Women engineers face discrimination, but not in the way you think

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day and as such I received a company-wide email from the bowels of HR telling me I should respect women for the job they do.  Which I thought I already did, but obviously not.

I met up for lunch with a former colleague of mine who now works for another company, an intelligent, pleasant, and competent female engineer.  In the morning she had been called together with other female engineers in her office by one of the high-flying engineering managers, also a woman.  The manager announced that female engineers made up “only” 11% of all engineers in the company and they were looking to increase that to 30%.  My colleague, to her credit, told me she wasn’t very happy about this.

She was right to be unhappy.  For whatever reason, few women study Mechanical, Civil, and Electrical Engineering compared to men.  As such, oil companies don’t have as many female engineers in the pool of graduates from which to draw recruits from.  Now it might well be that an overarching patriarchy or misogynistic practices dissuade bright young women from studying engineering, but one would be hard pressed to explain why Chemical Engineering degrees see far more women participants than the other engineering disciplines.  And this explains why in Process Engineering (and the related discipline of Safety Engineering) one finds plenty of women.  If there is a patriarchy preventing women from becoming well-paid and successful engineers, they’ve overlooked the Process department.

My position on this is that in 2016 women are fully informed as to the degree choices on offer and they select a course according to their own personal preferences.  For whatever reason, women choose biological sciences, law, medicine, and chemical engineering more than they do mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering.  So if an oil company is selecting engineers, the recruitment pool will contain more men than women and hence more men will be recruited than women.  And it’s as simple as that.

As such, the attempts of companies to achieve arbitrary percentage targets of female engineers are completely wrong-headed.  I understand that Norway is the leader in attempting to achieve a 50:50 split of male to female engineers, and as such any female engineer who graduates is guaranteed a job (due to the scarcity of female engineering graduates) no matter how dim she is, at the expense of possibly much brighter and more deserving men.  It also does a huge disservice to those many female engineers who are more than capable of holding their own in the company of their male colleagues, as people may – and do – assume they are there simply because they are female.  Competent female engineers don’t need the assistance of arbitrary quotas to succeed.

That said – and this occurred to me during the discussion with my friend over lunch – female engineers probably are discriminated against in terms of career progression and promotion, only not in the way that a company HR department would acknowledge even if it was pointed out to them.  I have argued as long as this blog has been running, and for a few decades before, that promotion in the modern oil industry – particularly in oil companies – is done in part by a combination of craven arselicking of the senior managers and sheep-like compliance with every request or initiative from on high no matter how stupid (also required is a willingness to backstab your colleagues and shit all over your subordinates, but I’ll leave them aside because women are as good at these as men, if not better).  The formal term given to the toadying behaviour expected of those who desire a career in an oil company is “networking”, which falsely implies that you are merely getting to know useful people at all levels of the organisation.  Networking, when used in the context of it being essential for your career progression, means worming your way into a superior’s good books such that he or she will put in a good word for you with other managers in return for not having had to spend hard-earned cash on Andrex for the last few years.  This “networking” normally takes the form of lunches, coffees, office chats, and socialising between those with career ambitions and the superiors who hold they keys to their success, and anyone who doesn’t engage in these activities can forget about getting a promotion ahead of someone that does.  Merely being experienced, competent, conscientious, accurate, dependable, and pleasant counts for absolutely nothing if one isn’t prepared to fellate, flatter, and felch the hierarchy in the course of chasing a decent position.  It is important to note at this point that a subordinate who has the full support of his hierarchy must be seen in their eyes as harmless, and no threat to those above him or their interests.  Very important.

When I think about it, looking back – a glance around the canteen, a walk through the corridors peeping sideways into the offices, a survey of who is talking with whom at a company function, the people working unnecessarily late – it is almost always men networking with other men, or groups consisting mainly of men with one or two women.  Rarely do you see an all-female group, or a mainly-female group, stood in a circle around a superior fighting each other to make the best impression.  Women, when they speak amongst one another, rarely do so in a group larger than three or four.  You’ll see the occasional woman outmanoeuvre the men in a mixed group, but it appears to my untrained eye that men are a lot better at the self-depreciating remarks, insincere laughter, and other social tricks which serve to render them harmless in the eyes of a superior than women are.  In the course of courtship men often find themselves playing the role of a harmless buffoon, believing that being seen as no threat will help get them laid (hint: it won’t).  But how often do you see women playing the role of harmless buffoon?  Never.  Some women might flatter a male superior in order to manipulate him sexually, but rarely in a manner which makes her appear craven, malleable, and of lower value.  In fact, women who are trying to get ahead tend to come across as quite the opposite of harmless, i.e. fucking dangerous!

