Men as Allies

Article by Adam Duckett

Adam Duckett asks what are men doing to help support gender diversity and inclusion?

WE asked some of our regular contributors what fresh angles we could take to help celebrate and raise awareness. One reply read: “I often go away with a positive feeling from hearing stories about amazing women, but equally with the weight and burden that women have to ‘fix’ this. I’m keen to hear what men think of this, and what some men are doing to support gender diversity and inclusion.”

With that in mind we asked male engineers about their experiences of supporting female engineers, and asked female engineers for positive examples of the support they’ve seen, but also what more can be done.

First up, Parminder Bansal, who is a Project Leader in Digital Therapeutics at AstraZeneca. “In a previous role, I was the manager for a team of process engineers. Nearly half of the team were women. Everyone was treated equally, regardless of gender or background. I don’t believe I made any kind of distinction. Work was allocated to the engineer most capable, and development opportunities were aligned with individual objectives and goals.”

Mark Sutton, who is an IChemE Trustee and Business Development Director at Johnson Matthey, says that in his first job more than 30 years ago he had no female engineering colleagues.

“This did leave a lasting impression on me and a feeling that where I could, I wanted to support change. As a line manager, I have always felt it important to support female engineers and scientists in personal development planning and finding stretch tasks and assignments to gain new experience that will enable future career progression.”

When it comes to hiring, Sutton notes that more care needs to be taken to prevent deterring women from applying.

He asked female colleagues why they had not applied for a job that they had previously shown interest in, and found that in each case that they felt they did not meet all of the skills and competences listed in the job description.

“While some of these were required, many were desirable, and there was no requirement to have absolutely all of them from day one.”

He says a higher proportion of women than men will not put themselves forward for roles if they do not meet all of the competences. Sutton now takes extra care and advice when drafting job descriptions to help overcome this.

Asked what more can men do, Bansal says: “This is a hard question to answer without seeming to come across as patronising, or trivialising the issue. Or seeming to come across that women somehow need the permission of men. Because no-one needs someone else’s permission to be treated equally.”

Workplace culture

Studies show that women leave engineering at much higher rates than men. Harvard Business Review has reported that causes include overt stressors like gender discrimination or harassment.

One of our respondents said she has personally witnessed a toxic workplace culture, and knows a female engineer who quit the profession due to the sexual harassment they suffered.

More subtle stressors include being assigned so-called “gendered tasks” in which women are given fewer technical, problem-solving tasks, which can be perceived as higher status, and are instead given more “softer” tasks and roles involving, for example, communication and relationship building.

Bansal says: “Men should do more to speak up when they observe any form of discrimination. Men should learn to be more empathetic to the issues facing women and recognise the situations where women can be discriminated [against]. So be more proactive, forewarned and forearmed. It is only by tackling this issue together that we can embed equality, embrace diversity and have a more inclusive society.”

“One thing I know I am guilty of is speaking over people, not just women. I’m not sure if this is a uniquely male trait but what I am trying to say is that we need to be conscious of our actions and recognise how they affect other people. So, give each other space and, not just hear, but truly listen to other opinions and ideas, regardless of where or from whomever these come.”

Offering support

Jane Atkinson, IChemE Trustee and Executive Director of Engineering, Automation and Projects at Bilfinger UK, says: “Bring the person who sits on the sideline into the conversation. Engage with them and show interest and encourage them. After all, there is one thing we all have in common: we are all engineers.”

Adriana Vargas-Colwill, Energy Innovation Project Manager at the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, says she would like to see more male colleagues support workplace diversity initiatives.

“I think people believe things are fine and there are no diversity issues around them. However, by being open-minded and taking part in initiatives you can help increase your own awareness about issues that affect others.”

We asked for stories where male engineers had directly made a positive impact. Helen Hanks, Plant Process Engineer at Air Products, was in her school library when she found an IChemE postcard promoting chemical engineering. Through a series of serendipitous steps, Helen was introduced to a chemical engineer who wrote to IChemE to ask if it would make her an honorary student.

“I believe he even paid the membership dues for me. I kept in touch with him to let him know my career progress until sadly he passed away a few years ago. I don’t know if this retired engineer was specifically setting out to help advance the careers of women, but he certainly helped mine.”

Vargas-Colwill says early in her career, before taking on a role she had been promoted to, the male engineer she was replacing organised a meeting with her to share how much he was being paid.

