Harrassment of female engineers: #metoo?
Image credit: Dreamstime
Harassment of females in the workplace is everywhere. A snowballing of claims and campaigning in all industries has led to a slew of criminal convictions and exposure to what really happens behind ‘closed doors’. The engineering industry is no different.
Harassment in the workplace is in the spotlight like never before. The recent #metoo campaign has women opening the floodgates about what actually occurs in their industries, with questionable conduct of industry moguls and high-profile individuals being under public scrutiny.
So what is it like in the engineering world? How much of a problem is it?
The number of women engineers in the workplace in the UK is still notoriously low. According to the Women’s Engineering Society only 11 per cent are female, up from 9 per cent in 2015.
A mid-2017 study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) – ‘Stay or Go? The experience of female engineers in early career’, which used an online moderated community and an online survey of 558 women to gather results – found that experiences of discrimination and harassment were more prevalent in UK engineering than other sectors. Sixty-three per cent of participants experienced unacceptable behaviour or comments (approximately three times more than experienced by women in the financial or medical professions) and 20 per cent said they had witnessed similar actions directed at others.
What is harassment? Tar Tumber, director of employee relations at International Workplace, says the legal definition of sexual harassment is behaviour that has the “purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.
“The harassment can be verbal or non-verbal and can include sexual comments or jokes, unwanted physical contact such as touching or hugging, any form of sexual assault, displaying sexual images, or being treated less favourably as a result of rejecting any such conduct,” she adds.
Harassment can happen to anyone at any time and any place from the same sex or the opposite. Harassers can be a more senior person, a colleague in the same department, or a third party client or customer.
Tumber says harassment can be a sufficiently serious one-off incident, or a series of incidents, and “just because the alleged harasser doesn’t intend to ‘harass’ another person, does not mean harassment did not occur”.
E&T asked female engineers on Reddit, a social news website and forum, to share their experiences of harassment in the workplace, and there were many responses from around the world. User avilavi writes of a male co-worker who told her how “hot or cute” she looked, or talked to others about how her “ass looks smaller in those jeans. When I asked him to not comment on my clothes, he said to me the next day: ‘You’re wearing a black shirt’ to show that he didn’t care. I butt heads a lot with this individual, but it is tough as we have good rapport when he doesn’t say inappropriate things.”
‘One of the assistant directors in my department said that “women do not get to make decisions at this table”.’
The same user also says that someone has been leaving anonymous notes and gifts on holidays for over a year, which HR is doing nothing to prevent. “All I want is to have the chance to tell them to stop. This person has been making me miserable and I now second-guess every interpersonal exchange I have at work, constantly wondering if I’m being too friendly when I just want to be a pleasant person to work with. HR basically said ‘we’re sorry this is happening to you but there’s nothing we can do unless we know who it is’.” She worked from home for some time, but returned after thinking: “F*** that, I’m not going to let some pansy schmuck make me run away.”
The IMechE’s study also found almost 40 per cent of UK female engineers thought they were not treated equally – including by managers, people they managed, or by peers. Over 60 per cent surveyed believed men progressed more easily in the engineering sector, and only 35 per cent of female engineers felt they were treated the same as their male colleagues.
ironlakes, a Reddit user with an ABET accredited engineering degree, was a ‘quality technician’ in her workplace, but all the men, who had the same qualification as her, had the title and pay of engineer. “I busted my ass and excelled at my job while they continually screwed up, but I had to prove myself to become an engineer.” She worked there for four years, was in charge of quality at three locations and worked 14-hour days, “but it wasn’t good enough. I also was constantly cat-called by workers.” Since moving industries, however, she now has the engineer title and makes more money, so her resilience eventually paid off.
Reddit user hanimal3 – a female software engineer – describes experiences with her boss, who openly bragged about making her miserable to fellow colleagues. “He would take me aside in the hallway or conference room and strongly remind me I work for him and that my job is to make sure I take care of his needs.”
