Harrassment of women in the workplace

#MeToo in engineering, UK rail projects and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: Dreamstime

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Hilary Lamb, news reporter

Harassment of female engineers: #metoo?

Rebecca Northfield hits the nail on the head when she says that “Harassment of females in the workplace is everywhere […] the engineering industry is no different.”

Frankly, I’m astonished that it’s taken so long for people to realise that half the population is constantly subjected to assault, harassment and degradation. The fall of Harvey Weinstein has been blissfully satisfying to watch, but it’s important to remember that charging a handful of alleged celebrity sex offenders is not the end of it; not even close. There is a danger that we will become passive spectators and cheer when actors and politicians are exposed without realising that this happens all the time around us, whatever industry we’re in.

Even highly professional women – such as engineers – still have a difficult time being taken seriously when they raise complaints about sexist behaviour. They are seen as thin-skinned, as troublemakers who just don’t have the cold, detached intelligence necessary to excel in male-dominated industries.

This won’t change without an effort, so here are a few minimal things you could do to help, gentlemen (and privileged, powerful women). Call out inappropriate behaviour towards women, perhaps by a colleague making unsolicited comments about their appearance (yes, I know it can be awkward to butt in, but it will be much appreciated). Don’t be immediately dismissive if called out yourself. If a colleague seems uncertain and lacking in confidence, don’t write them off as feeble; you don’t know what they’re struggling with. Treat people with sincerity if they tell you about their experiences of discrimination or abuse. Be ready to question whether you may have got where you are not entirely on your own merits and that a less advantaged person may have been put down to raise you up. Learn about your own unconscious biases. Find out about the gender pay gap at your company and raise your voice about it. Boycott or raise complaints about all male panels and committees. If you don’t have a single woman in your company or team, admit that is absolutely pathetic and do something about it.

And engineers: stop treating women like a different species, for Christ’s sake.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Rail electrification project delayed further, Network Rail admits

I must admit that I was particularly taken by the photograph we used with this story, clearly taken at a heritage railway and showing Thomas the Tank Engine peering wryly out of a shed. I don’t want to join the ranks of knee-jerk Network Rail bashers, but a lot of people across the whole rail sector are having to face up to some awkward questions about why the attempt to bring in ‘improved’ services with the timetable change on 20 May has gone so disastrously wrong. Did all the people in all the preparatory meetings honestly believe that everything was going smoothly, or were individuals too afraid to say ‘the emperor has no clothes’?

Our news story is based on statements made at the Transport Select Committee’s enquiry into the debacle, and focuses on Northern Rail. Here in Stevenage, where the railway station is visible from the E&T office, it’s the failings of the Govia Thameslink service that have people seething and a letter submitted to the enquiry by London Travelwatch is revealing. It tells a sorry tale of franchise operators being set incompatible timetable specifications by the Department for Transport, infrastructure not being ready early enough for timely driver training, too much reliance on drivers being willing to work on their rest days to make time for that training, as well as a number of other issues.

I’m lucky that I don’t have to commute every day and today I made a short return journey to Letchworth in my (slightly extended) lunch break without problems, but I heard passengers for a host of intermediate stations between Stevenage and Peterborough being advised to take the next train to Hitchin and use a rail replacement coach service from there. That isn’t the way to win hearts and minds.

Meanwhile, getting back to the delayed project that prompted these thoughts, I’ve also discovered today that a new Campaign to Electrify Britain's Railways has been launched to push for “a steady, planned, rolling programme” of electrification.

Non-invasive malaria testing kit wins prestigious Africa Prize

A Ugandan software engineer has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize for his work on a device that detects malaria without the need to take a blood sample. Brian Gitta says that when he was a student, bouts of the illness prevented him and others from attending lectures, so they decided to develop a diagnostic test. Their device relies on shining a beam of red laser light through a person’s finger to detect characteristic changes in red blood cells, with results presented on a linked smartphone. It is currently being tested in partnership with a major hospital and team members are hunting for suppliers of the principal components in the hope of mass-producing units at a price that would be affordable for local health centres.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Developed nations struggling with plastic waste overload after China’s import ban

China has finally decided that it doesn’t want to be the world’s dumping ground any more and has banned imports of plastic from other nations. This is partly because its middle class is rapidly growing and producing enough of its own waste for China to deal with, but the West has also been sending over its contaminated crap for years, saying, “It’s your problem now”.

