Dr Troy Coyle, HERA CEO

Advocating, supporting industry change…

In industries that are struggling to not only attract women to them, but then equally having to fight hard to retain them, it’s important not to shy away from the real issues. NZ Construction News has enlisted Dr Troy Coyle to tell it like it is… to share her experiences, to provoke thought and self-reflection about the particular obstacles facing female engineers within engineering and construction, and to shed light on the issues by speaking direct to industry. While highlighting the problems – a must before you can improve anything – she also shares her beliefs on what ‘fixes’ can occur to get things on the right track. Here she does just that, delving into her stance on gender equality so that industries can begin to look internally and then start to make steps to becoming more diverse, inclusive, and desirable as career paths.

How do you have a conversation about the everyday experience of being a woman in our industry, and the need for greater support, without offending people?

I am not sure it is even possible. Feminism is perceived as extremism. Privilege is perceived as an insult rather than a social advantage. I benefit from my white, ableist, cis-gender, education privilege. I work hard to address my own subconscious biases (we all have them), and advocate to make our industry better for all.

In the same way, men benefit from their male privilege in our industry. Can we please start to acknowledge it, own it, and work together to address it?

We need men to be advocates

The Oxford dictionary defines a feminist as ‘an advocate of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes’. As an adjective, it means ‘advocating women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes’. It is hardly a radical or extremist concept.

Based on that definition, everyone should be a feminist. Engineers are people too. Ergo, all engineers should be feminists.

The key word in that sentence is ‘advocating’. We need people, including and specifically men, to step up and advocate for equality in engineering.

Is there really an issue?

Any industry where either gender dominates has an issue. In engineering, only 16% of the workforce are women. Privilege, according to Justin Garcia’s 2018 book Privilege and Intersectionality, exists where individuals have a certain social advantage, benefit, or degree of prestige and respect by virtue of belonging to a certain social identity group. Within New Zealand, the privileged social identities – of people who have occupied positions of dominance over another – include Pākeha, males, heterosexuals, cis-gender people, and the wealthy.

A workforce comprising of 84% males is gender-imbalanced, and this dominance by definition affords privilege to the dominant group and is maintained unless that group makes a serious, comprehensive effort to change it and correct imbalances. That may be confronting. It is also a fact.

It is the simple things: privilege blindness

This very simple example of privilege blindness is not specific to engineering. It is specific to business practices.

A handshake is a form of greeting. It is a protocol of respect. I can’t count the number of times that gesture has been reciprocated between my male colleagues while simultaneously excluding me. I now have handshaking anxiety! Do I aggressively assert my right to participate in that protocol and risk awkwardness as my hand is extended and there is a delay in reciprocation, or do I just bow out and accept the slight?

It is a small thing that sets the tone of a meeting. In some cultures, it would lead to a souring of the relationship, but women are expected to just cope with it. I am not sure anyone would describe me as shy or reticent to speak up, so this is not a fault of any lack of assertiveness on my part (and in saying that, I already feel the pressure to defend myself from accusations that the problem is with me).

It is the big things: privilege incredulousness

Early in my career, I was sent a budget sheet that erroneously included the salaries of my colleagues. There were three of us in exactly the same role (with the same position descriptions, titles and KPIs). The KPIs were largely quantitative and the total measurables largely transparent.

This meant that I could easily tally up my individual contribution to group outcomes. For all of these KPIs, I was delivering more than 60% of the outcomes and my two colleagues were together contributing less than 40%. And when I read that spreadsheet further, I was shocked to learn that both colleagues were earning more than 20% more than I was.

I was young at the time and raised my concerns with my manager with some trepidation. I was advised that my colleagues were paid more because they had more experience than me. Hmmm… that experience was not translating to better outcomes.

I regret not raising this issue formally. These days, someone in this position could probably raise a valid equal employment opportunities grievance. Instead, I lost confidence; felt that my lack of experience made me inadequate, despite all evidence to the contrary.

That is the personal impact of privilege. You feel like you can’t overcome a lack of it, it feels unbearably unfair, and sometimes it gets so overwhelming that you just give up or lose confidence – or you become disgruntled, as I did. Perhaps this is a reason why so many female engineering graduates leave the profession (more than 40% of female graduates either quit or never enter the profession, according to a 2016 report by Susan Silbey in HBR).

Hopefully, reporting requirements and legislative changes make this less likely to happen, but there is still a pervasive view that experience trumps potential or ability or performance. This is likely to frustrate women more than men because they are often not afforded the opportunity to develop experience or demonstrate capability. The statistics for women in senior leadership roles in engineering support this, as do the data for women in governance roles more generally.

