his companies facebook page portraying scenes of abuse of staff and pin-up calendar pictures, many of which were full size hanging on the walls inside their premises.  Again, he said he didn’t think they were sexist and could prove it as he had women working at his company.

Now I get that some of you may think that this is all over the top, that engineering firms have always had pin-up calendars and playful banter between employees, and I agree.  But we also used to smoke in airplanes and around our children, however education and public pressure mean that things evolve and change, usually for the better, and this is no different.

Another advertisement that seems to relate scantily clad women to products that I don't think they would use dressed like that! (source)

Another advertisement that seems to relate scantily clad women to products that I don’t think they would use dressed like that! (source)

I don’t want to victimise just one company, there are other examples out there including this one which somehow associates sexual relations with a female and fork-lift trucks.

Why would you want women in your workplace anyway?  Well study after study shows that a diverse workplace, including more women in the company and on boards leads to increased sales revenue, more customers, and greater relative profits, so if it doesn’t make at least moral sense to you it should make financial sense.

Times are changing, the traditional gender stereotypes in industries are evolving and we need to have these conversations in public, both to reflect on our own opinions and to understand perspectives from others that we can’t experience ourselves.

So, you only know what you know, but opening the conversation so that all sides can speak means that we all get to know a little bit more.

If you are open to seeing what smart female engineers look like who are not in bikinis then let me introduce you to some of my incredible students who want to have this conversation with you too.

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11 Comments

  1. I have had positive experences as a female engineer in NZ but as soon as i started working as one in Aus ive been felt up multiple times subjected to hostile work environments bullying and harrasment as a result of speeking up about sexual asult and harrasment at work.

    Reply

  2. I am not an engineer, but I enjoyed your article as well as the coincidence of our names. Paul Dickinson MSc.

    Reply

  3. I’m pleased to see they have removed their inappropriate pictures from their FB page, along with comments from myself, my daughter and others. Thank you for bringing this to the public’s attention – my daughter has just won her first “proper” software engineering job in a male dominated workplace. I’m pleased to say they truly are professional and I have no qualms about her working there. There is no way she would have wanted to work in a place which was sexist and degraded women.

    Reply

  4. I’ve been working as a chemical engineer for over 20 years now and things have significantly improved from the early days when I was a graduate. In 2012, I’m delighted to report that when a (younger, female) colleague and I visited over 30 commercial and industrial sites (unannounced) in Rotorua we encountered not a single incidence of sexism – and not a bikini calendar in sight.

    So I was very surprised to hear of this companys backwards attitudes and blatently sexist advertising. Thank you for calling them out Dr Dickinson. It just so happens that I have a six year old daughter and I’m not looking forward to that conversation in the car.

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  5. Very well written Michelle! I had opinions about the way this company an others use imagery of females to market products, and it’s very unfair to women. But really… the one about “your’e not the first?” That’s simply disgusting.

    Such a great act to go talk with them, and now a part of open discussion across NZ.

    Reply

  6. whenever i see that kind of picture on a wall in a business my heart sinks, as i know i’ll be dealing with some sexist yobs. Not surprised the guy you talked to couldn’t see what anything wrong with it. As a mature female student planning to do elec engineering at Canterbury next year, the last thing I need is an expectation of that kind of outlook to work with. Thanks for the good news, that sounds much better!

    Reply

  7. Did you ask permission to use the picture of my friend Amy Lee in your article from her or the business owner ? I understand the points you’re trying to make for your industry but in my industry (modelling) you’re expected to ask permission or at least credit those involved.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for your concern.
      As a public facebook photograph, I linked to the original source, and under the facebook Terms of Service which allow a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to images uploaded and used in a public setting (in this case as the profile picture for a business), then I do not need to ask for permission.
      If this were a private image then things would be different, but Facebook are very clear about this in their terms and conditions.
      Wishing you well in your modelling industry.

      Reply

  8. Everything else aside,please tell your young female and male engineers that long hair,loose clothing and jewelry are verboten in a workshop or machine shop environment.A brief look at the pictures above has several safety violations present in most of them.

    Rotating shafts and cutters will catch all three items and turn band-aid sized injuries into missing fingers,broken arms and potential deaths.Additionally wearing jewelry in an electronics lab is also a bad idea for what should be obvious reasons.

    With over 25+ years experience in various shop environments I have had to on several occasions clean blood and hair off of and out of various pieces of shop equipment,some as seemingly harmless as a bench top drill press.It’s too late once the Ambulance has been called.

    Please consider a shop dress code as a minimum,or better yet contact a uniform rental company and outfit your staff with appropriate shop clothing(it’s actually cheaper than wearing their own and they don’t have to wash their own gear).Hair should be cut,or done up no longer than earlobe length and all jewelry(ID badge necklaces included) should be left in the staff’s personal lockers.

    Good luck with your endeavors and pursuit of science,just please help to not generate the wrong sort of headlines-

    http://cenblog.org/the-safety-zone/2011/04/yale-student-killed-in-machine-shop-accident/

    Reply

  9. Well written! Sexism is still very alive today. I recently started a blog about my experiences as a young engineer in the field.

    Reply

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