The Vagenda

Female Engineers: Too Fit For The Role

Limor “Ladyada” Fried was the first female engineer to grace the cover of Wired in March 2011
I’ve been working as an engineer for a year and a half now – since I graduated – and I love it. I’m lucky enough to work for a great company with a relatively high proportion of intelligent, motivated women for role models. But when a site-based role came up a couple of months ago and was offered to me, I umm-ed and ahh-ed about accepting, despite site roles being coveted in my company (they are considered the best/only way to get the essential experience needed to progress).
I aired my concerns to my manager: is it worth the hassle? Won’t I face discrimination and harassment for being young and female?
“No, no,” he assured me, with all the confidence and bewilderment of someone who has never in their life had to consider this question.
A few months later and I can tell you he was very, very wrong.
Think back to the last time you were cat-called at from a building site as you walked past it. Now imagine walking back and forth past that site for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and you have a good approximation of my life. Working on a construction site is brilliant in terms of how much you can learn as an engineer – but the sexism I face is, in a word, exhausting.

On my very first day I received an email sent to me by mistake from the man in charge of the whole operation, asking his mate if I was ‘fit’ (I can only assume the intricacies of replying/forwarding emails elude him, despite being responsible for a multi-million-pound construction project). This pretty much solidified my worst fears: that the first thing I was to be judged on in my new role was my appearance, rather than my competence, since I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean ‘fit for the role’ (and FYI, no-one looks good in high vis orange) – but of course I was advised by everyone to ‘laugh it off’. I was forbidden to reply by my boss, who instead replied on my behalf telling him how ‘upset’ it had made me and how I ‘wished to be spared any reminder of the incident’. GREAT. So glad you have my back, bro. Just a shame that you had my back in that ‘taking away your voice and speaking for you’ way so beloved of complete jerks.

An example of the sort of dialogue that follows me around during my day-to-day tasks at work: I’m frequently asked to expose myself (‘Get your rat out’ is a particular favourite. I’ve been informed it’s Scouse slang, and that apparently, if we were on a southern site they’d be yelling, ‘Get your gammon out’. The mind boggles.) And I think I can now say with a degree of certainty that the consensus is that, yes, most of them would probably fuck me (‘I’d do her’ is reiterated with astounding frequency). This sort of constant commentary is absolutely detrimental to my work; most of the time, it feels like being an attraction in the zoo.

Last week I was out inspecting some welds when a welder stopped me and asked me what a lovely girl like me was doing in a place like this – ‘and not in the kitchen’, while his clearly enlightened mates buckled over at the sheer hilarity of the joke. My retort – ‘Isn’t it crazy, next they’ll be giving us the vote!’ – I suspect was lost on him during his interspersal of ‘cooking and cleaning’ mimes with demonstrably more vulgar gestures.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that I am fully inducted and have a massive label on a highly conspicuous hard hat to prove it, I was stopped by a supervisor the other day who asked what I was doing ‘out here, all on my own’.

On the more bizarre side, someone once sang ‘Isn’t she lovely?’ at me from a scaffold and someone else offered me a bite of his chocolate as I crawled through a boiler (I declined).

It baffles me. If you didn’t know better you’d think that outside of work these men are kept in a woman-less vacuum located somewhere in the 1950s. But they must leave at some point and see wives/daughters/sisters/mothers/random women in the street etc, in the real world, right? Seeing a woman can’t be that much of a special event in their lives, surely? Or is that not the point at all? Is the point less about novelty or even sex, and much more about straightforward intimidation?

What’s even more depressing is that I know now the men in my company discuss the harassment that I face on-site when I’m not there (I have a secret ally who I occasionally ply with cocktails and he tells me things he shouldn’t). They discuss the best way for them to deal with people hollering at me when they are with me (should they intervene on my behalf? Would that make the situation worse?) But, strangely, the one idea that has never occurred to anyone is to discuss it with me. In fact, whenever extreme frustration causes me to bring it up in the workplace, everyone looks a bit uncomfortable, rolls their eyes and changes the subject.

The sexism within this direct company is more insidious. One colleague apologises directly to me every time he swears in my presence. This has the unwanted side effect of adding HOURS onto meetings of a particularly heated nature – and, I hope goes without saying, is entirely unnecessary.

I thought twice about publishing this article, because I’m aware that it could put off a cohort of lady-engineers (otherwise known as, y’know, engineers) which is so desperately needed. A fuckton of girls in hard hats, to the point that it’s not a comment worthy sight any more, is my vision of the Engineering Utopia. But for now, a construction site is a strange peek back in time into a workplace with no woman.

As for the man in charge who sent an email asking his friend if I was ‘fit’, I actually ignored my boss and did send my own reply – a sarcastic offer of tuition in the ancient and complex art of the email – only for him to respond with, ‘Touche. I very much look forward to our first meeting’, which made me want to scrub my skin off. Did he think that we were FLIRTING?! Is that what he thinks this is?! Amongst all the obvious personality flaws, he also has a small badger growing on his chin.And I’ll be damned if a man with a bad attitude and an anthropomorphic chin is going to prevent me from doing any job whatsoever.



