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Feminism is important because it is fair and right

So I am going to take positives from my failure to get 80 industry leaders to sign up to my feminism charter in time for next Monday’s National Women in Engineering Day.

The message was simple. “I am a feminist and pledge to actively advocate women’s rights on the ground that sexes should be equally employed in the engineering and construction industry.”

And while feminism in its simplest definition is a simple thing, many felt uncomfortable with historical connotations of the F-word.

As Ian Firth, chief operating officer of consultant Flint & Neill puts it: “While I absolutely support the principles of equality of opportunity, I would not describe myself as a ‘feminist’, which to most people implies something rather more militant and pro-feminine and anti-masculine.”

Firth’s view was pretty much the majority view, and I do understand it.

I appreciate that equality is a sensitive issue and that most business leaders have already invested time and energy into getting more women into their businesses. Quite simply they know there are good business reasons for it. Hyder UK managing director Graham Read reminds us this week, there is plenty of evidence that companies with gender diverse workforces and boards are more effective. And then there is the looming skills shortage and the daftness of excluding half the working population from our industry on the grounds of gender.

But for me the reason to raise the issue was more basic, more fundamental. For me gender equality - feminism - is just fair and right. Why should anyone have to feel an ounce of discomfort in our industry because of their gender; their race; or their sexual orientation?

Yet here we are in 2014 and plenty of people do, for all the reasons - and many more besides - that we highlight this week.

Attitudes - at all levels - have to change.

So like England’s rugby and football teams I’m not giving up just yet. I’m not giving up on gender equality and I’m not giving up on feminism. Because as engineers including Amey graduate Philippa Jefferis tell us this week, words like feminism are needed. The attitude change needed is so dramatic that only strong words will do.

And I know it is not a lost cause. Because I can name at least two feminist chief executives. One is the boss of the one of our biggest clients - Highways Agency chief executive Graham Dalton. And the other is the boss of the biggest employer of civil engineers in the UK - Atkins UK and Europe chief executive David Tonkin.

He’s well aware of stigmas associated with the word and is comfortable with the true definition. As he says: “There have been extremes in the way the word feminism has been used in the past. I would like to say that I am a feminist in the centre ground of feminism.”

Thank you both. I hope your leads serve as inspiration to all.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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