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IN DEPTH

HS2

We must work harder to stamp out casual sexism

Massively apathetic is how I would describe the response to my Comment of 20 March, exhorting action to tackle the scandalous lack of women in our profession.

And that’s being polite. Some of the responses I’ve had have been downright ignorant. But in the main, the male response has been entirely predictable and of the “so what?” and “Problem, what problem?” order.

I wrote that Comment with a real hope that change was possible; it was the week before our first ever Women in Engineering round table event, and I went there with a determination to emerge with a real plan of action.

Let’s become feminists and in the process kick start cultural change at every level and in every sector of our industry

As you’ll read in NCE this week, we didn’t quite get there. We all agreed that there was a problem. But what is the root cause of that problem? It was striking that even around a table largely populated by women, it was difficult to reach consensus.

And with no consensus on the cause of the problem, there is, of course, no magic bullet solution. My preconceived idea of rolling out some quick fixes - such as signing NCE up to a gender quota when it comes to interviewees - won little support on the night. So where to go now?

The answer, it turns out, was nestling in NCE’s inbox. For there, in a letter to the editor, Kirsty Jamieson had taken issue with my understanding of casual sexism.

“Casual sexism is asking the woman in the room if she does general administrative duties; it’s acceptance that PPE doesn’t come in sizes for women; it’s using golf outings for business networking; it’s an assumption that a woman will happily take a career break to raise a family and that her commitment to her career is diminished from that point on,” she said.

“I fear Mark Hansford’s Comment on the issue of casual sexism will do little more than cause the predictable eyeball-rolling of those who dread the mention of the F-word, and fail to grasp its true meaning.”

Using the F-word

I confess that, at first glance, I failed to take in the gravity of the point Jamieson was making. I do, after all, play a lot of golf. For business networking. And I confess, I really didn’t understand what she meant by the “F-word”.

You have my colleague Alexandra Wynne to thank for ensuring that I now do. The “F word” is feminism and in its simplest definition is precisely what I hope all of you believe in: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”

Grasping this, I was encouraged to read a book to further my understanding. The book is How to be a Woman by Times columnist and staunch feminist Caitlin Moran.

I was startled by how much it resonated.

Says Moran: “Ladies, we are at a massive disadvantage in the workplace. Your male peers are flirting with their male bosses constantly. That’s basically what male bonding is. Flirting. They’re flirting with each other playing golf, they’re flirting with each other going to the football, they’re flirting with each other chatting at the urinals - and, sadly, flirting with each other in after-hours visits to strip clubs and pubs…”

While her solution to workplace discrimination is not for these pages (read the book), Moran’s world is eminently identifiable as our world. Her problems are our problems.

So let’s tackle them. Let’s join her. Let’s become feminists. And in the process, let’s kick start cultural change at every level and in every sector of our industry.

I’m going to be asking the leaders of some of the industry’s biggest clients, consultants, contractors and suppliers to join me in signing up to NCE’s feminism charter.

And we’ll reveal just who has signed it on National Women in Engineering Day next month. I hope it is a very full page.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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