14 thoughts on “Female Engineers: Too Fit For The Role

  1. There happens to be a not-so-ancient piece in my company who’s known for being ‘funny’ racist and brings a great deal of sexist thinking to the workplace. I’ve asked the other women if they’ve dealt with sexist comments from him but no one’s concurred, it goes a bit quiet in fact, or gets ignored. I should probably report him but so far I’ve dealt with it by upping the levels of aggression a few times and it keeps him in check for a while.

    Anyway, one time, he swore and then immediately said “Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t say that in front of a lady”, I looked him in the eye and asked “Why not?”. I’ve sworn a few times with him around and he was shocked the first time, exclaimed “You swear! How can you swear?!” to which I again looked him in the eye and asked why I couldn’t? It’s not like he doesn’t know swearwords or they hurt his sensibilities.

    You would know your workplace and industry better than I do certainly but I think as a general point, being blunt and speaking up, even if there’s an uncomfortable silence, helps. A teensy bit perhaps, but helps.

    However, I still don’t know how to deal with salespeople who won’t to talk to me but will address the other (junior) employee who knows less about the business, but is male.

  2. A relative of mine who works in an elderly care home has relayed stories of the female clients popping their heads through the kitchen doors to catch sight of the handsome young men slaving away inside.

    Certainly not as soul-crushing for the skivvies as it is for you, but still a mildly amusing and slightly related anecdote.

  3. Having worked in site offices I completely understand the experiences relayed here, I found that my swearing increased tenfold to counteract the constant apologises in meetings (so frustrating and patronising) and I had to form a thick skin, whenever I made sarcastic comments back to sexist ones, I would be called ‘touchy’ or asked if I was on the blob or (god forbid) ‘a feminist’. I was lucky to have some great colleagues (male and female) who I could unload on and who supported me and judged me on my abilities not my arse, which made it a lot easier. Having said that the experience I got was great, I learned a lot, including to deal with people professionally despite their lack of it! and it helped me to continue to expect and speak out about equality and fairness in the workplace. Don’t be put off but go in prepared

  4. I really didn’t expect conditions in the UK (right?) to be at the same level or worse than the ones I see at work in Portugal.
    I work in metalworks in a plant that makes steel wind-towers. Not only are some engineers and Health&Safety personnel women (such as my current boss), but also on the floor, where I have female colleagues as young as 20 or as old as (I suspect and don’t ask) late fifties and early sixties still welding and grinding away like the rest of us…. Sorry if this is misogynist or offensive to you, but austerity or not, the sight of elderly women holding a grinder or crouched down welding for 9 or 10 hours straight absolutely revolting (I think the same for men that age and older, but in our national culture it’s kind of expected of men).

    The slimy comments are made between the men and NEVER directed at the woman.
    Our company policy is simple: if a woman complains she was harassed, there isn’t even some questioning or sort of investigation, you’re fired on the spot (I don’t know about the office people, as we call them…)

    When you hear some of the comments you’d think these guys have been stuck on a boat with no sight of shore or women for months, rather than having got up a couple of hours ago next to their spouses…so no difference there, really.

    But the idea of being catcalled on site, being asked directly to show your….(no idea on what constitutes a gammon, but can sort of guess) is nothing short of shocking to me.
    I really thought conditions like we have here happen because we’re a machist, latino, illiterate country still crippled by the ghost of decades of dictatorship and repression, but finding out things are as bad (or actually worse) in the UK really saddens me.
    I guess we foreigners still see the UK tinted by the image of the late 19th century Victorian beacon for an idea of civilization and progressive thinking….

  5. Wow. Just wow. I remember being in the army, long ago (in Germany), before women served in the army, and I guess it was a bit like that (I wasn’t there when women first started serving alongside men, thus I’m guessing). It’s a sadly impoverished state of being for guys, which facilitates a kind of mental inbreeding. I believe the only way to break it up and bring in some fresh air is through people like you.
    I am very impressed by what you are putting yourself through, and annoyed to be sharing a Y chromosome with some of the … ‘colleagues’ … you describe. Thank you for sharing. I am the father of two lovely daughters, and women like you are making the world a better place for them. Thank you for that.

  6. From my Dad (an engineer). He couldn’t post it from his computer for some reason, so I have copy and pasted. I really hope this gets sorted, and good luck with everything!

    “My daughter has just forwarded this onto me since I am male and an engineer who is often on site in a consultative role. I am really disappointed to hear of your situation. I have been working on sites since the mid-80s and your experience would have been common then. When I was a junior engineer I remember being called a ‘spunky cunt’ by a project manager for no apparent reason, I also worked with a colleague and he was a vegetarian when this got out onto the site he was given a really hard time with his sexuality being questioned etc… as if that mattered anyway. I really thought this type of ribald, disgusting behaviour had stopped. I had encouraged my daughter into engineering since it has given me good pay and continual work for the last 25 years, but after your experience I am glad she has opted for a more arts based degree. But what can you do about it…..the perpetrators of the comments and such that you have received should be disciplined and if they worked for me would be instantly dismissed (I now employ people). But what can you do…. if your managers are giving you no support then ask them one simple question which is “In your opinion are the comments i am receiving on site acceptable?” If he/she answers yes then you should refer them to your companies or the main contractors equality statements and own standards often in your employment contract there will be a clause about equality, if you have no joy here take it a level higher but always quote company policy about equality to frame your points because then you cannot be criticized for following company policy. If they ask you want you want done you can tell them that it is not up to you but up to the company to sort out the situation since it is in contravention to their own standards; by asking you what you want to be done is not resolving a situation that you have not caused. I really hope this gets resolved for you and wish you all the best in your career.”