So my theory is that female engineers are not as willing or able as their male counterparts to put in the weeks and months of toadying behaviour in order to generate the impression they are obedient, docile, and of no threat whatsoever in the eyes of their hierarchy, especially if the superiors in question are male.  Therefore, when the coveted positions come up, it is mainly the men who have the bosses putting in a good word on their behalf.

The solution to this problem is simple, and doesn’t involve idiotic, arbitrary quotas of female engineers: stop promoting people based on their being craven arselickers, and start promoting people based on competence and timely, accurate delivery.  Then women could compete freely with men and the best positions would go to the most deserving of either sex.  What’s more, the beauty of this solution is that it will be of great benefit to the entire industry even if my theory is totally and utterly wrong!

Quotas not necessary.

16 Responses to Women engineers face discrimination, but not in the way you think

  1. dearieme says:

    Long ago, Esso seemed to be the first sizeable company in the British oil-&-petrochemicals businesses to realise that bright girls were beginning to emerge in useful numbers from Chemical and Mechanical Engineering degrees. They decided to try to establish themselves as the first choice place for them to go. It seemed to work, at least when I saw it in action.

    How it worked twenty years later, when those lassies should have become quite senior, I have no idea.

  2. Rob W says:

    There is a lot of evidence that shows that gaining power and getting promoted is very poorly correlated with performance. Jeffrey Pfeffer has written extensively on this. Human behaviour, and especially male behaviour is that we learn quickly what works to get ahead, and learn to hold our noses whilst doing the unpleasant things that do work. Some with near psychopathic tendencies seem to enjoy doing it. In my experience, women more often than not find this behaviour so repugnant that they go and do other things, rather than take part in it.

    In one previous organisation I worked in women were promoted preferentially over men, entirely as a social marketing/progressive concept to impress what they saw as their target customers. In less than 10 years the lack of leadership skills turned a Fortune 500 company and industry leader into a financial basket case. Leaders emerge through triumphing over adversity, and at the top of large organisations, it is a brutal environment. If you are not prepared to fight to get to the top, you won’t survive when you get there. There are no nice guys/gals in the C-level offices in good companies, just people who know how to get it done, whatever it takes.

    • Jake Barnes says:

      Human behaviour, and especially male behaviour is that we learn quickly what works to get ahead, and learn to hold our noses whilst doing the unpleasant things that do work. Some with near psychopathic tendencies seem to enjoy doing it. In my experience, women more often than not find this behaviour so repugnant that they go and do other things, rather than take part in it.

      I must congratulate you on articulating far more clearly the point that I was grasping at in the last part of my post! That is exactly what I was trying to say.

      Although I am conscious that my experience is limited to the oil industry, and women do rise to the top of organisations, particularly those in the public sector. I have no doubt the methods they use to do so are utterly repugnant (as are those of their male counterparts), but I’d be interested to know how they do it if sucking up doesn’t come naturally to them. Maybe they just double-down on the back-stabbing?

      • Rob W says:

        My purely anecdotal observations are that when women are successful in organisation ladder climbing, they do it in packs, just like men do. Their main line of attack is usually discrediting achievements of others through outright lies and more subtle distortions of the truth. Then positioning themselves as the answer to everything. After they have thinned the male competition out, they start on each other, and that is even less pretty than male pack behaviour.

  3. dearieme says:

    All of this reminds me of the dreadful old joke: “No wonder girls do Chem Eng, it’s just the scientific version of cookery”.

    • Jake Barnes says:

      I made that very joke to tease a friend (who is somewhat of a feminist) when I discussed this article with her. Although I’ve usually heard it applied to Chemistry rather than Chem Eng. She saw the funny side.

  4. Jake Barnes says:

    Incidentally, when I discussed my theory with my feminist friend her first remark was that if women sucked up to their male bosses in the way men do, the bosses would assume the women were coming onto them. She’s probably right.

    • Rob W says:

      Undoubtedly true, and women I have seen indulge in this behaviour quickly become objects of scorn, usually from other women, and in particular the feminists.

  5. Adam says:

    Your definition of the modern practice of networking is correct and applicable across all industries of any medium to large scale. The underlying problem with networking is the lack of honor manifest in its participants and the incumbent burden of have to betray their personal honor for those wishing to advance in an organization.

    Honor is the value accorded to men based on what they have to offer and the value that other men place on it, to paraphrase Jack Donovan. