Some thoughts from our CEO, Jan Peters for #INWED19
Jan Peters spoke at the National Physical Laboratory on 20 June 2019 and explored historic women and reasons for shifting the language we use to be inclusive.
The blockbuster film Hidden Figures blew away the image of (women) mathematicians and coders. Suddenly they were clever, sassy and stylish. These were people who made a difference against the odds. How come so few people had heard of them?
The Women’s Engineering Society is 100 years old in 1919 and I’ve been involved in some way since I was a PhD student at Southampton University. I soon started doing outreach on solar energy. For much of that time it’s been hard to be loud, proud and justify the existence of WES, its name and its relevance. When I repeat and share the stories of how so many WES founders and members have contributed to getting us to where we are today I am indeed proud to share my small part in that. And to enjoy honouring their energy and sacrifices.
So to be clear, WES is a society for people who share a passion about engineering and the opportunities it affords women. It was set up at a time when we were excluded from the professional institutions – important because in those days that is how one had one’s work published. The society and its phenomenal membership have spent a century challenging the status quo and the acceptance of what it means to be an engineer, not a ‘woman engineer’.
The language we use is important. Words play a pivotal role in how we think and behave. It’s a vital link from philosophy to an artefact. And, I believe, is a critical and underused tool in creating a shift to an inclusive workspace. As women, we have been complicit in the fudge to keep women out. We have bought into the meritocracy, the myths and to some extent folklore around women being wired differently, of the meritocracy. It’s my assertion that the very excellence of engineering and innovation have been compromised. None of us, ever, want to be appointed as a token woman. But do we ever question the standards of merit that fails to think about the impact of seatbelts on foetuses, breast tissue or female sternums? The standards that permit research into medicines for only one sex?
Until recently the push for more women in engineering has been driven largely by women. Careers have been lost to this effort: excited and distracted by outreach, enthused by the potential of Athena SWAN to make a difference; or standing up against bad behaviour.
How many times have we heard that more diverse teams are better teams? Research from the European Commission also found this but then asserted that “places with greater team diversity had better workplace environments”. I am in favour of building and supporting diverse teams. I am in support of a 50:50 approach. I am not in favour of the expectation piled onto women that they will make engineering inclusive. Engineering products and services will be better if we all consider co-workers and users more rigorously. It is a responsibility for us all.
What can you do now to make a difference?
- Walking between meetings: slow down, look up and NOTICE people. Say hello.
- In meetings, have a structured approach to inviting people to contribute. NOTICE people who need more time to contribute and before the next meeting ask them if they have any thoughts they’d like to contribute.
- Actively listen to people. Specifically, let people know you have listened by asking a question. Try level 1 and level 2 questions: Level 1: empathising and nodding. Level 2: start your questions with “What” and ask about how they felt, what they did, what difference they’d like to see and how. Remember Notice. Listen. Question. Demonstrate you value their contribution.
- Sharing the cognitive burden borne by under-represented people: appreciate and understand that people with caring responsibilities may have 50 things firing through their brains when you ask if they can attend a meeting. It’s not that they aren’t interested, just trying to see if it will work out.