It is the indefensible things

I am not going to go into the personal issues I have experienced that would be better discussed under the topic of #metoo. If you asked your female colleagues to share if they have experienced sexual assault, discrimination, or intimidation in the workplace, I think you would be shocked to hear how many have had more than one experience that falls in this category. I am not detailing my most upsetting examples as they are best shared in person.

There are more ‘Davids’ in this room than women

I had to present to the executive team on a project I was working on which had significant business potential. When I sat at the table, I joked that there were more people named David in the room (three) than women (me). No one laughed.

Of course, it isn’t funny. It is indicative of a serious problem, which remains unacknowledged. The correct response would have been an acknowledgement along the lines of: “Yes, Troy, you are right. We realise that must make you feel a bit out of place. We are glad you raised it and we are working on it.”

I was later advised that I cause offence by the stance that I take on gender equality and the way I call it out. Well, I accept that I must be annoying and confronting. I accept that it has taken me longer to get to leadership roles than I thought it should have (others might disagree), because I am not one to soften the blow.

What I don’t accept is that it is wrong to raise concerns and point out inequality within the bounds of respectful conversation. If a man is offended because I state that I am just as deserving, smart, and capable as him, I would say: try not being paid the same amount for an equivalent role and better performance and outcomes. Try fitting into a norm that means you have to completely alter all aspects of your own identity (how you look, talk and act). Try sucking it all up without it occasionally erupting.

The cost of calling things out

I have visited a customer who had an awesome staff social area with a ping pong table and free refreshments. It also had posters with images of female objectification. I felt uncomfortable. I had a female staff member with me and there was a female employee of the customer with us. I expressed my concerns about the posters and was advised that female staff had been consulted and said they were happy with them. I looked at the customer’s employee, who was of Middle Eastern descent, and wondered if she felt culturally safe enough to express her true views.

My raising of that issue meant a souring of my relationship with that customer. Unfortunately, that is too often the price of calling out privilege, sexism, and discrimination. It shouldn’t be that way and there are not enough women in the industry to make the calling out lead to meaningful change or improvement. We need the men to step up.

The onus is mostly put on women to assert their rights. It shouldn’t be that way. It is too exhausting, and it can be unsafe. It leads to fractured relationships, reputational damage, ostracism, and self-doubt to the point of career departure.

Is there female privilege?

Yes, but not in this industry. Honestly, I am not sure there is any advantage being a woman in this industry. Some may say that affirmative action gives woman an advantage. I would say that the woman probably deserved whatever benefit was granted, and that she is probably yet to overcome the significant disadvantage she has experienced to that point.

The only advantage I have experienced is that of being underestimated, which occurs often, particularly when I don’t use my ‘Dr’ title. That can be a superpower; it can shock people temporarily when you show them that you aren’t quite as dim as they assumed. This most often manifests when I am meeting people in a context where they don’t know who I am or what my role is (for example, meeting people for the first time at a conference or a meeting where someone has not done their research).

This happened to me when I was looking for a US research (and eventual supply) partner. I was traveling with a male colleague, an American. Part of the due diligence was inspecting production lines and looking at the QA process. Often my male colleague was shown around and I was left to tag along (I had to ask him to start pointing out that I was the one who would be leading the project).

As the production process was very noisy, if I was left behind, I didn’t hear much of what was being said. Not great for them, when I was the decision-maker who was evaluating their suitability as a potential partner. However, it did tell me a lot about their business culture and how easy or not it would be to form a productive collaboration when the project lead would be a woman.

If you have read to this point

Here are five practical things that you can do to make engineering a better place for all:

• Undertake an equal pay review of your company, along with a review on gendered language and approaches in all your documentation and people recruitment and development practices.

• Organise unconscious bias training for your staff.

• If you are in a position of privilege, reflect on that. You can’t change how this has benefitted you to date, but you can use it to change the system.

• Be an advocate and open your eyes. Look at how things are different for your female colleagues and how this should be addressed.

• Be open to the discussion. Support your female colleagues before they burn out, get labelled as a trouble-maker, or simply leave the profession in frustration. Be the one who calls out unfair treatment. Don’t make the woman do it. Every time she has to raise it, she will become a little bit more disillusioned and a little bit more ostracised. Be a feminist and own your privilege.

We need real talk within the industry

Engineering is an amazing and rewarding industry to work in. It offers so many diverse disciplines (environmental, materials, structural, mechanical etc), tackles many critical global problems, and can lead to exciting roles all around the world, with engineers in high demand internationally.

A simple way to increase the pipeline of skilled workforce is to better attract and retain women. At present over 40% of highly skilled women who enter engineering are likely to leave the industry, an alarming statistic at the best of times but especially in a skills shortage environment where every engineer is worth their weight in gold.

Most women in the industry are already taking all opportunities to speak to young women who are considering engineering – but we are less eager to talk among ourselves about where the real issues lie and how we are going to work together to address them.