The Chinese waste export process has been a technical loophole that Western countries have been abusing for a long time. They can claim that they recycle by shipping their waste off to China without really knowing what’s happening to it at the other end. While China certainly has its fair share of plastic recycling plants, its lax environmental regulations, coupled with high levels of corruption seaming right through the political system, mean that a lot of this waste is probably not being handled in the way that the West would hope, or expect.

While in the UK we might bundle a bunch of plastic onto a ship and call it recycled, when it gets to China anything could happen to it. In addition to being recycled, incineration is a common practice, causing toxic fumes and carbon emissions, and the most unscrupulous of operators just dispose of it in the nearest river and watch it float out to sea. We in the West don’t care, though, because we’ve ticked the recycling box and our job is done.

This ban will hopefully encourage the West to create its own facilities for recycling plastic properly with greater oversight than in China. This may cost a fair amount of money, but it is a necessity if we want to continue living the high-consumption lives to which so many of us have become accustomed.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

The annual International Women in Engineering Day is tomorrow and we’re covering various angles of this issue which is only increasing in importance each year. Crispin Andrews looks at the scale of the gender pay gap in engineering and examines the various excuses given for it. Rebecca Northfield hears some shocking stories of discrimination from women working in engineering. On a more cheerful note, Josh Loeb meets the new generation of TV stars promoting engineering and technology to girls, while Tim Fryer looks at the best engineering projects that are engaging girls’ minds and catching them early. And meet tomorrow’s hidden figures - the women engineers working in today’s space industry.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

European Parliament to vote on divisive copyright bill

The European Parliament is due to vote on a new copyright directive, which critics say could lead to the elimination of much legitimate and satirical content – such as memes – while punishing smaller companies. As a writer who has been victim of multiple copyright violations - or plagiarism, to call a spade a spade - I welcome this new directive wholeheartedly. Nothing and no one can justify the theft of other people’s intellectual property – be it engineering innovations, TV or radio programme ideas, scripts, articles, poems, novels (a Scottish writer friend of mine once had his whole novel stolen from him and published under the thief’s name), or bits of any of the above. While I’m not a huge fan of the EU bureaucratic bodies, I nevertheless hope that this time the European Parliament does not succumb to pressure and votes the Directive in.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Women in Technology

As this weekend marks International Women in Engineering Day, allow me to direct your attention to the series of ongoing articles that E&T has published on the subject, all of which are gathered together on this compendium page. It will continue to be updated with new content, as there will inevitably continue to be issues surrounding the fact of women in engineering. Some of the news is good - with inspirational individuals achieving new heights and breaking new ground - and some of it is bad - as certain entrenched, myopic, traditional views continue to thwart real progress, transparency and equity for both genders - so check back often, as E&T charts the progress of peoplekind in general and the engineering profession in particular.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Engineering evangelists at BBC Children’s Cbeebies

It’s a long time since I had the pleasure of catching up with TV schedules for preschool children. In fact, I suspect from a quick glance as I whizz through the relevant section of the programme guide that the number of channels has multiplied exponentially in the years since my own offspring were engrossed with Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine. I’m not convinced that there’s that much more of a focus on ‘engineering’ in today’s programmes. Encountering a problem, working out how to fix it and reaching a satisfactory resolution has alwasy been a reliable story arc in fiction and I can remember being engrossed by short films about industry and transport that Play School viewers watched ‘through the arched window’ 50-odd years ago (and how many under-fives these days would even know what an arched window is?).

The biggest change, and a welcome one, is probably the recognition that protagonists don’t have to have a particular gender for children to identify with them. The fact that character Bitz in CBeebies hit ‘Bitz and Bob’ happens to be a girl isn’t likely to put a lot of boys off, I believe. In the long run, it’s an important element of what the International Women in Engineering Day that we’re marking this weekend aims to achieve. That one day, even if we don’t reach some questionable target of having equal numbers of male and female engineers, no one’s going to question the authority of a female team leader or colleague any more than they would question a girl being the hero of a children’s television programme.

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