WISE World Café: Men Takeover

To address the number of women in science and engineering, we’ll need two things: we’ll need great teachers that inspire and educate the next generation, and we’ll need the current generation of ‘top-level’ managers to get serious about effecting change. For women to become leaders- which is apparently the answer to this whole mess, although, I’m not 100 % convinced- we’ll need men to support them in getting there.

Cool as a cucumber I board the 0616 to Knutsford, armed with a coffee and a thesis to read. Once we arrive in the beautiful village (which boasts Cheshire’s best kept secret station),  I get in a taxi with the friendliest man I’ve met lately (he didn’t even mention uber, once) and arrive at Booth’s Hall. The WISE campaign and AMEC Foster Wheeler have invited lots of local engineers to talk about what men can do to support women on their missions.

After loading up on coffee and bacon sandwiches, we’re chatting:

  • What specific barriers need breaking down? What are the biggest hurdles that organisations must overcome?
  • Do we get it? Do we understand the challenges women face?
  • Do we do it? How can men be role models & champions to lead changes in behaviour?
  • Do we pass it on? Do men advocate gender balance and transfer commitment into active participation?
  • What is our role? How do we contribute to the very challenges we are here to address?
  • Can we disrupt the status quo?
  • How can we make our commitment explicit? What kind of leadership pledges can we take?

After our briefing and a gentle reminder to decorate the table cloths, we’re on round tables led by facilitators from AMEC, answering two questions over the morning meeting. I obviously don’t get to sit on every table, but my role model and champion in science has always been a man. He’s the only person over my degree/ research who never doubted my abilities and never stopped supporting me. He’s checked papers, he’s helped me with long experiments and he made science come to life. He’s also incredibly realistic, honest and effective, whether it’s as a scientist, a lab manager or a father. Sure, my mom has been my rock throughout my education, but this felt like having family on the inside.

I’m not really sure how much I can contribute: I’m not a man, I’m not a leader, I likely won’t become one, but I do throw in a few great statistics and anecdotes. At Rolls Royce their most diverse group are those on their graduate schemes (24% F), whereas their leadership positions are only 14 % girls. I sit alongside a Lithuanian who works on an oil rig. She’s noticed that the worst case scenario men always get the jobs over the best case women; that like people employ and promote like people, that customers in oil & gas prefer to hear from men. Women on boards have to mirror their male counterparts to get heard in the boardroom. But this lot aren’t as naïve as the people I met at a recent Guardian Live event (“is feminism failing the 99 %”): going from the top down, and putting a woman on every board in the country, won’t solve anything. If they need it, men and women need to be educated and supported through their careers. Employers have to make everyone aware of their unconscious biases; to assess their interview processes and re-write their job descriptions. So far, nothing is new: these are ideas preached on Athena Swan panels across the land. There’s a proposal to go back to Myers Briggs and personality tests when assembling teams, to make ‘science sexy’ by creating dramas and comedies about engineers and mathematicians, to take climate change from documentaries to prime time. The problem isn’t that the BBC don’t want to do it- they’ve been really proactive at representing women right across radio and TV- but that their commissioners don’t know about engineering. We’ve got to erase the image of engineers as people who ‘fix the washing machine’ and sell the story of science. In my recent experiences with a Samsung Eco Bubble, no one fixes the bloody washing machine, they just bring a new one: it’s cheaper. I spend the last twenty minutes on a table with an incredibly sensitive man, who talks about alpha men and women in his engineering team and a few of ‘putting his foot in it’. When we’re summing up each table’s responses, one comment is “we’ve heard this all before”. We touch briefly on the impact of women holding women back, which is just as powerful. I’m left wondering whether events like this only perpetuate our politically correct culture, whether they’ve got a room of people who all agree anyway, whether the one’s really need to reach are the ones who’d never take a morning off work to think about promoting women. It’s a bit like teaching. Sure, outreach events and teacher CPD are great, but not all kids get any outreach and only keen teachers do any CPD. I am also left convinced I’d never want to ‘lead’ anyway- I couldn’t just go to meetings and sign things for the rest of my life. So, elderly white men, I’m happy you’re stuck in the office.

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