Pipeline problems: Why do so many women who study engineering leave the field?

This was the title of a 2016 Harvard Business Review study by Susan Silbey. Along with colleagues from UC Irvine, University of Michigan, and McGill, Silbey conducted a longitudinal study of 700 engineering students across four colleges over their four-year degree, and then again five years post-graduation. This was a large-scale research project. A key finding was that female students usually performed as well, or better, than male students at university but often pointed to “the hegemonic masculine culture of engineering itself as a reason for leaving.”

The experience started at university, where in team settings women would be assigned gender stereotypical roles. This extended into internships, providing another wave of gender stereotyping, the study found: “This second round of gender stereotyping in the workplace, coupled with unchallenging projects, blatant sexual harassment, and greater isolation from supportive networks, leads many female students to revisit their ambitions.”

Stemming the tide – more evidence that culture is key

In a 2011 study across 30 universities and surveying over 3,700 women, ‘Stemming the tide: why women leave engineering,’ researchers Nadya A Fouad and Romila Singh found:

Among those who left the profession:

• Almost 50% said they left because of working conditions, too much travel, lack of advancement, or low salary.

• 33% left because they did not like their workplace climate, their boss, or the culture.

• 25% left to spend time with family.

Among those who did not enter engineering after graduation:

• 33 % said it was because of their views that engineering was inflexible and the workplace culture was unsupportive of women.

• 30% were no longer interested in engineering.

The researchers found that women’s decisions to stay in engineering can be influenced by key supportive people. The women whose companies valued and recognised their contributions and invested in their training and professional development expressed the greatest level of satisfaction with their jobs.

Women who were treated in a condescending, patronising manner and were belittled and undermined by their superiors and co-workers were most likely to want to leave their organisations. Women who considered leaving their companies were also likely to consider leaving the field altogether.

What can managers do to keep women in engineering?

A smaller 2018 Harvard Business Review study by Dulini Fernando, Laurie Cohen, and Joanne Duberlay focused on what helps keep women in the industry. In summary, their findings:

• Stretch assignments where women could go beyond their existing skills levels instilled confidence, enhanced networks, and improved profiles.

• According to the researchers: “While confidence is recognised as important for women engineers to persist, it is spoken about as an intrinsic trait. Our research suggests that it is significantly shaped by each individual’s social experiences in the workplace. Confidence needs to be built.”

• Detailed, personalised feedback helped women to overcome uncertainties.

• An inclusive immediate work group appears to act as a buffer to hostile organisational cultures. The report stated, “The emotional support women received from colleagues during difficult times was more than short-term fix-it [and] fundamentally changed the way they felt about the organisation.”

• The presence of role models who demonstrated a balance between work responsibilities and parental responsibilities. The women who didn’t have such role models wondered about their longevity in the profession.

Some particular highlights from the report:

• “Managers who think, ‘I would really like to help, but this just isn’t my fight’ need to think again. There is plenty they can do.”

• “Enabling people to imagine that their organisations could look different is the first step”.

How to bring imagination to life

What these studies show is that the support women receive from their colleagues in the workforce is absolutely crucial, and the workplace culture can be the difference between keeping them in the industry or cutting them out of it.

Based on these studies, here are some ideas for what employers might consider to make their women in the engineering workforce maintain their love for the industry:

• Facilitate supportive relationships within immediate work units.

• Take the time to observe performance and provide detailed, personalised, and constructive feedback.

• Give women the opportunity to step up into stretch projects. Give them the opportunity to lead, make new connections, and challenge their own limiting beliefs.

• Hold yourself (no matter your gender) and others to account in how you uphold or challenge existing industry or organisational power structures that limit or exclude any demographic.

• Think about the proactive ways that women can be given support and how you can bring to life their suggestions for how to change how your organisation looks in the future.

• Think about how your workplace culture can extrinsically build confidence within women vs assuming that it is something built intrinsically within the woman.

• Think about how you can break down the “hegemonic masculine culture of engineering” and support the women who are imagining something different for the future.

• Ask! Ask for ideas about what you can do better as an employer and a leader. Ask for the three things that would make the organisation a better place for any woman to work. Once those are in place, ask for more. Ask (an anonymised forum may be a safer space for this) for specific examples of where women have felt unsupported, excluded, harassed, isolated, subject to stereotyping, or treated as less than their male counterparts in any way – and then ask what can and should be done to prevent those experiences being had ever again in your organisation.

• Finally, put ego aside. It is very easy for people in power to feel they are being personally criticised or attacked when power structures are questioned and work is being done to dismantle them. Remember that these structures are entrenched and are much bigger and older than any one of us – if you have benefitted from them and never considered the downsides, it is not an indictment on you or your character. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”