The #ilooklikeanengineer hashtag may be ‘destroying the tech nerd stereotype’ as we speak, but 1 in 5 women still expect to encounter patronising male colleagues should they have the temerity to enter a so-called ‘man’s’ profession, such as marine engineering or even brewing.
If you haven’t seen it, the hashtag is a backlash to how some sections of social media welcomed an advert featuring Isis Wenger, a full-stack (I’ll be honest, I had to look that up) platform engineer (and that), who posed for an advert for her employer OneLogin. People didn’t believe she was a proper engineer because of how she looked.
She took to Medium and penned an intelligent response, which then spawned the viral backlash we’re currently in.
— Isis Wenger Anchalee (@IsisAnchaleeW) August 4, 2015
With the volume and influence of online tech publications and the fact that the industry is typically well engaged and represented on social media, this strong response to petty sexism is as predictable as the initial sexism was depressingly inevitable.
But will a hashtag really change the entrenched cultures that foster this sort of daft nonsense?
Research conducted by Stormline – a manufacturer of rain gear who count marine engineers, trawler captains and marine biologists among their customer base – found that the macho atmosphere and the expectation of being patronised are actually putting women off entering the very industries where they’re needed most. 1 in 5 of the sweet, helpless things expected to be patronised if they entered a male-dominated industry like fishing, construction or engineering.
By 2022, the UK will need at least 1.82 million engineers, scientists and technology professionals, according to Dame Prof. Ann Dowling, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. As it stands, fewer than 130,000 of those will be women.
There’s a definite engineering skills gap. But more worryingly, there’s a gender gap. Only 7% of engineers in the UK are women and that figure is going to get lower, given the number of female engineering apprentices currently working.
More pronounced than the under-representation in engineering is the apparent lack of desire among females to pursue engineering in the first place. As many as half of mixed state schools have zero girls taking physics at A-level. Single sex schools have a slightly higher hit rate.
Genevieve Kurilec is a commercial fishing captain and runs the Chix Who Fish Facebook group and website. She believes women are a balancing presence in dangerous, macho environments.
“In my experience women tend to be more safety conscious and detail oriented, which makes us an excellent asset to any crew working in a dangerous occupation but there will always be men in society who are patronizing towards women.
“The camaraderie found in the majority of the commercial fishing industry far outweighs the petty few who do not recognise the capabilities of women employed in marine occupations.
“If you do your job, put in your time and take care of your vessel you will earn the respect of your fellow fishermen, gender notwithstanding.”
Caroline Livesey is a geotechnical design consultant and often works on engineering projects in male-dominated environments. She believes attitudes to women’s work in general create barriers to participation in the workplace.
“I think societal bias tends to pigeonhole women and men into specific roles. The knock on impact of this is that both genders are inclined to assume women cannot make good engineers as it is not a role that we naturally see them in.
“The downside of this is that women continue to have to break down those barriers in order to progress in this industry. On a day-to-day basis for females in civil engineering is that they have to work far harder than their male counterparts to earn respect, to progress, and to be trusted technically.”
It’s not just male co-workers in the tech sector that are patronising though. A separate study conducted by a London removals firm revealed that over half of men in the UK have done their “tradesman voice” when speaking to contractors. Most admitted they did it to ‘connect’ with tradespeople visiting their home.
“Fancy a brew, geezer?”
Linguistics expert Enna Bartlett from marketing firm Venn Digital has a theory on why we do this.
The way in which you talk is known as ‘register’. People tend to vary their register based on the purpose of what they’re doing or the social setting they are in. This is called ‘accommodation.’ You can over-accommodate though. If you change how you speak too much then the person you’re speaking to will notice that that’s probably not your normal way of speaking. Quite often over-accommodation can come across as patronising.
Moral of the story, whether you’re talking a highly qualified female engineer or the window cleaner, just be nice.