  7. When I was sent this article I covered my eyes in embarrassment as a student of engineering. I wonder if the 12-15% (by my estimation) women in the first year of my course will have to deal with such levels of blatant harassment after graduation.

    I finally realise why some people accuse women of not putting themselves forward for opportunities to the same degree men do. Who would volunteer for to be cat-called all day?! Work cites have always been a haven for the same people year after year to form cliques and to quote “mentally in-breed” themselves a few decades into the past.

    If its any help, you simply being there and bringing some (god forbid!) variety to the workplace might just make MY field a little less embarrassing to call my own.

  8. I’m afraid the responsibility here lies with your superiors, the site foreman or the contractor. Whomsoever’s responsibility it is to manage the site or workers there. Offenders should be immediately called out, given verbal and then written notice, and if they continue their offences, they should be fired. This kind of thing only happens because it is allowed to by those in charge.

    This is sexual harassment and it is absolutely illegal. You should be engage with your superiors and let them know that this is NOT OK by you. You should not be expected to shoulder this or engage with the harassers yourself but it might not hurt if you had a word with some of them. That being said it is a delicate matter. You are superior to them, you are an authority figure, you might not want to lose respect by complaining about some careless comments. The fact is they probably won’t respect you if you allow them to continue to call you names.

    Also consider that they are threatened by you. The name calling might be an attempt to keep from acknowledging your superiority over them. Their precious little boys club at work which they have comfortably resided in for most of their lives is crumbling around them. They’re doing their best to hang on to something that is no longer there.

    I’d like to believe that this doesn’t happen as much in the south and I honestly believe it doesn’t. The culture in London is somewhat advanced from that up north. Women are more commonly in positions of authority and people can’t get away with bad behaviour as easily. I might be wrong though, being a man it’s hard to say how it really is.

    As for the email, you boss probably did the worst possible thing. He portrayed you as some kind of frail, emotional, delicate creature prone to fainting at any given opportunity. The appropriate course of action would have been to immediately give the man a stern talking to for his inappropriate behaviour. As an aside, I doubt that the email was sent to everyone by accident.

    Anyway, I would encourage you to simply stop putting up with the behaviour. In the past I have seen people meet with success by treating them like children. “Do you think it’s nice to say something like that?” “Would you like it if your daughter had to put up with this?” etc… There are many ways to try and deal with it but at the end of the day, if someone is brazen enough to crow “Get your rat out!” they should be being asked to leave the site and be getting a written warning within 24 hours.

    You shouldn’t have to deal with this but as a trailblazer you destined to have it a little harder than those that come after.

    Kind Regards,
    A Fellow Engineer.

  9. A parent who watches my weekly show “Ask an Engineer” emailed in, he said his daughter watches each week, I have many engineers on the show with me who happen to female, his young daughter asked “Do boys do engineering too?”. We are what we celebrate. Keep the hard hat on & keep publishing :)

  10. My wife works for one of the larger names in heavy construction in the UK, okay she is on the quality management side rather than being an engineering function, but she works on site on a weekly basis and she has to challenge the trades. I have been surprised at how little direct sexism she has witnessed, but undoubtedly there remains indirect sexism which she struggles with regularly.

    Your article surprises me because of the lack of support you receive from not only the site management but also your HQ management. Had such blatantly inappropriate things been said to my wife I am sure they would have regretted it. I think at the latest at your next review you need to formally raise the issue of sexual discrimination, if not sooner. Your company clearly allows an unprofessional atmosphere which must extend in to other areas of the business.

    I want to show you my support, I know I am posting the experiences of my wife which may seem itself patronising, but I am a senior technology manager and through my career I have tried to increase recruitment of women into technology. So reading experiences like this really disturbs me.

    I wish you the best.


  11. I’m think I rolled my eyes and shook my head so many times while reading, I think I may have to lay down. Big props to you lady. I would have handed out a lot of fuck you’s and punches in the face by now. I understand your situation. I’m an engineer in the utility industry and going on site at a power plant is always exciting (cuz it’s a freakin power plant so its awesome) but anxiety filled (cuz some people are jerks as you have already talked about at length).

    I find the “I will find out where you live and will kill you in your sleep” stare helps. But seriously your boss is not doing his job. I’ve worked with many men (I’m actually the only woman engineer in my group) who have evolved and do not treat their female co-workers like shit. The company as a whole has failed. Ya I could see one or two people saying shitting things but then their superior should tell them it’s unprofessional and to shut the hell up.

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