“His salary was substantially higher than mine, and since I ended up taking over his role I asked the engineering manager to increase my salary accordingly. The manager was of the opinion that I did not have the experience to receive the full matching salary, however he did still increase my salary substantially. I’ll never forget that young male engineer who thought it was fair for two people who do the same job and have the same level of responsibility to receive the same salary. He was a great example of someone honestly trying to achieve parity.”

Trust & flexibility

Christina Phang, Director of the IChemE Malaysia Board and Adjunct Lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Petronas, says: “One of the CEOs I worked for appointed me as country manager for Malaysia when I was expecting my third child. It was a clear message that motherhood is not an impediment to a woman’s career growth. Many years later, another regional CEO had allowed flexibility in my work hours and work location, which allowed me to continue to lead the growth of a successful business while having to care for my 9-year old son who was facing major anxiety issues and needed his mother around to help him cope.”

Flexibility is a topic that came up time and again. We asked what more can organisations, including IChemE, do to support female engineers.

Atkinson says: “It saddens me when female engineers go off to have a family and then struggle to get back into our sector. We are short of engineers full stop, so why can’t we find a way to encourage these already highly-qualified women back into our profession?”

Hanks says: “My employer recently created a “returnship” career programme for prospective employees who have been absent from the workforce for an extended period of time for any reason. While it hasn’t specifically benefited me, I am very excited about it on behalf of friends and colleagues who have struggled to find employment after taking time out from the workforce.”

Phang says: “Our male colleagues need to realise that while their female counterparts may have chosen to come back to the workforce fully, there is always a part within us that challenges our maternal instinct as to whether we can be a devoted mother to our children as well as being the best at our jobs.”

She says that small gestures, such as providing a private space for working mums to express and store milk will encourage young mothers to press on. “It is it is important that our bosses – male or female – and our colleagues trust us to deliver what is expected. They may need to slightly adjust how things are done. Our commitment to excellence should not be questioned.”

Vargas-Colwill says: “I would like to see opportunities for flexible working made available more widely. This includes part-time and shared jobs. I understand that companies are businesses that need to operate in a way that enables them to make a profit. However, in this day and age, and especially since the prevalence of home working due to the pandemic, it has been shown that people benefit from a balance between work and life. That balance can be given by permitting more flexibility of work.”

Hanks wants parental leave policies and attitudes to be as equal as possible. “We want our male colleagues to take all the leave to which they are entitled, to be with their children. This helps normalise taking parental leave for everyone and lessens the perceived ‘career penalty’ paid by women when they do so.”

“I am very hopeful about the future for diversity and inclusion. In the span of my career – about 14 years – I can already see a huge difference from diversity and inclusion being just a line in a corporate social responsibility document to companies really trying to change processes and outcomes. I also see customers and investors now considering diversity and inclusion performance when making commercial choices.”

What can IChemE do?

IChemE has begun to develop an equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) strategy (see p28). We asked what actions members would like to see IChemE take.

Vargas-Colwill says: “I would like to see ED&I embedded in everything the Institution does and that it gets to the same level of importance as safety.”

Phang says: “Role models are very important – IChemE should consider profiling successful female engineers.”

Atkinson says: “I recommend reading the Engineering Skills for the Future: The 2013 Perkins Review Revisited published by the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2019.

It states that 57% of female engineers drop off the engineering register of professional engineers under the age of 45 compared with 17% of men. We need to do better, and it is an area where I would like IChemE to lead the way.”

Martin Currie, Chair of IChemE’s Water Special Interest Group, said he often felt paralysed about discussing diversity issues and suspects a lot of other white males also fear saying the wrong thing or coming across as patronising. Female peers gently reassured him and helped him overcome these insecurities. In short, they explained that it is better to be an ally of any form than to sit in silence. In particular, he pointed out the unconscious bias training that is being developed as part of IChemE’s emerging ED&I strategy. This will be made available to volunteers and members in 2021.

Despite these trepidations, Currie says: “People like me need to recognise that there is a genuine gender diversity and inclusion problem. If we’re not actively doing something to redress the balance then we are actively part of the problem. For committee chairs and other such gatekeepers we must recognise that for diversity and inclusion to increase, we need to actively seek out and give a stage to diverse talent, as well as nurturing diverse nascent talent.”

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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