She says he took all the more technical projects and gave them to new male hires. She also requested he get her a laptop to program on and he didn’t, but he got a male hire one as soon as he came on board. She adds: “He talked over me in meetings or would ask for my opinion then tell me I was wrong. He also would tell me I didn’t have enough ‘rank’ to do certain tasks and that if I had a more important role, I would be more effective.” She states that’s she’s planning to leave because of him and she expects him to be promoted in the next year.
Ruth Hancock, operating director and engineering recruitment specialist at Michael Page, says there is a common perception that women who come from a background in engineering are more resilient than others. “Although it’s a key attribute to have in the workplace, this resilience may partly come from the way they learnt to interact with others in this very male-dominated sector, perhaps even having dealt with situations of workplace harassment.”
A recent US study, ‘“Girl Power”: gendered academic and workplace experiences of college women in engineering’, noted that female participants (engineers at college) saw the impact of their gender on first impressions in the workplace, where it seemed to centrally define their identity. Gender-based initial impressions with male colleagues were accompanied by negative presumptions of females’ engineering competency.
Reddit user unbasic_life, who has been an engineer for 15 years, has been put in uncomfortable situations due to her gender. In 2012, she was called into a meeting and gave a recommendation to the group, and “one of the assistant directors in my department said that ‘women do not get to make decisions at this table’”. After letting her director and HR know, nothing was done, as the man in question had “been a good engineer for 35 years”.
Many female engineers can be highly conscious of their actions, how they dress and often attempt to minimise their ‘feminine’ appearance to lessen negativity from male peers. The ‘Girl Power’ study says that workplace environments, instead of adjusting their cultures to welcome and support the growing diversity of their employees, expect women to adjust their own behaviours to fit sexist cultural norms.
So what can be done to tackle this potential problem for female engineers?
Steve Auburn, senior recruitment consultant of engineering at Heat Recruitment, says potential workplaces where harassment may occur could be indicated as early as the job interview stages.
“Language used by interviewers could be a warning sign, but interviewees should make sure they are asking the right questions during the interview to probe into what the culture is like.” Finding out how many women are and have been employed would be a good start, “but it’s vital to find out which roles within the business are occupied by women – particularly at senior levels.
“While having a senior team made up of men is not a sign, a toxic workplace is more likely than with a company with a more diverse leadership team.” Using social media platforms to research companies, messaging someone who works there and checking review sites can help get an idea of the work culture.
If already employed by a company in which you’re experiencing harassment, it is more difficult to do something about it. HR is a first port of call, “but the HR department can often be motivated by protecting the company from any liability”, Auburn says. This often works in favour of an employee, but the opposite can occur. “Joining some form of union would give an employee the leverage they need to be taken seriously – instead of just one person versus the world,” he adds.
Auburn advises that you should take all necessary steps to ensure the issue is resolved within your organisation, and the issue could just be down to one individual rather than the overall culture of the business.
He says that if you feel you can’t continue to work for your company after all avenues have been exhausted, you “should look to leave for pastures new”.
When I had just started working an older field tech took me to a site I was unfamiliar with (to do routine sampling and testing). This guy was awful. He hit on me in the car while driving; instead of looking at the road, he kept looking at me. I asked him to watch the road and he said, “Why would I do that when I have something much better to look at?”. Also, when I quietly corrected him on how he was carrying out a field test he flipped out at me, yelling in front of the clients. I brought him outside to ‘discuss’ the matter and it took me calling our boss who confirmed to him I was correct before he’d do the test properly. He’s sent dirty texts to another female colleague in the middle of the night. He even wrote me a creepy and weird poem for Christmas.
Man, I’ve seen it happen to some of the women I work with.
I’m a male, but I have a story. My ex-boss (a 65yo male) made multiple comments to female engineers who were consulting for us. At a lunch meeting one day he said, “You must do really good work to make it as a woman engineer”.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.