It’s difficult to know exactly what to write in response to the letter by Cliff Billington in the February 2019 issue of The Structural Engineer, owing to my conflicting desires. I would on the one hand like my words on the matter to be printed, but not to the exclusion of any writers who have things to say on the matter, crucially those who are not men.
I should like to examine a few key passages of Mr Billington’s which I have issues with:
“A recent Viewpoint article stated that ‘One of the biggest problems in our profession is a lack of gender balance’. Since when?”
Not being an expert on the detailed history of our profession, the most specific answer I can give to this question is “since the very beginning”. The idea that any profession could possibly be somehow improved by doing nothing to reduce the exclusion of half the population is utter madness.
Then we arrive at a passage which I expect will inflame many, many people:
“Maybe young women simply do not want to be engineers - standing in mud and being cold, and wet, on site, in foul weather - and would rather embark on a different career?”
Maybe we should begin by not presuming to know the inner workings of the minds of an entire group of people? Maybe that presumption is incredibly offensive, and is fuelled by hurtful, inaccurate, lazy stereotypes of the worst kind?
Maybe we should consider the systemic barriers in all our workplaces that inhibit the career progression of women? Maybe we should start by examining our long-held prejudices, which have been left unchecked to spread like a disease over generations and are now finally being exposed across many fields, from science and academia, to the media.
With few exceptions, the smartest people I have worked with as a colleague, or worked with as part of a design team, or studied with in my university days are women. We must do everything we can to promote gender equality for the sake of all, and not be distracted by spurious arguments about failings in the “whizz-kid[s] with finite element analysis or advanced computer packages”. Such problems may be real, but they are a fixable thin end of a relatively new wedge, as opposed to a glaring, fundamental error the entire construction industry has been making en masse for decades.
I would have liked my first letter to Verulam to have been more positive, but I could not let such outdated views go unchallenged.