It turns out I’m institutionally sexist. My colleague Margo spotted that while proof-reading my analysis piece on the Big Bang Fair.
We must tackle casual sexism to address the gender gap
There I was, in a piece exhorting the need to tackle the shockingly low numbers of women joining the industry, describing the ICE’s stand at the fair as being “manned” by a raft of female young engineers. The piece now reads “staffed” - thanks Margo - and I hope you all will agree with its intent.
And I also hope you’ll see my slip as a slight one. But it is revealing of how intrinsically sexist we as an industry are. I’m willing to bet that nine out of 10 of you would also have written “manned” without a moment’s thought.
How are we going to deliver these major projects if we keep turning people away?
Just as nine out of 10 of you never bat an eyelid when we quote a female press officer as a “spokesman”. And just as nine out of 10 of you never complain when we call a chairperson a chairman, regardless of gender.
Both of those are written down, NCE style rules. They haven’t changed in decades. Which is bad on us. But it’s also bad on you.
Because the industry suffers from a chronic shortage of women entering the profession - and an even more chronic problem when it comes to keeping them.
As business minister Vince Cable told the Big Bang Fair supporters’ dinner last week, the statistics are a “disgrace”.
Women account for just 12.3% of people working in science, engineering and technology occupations, despite the fact that 45.1% of the UK workforce are women. And it is not as if we can afford to be so profligate with the potential skills on offer.
This week sees the publication of a hugely credible plan to speed up delivery of the £43bn High Speed 2. It is just one scheme in the government’s £377bn National Infrastructure Plan. How are we going to deliver these projects if we keep turning people away?
We are not doing it deliberately. No-one has a policy that excludes recruitment of women. But we are all putting up barrier after barrier that blocks the progress of women.
Each on its own is not a show-stopper - take my slip this week - but put together it all adds up to an industry that is fundamentally sexist.
So what’s to be done?
Next week NCE is hosting a round table debate on this subject with senior representatives from clients, consultants, contractors and suppliers.
I want to leave the evening with a series of actions that NCE can and will be held to account on. Maybe a re-write of the NCE house style will be one of them. But I also want to leave with a series of actions that NCE can hold the industry to account on. So what should they be?
Let’s be bold, let’s get serious, because having the business secretary describing your industry as a “disgrace” should be a serious wake-up call.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor