When people ask me why I went into engineering (and since I seem to be doing a lot of work with schools these days, an awful lot of sixth-formers are asking me), I reply with the absolute truth. “Well, all my contemporaries were going off to do medicine, and I couldn’t face the thought of seven years training and all that blood Besides, the university courses are made up of mostly blokes, so it’s a target-rich environment.”
Now I’d be the first to agree that that’s not the best reason to start on such a vocational course, and I’d much rather be able to say: “I’ve wanted to build buildings since I was five years old,” but it’s simply not true. However, once I’d decided to embrace engineering, I very quickly discovered that buildings – not production lines or oil rigs or aeroplanes – were the things that interested me. I mean, who hasn’t stood back at the end of a project and said with a sense of pride: “I helped build that.” Whether it’s something as visible and high-profile as the Second Severn Crossing or the Millennium Dome, or something invisible and unsung, but no less significant in engineering terms, like the Chalk Farm Sewage Treatment Works, it’s a tangible, solid result of which the construction team can be proud.
And so I launched myself into a course in Architectural Engineering (fascinating, great fun and I was able to study in America for a year), and then a career in the construction industry. Ten years in the industry and I have to say that I have never come across any serious sexual discrimination, although there have been a number of times when I’ve had to grit my teeth and bite back an acidic retort at someone’s misapprehension. For example, there was the occasion when an architect called to speak to a colleague, and when I politely informed him that he wasn’t available and asked if I could perhaps take a message, was brusquely told, “No, it’s a technical question, I don’t think you’d understand.” Five minutes later, after I’d explained to him in detail how the chiller on top of his building worked, he did have the grace to apologise.
At meetings, there have been snide comments, winking and an attitude that of course the “little woman” shouldn’t be there at all
Not all my female colleagues have been so fortunate, however. One client (male), surveying a particularly substantial concrete foundation block, said to the attendant structural engineer (female): “I guess this is a bit big for you to have designed.” Indignantly, said engineer pointed out that all the foundations for the building had been designed by two women, including the bit of concrete the client was standing on. The client looked sheepish as he stammered an apology. But generally there seem to be fewer problems encountered on site “at the sharp end” (apart from the difficulty in finding site boots in size 2) than there are back in the office.
At meetings, or progress reviews, there have been snide comments, winking and nudging, and a general attitude that of course the “little woman” shouldn’t be there at all and you can’t really expect her to cope with challenging engineering problems or awkward decisions – not to mention the automatic assumption that she will make the tea. Interestingly, it’s not the older construction team members that adopt this attitude, but the thirty-somethings, the ones that really ought to know better.
The obvious conclusion is that these are the folk that feel threatened by having women on the team. But why should they? Of course men and women are different; they think slightly differently and approach problems from slightly different angles. Surely this is a good thing when working as part of a team? A different perspective may help to unlock a problem. So, someone with an alternative view should be welcomed into the team for the increased breadth of vision they bring with them. Constant sniping at the unconventional face – whether it’s unconventional by gender, race or disability – demonstrates a lack of understanding of team dynamics, not to mention revealing ignorance and prejudice to workmates.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold at its Bath office.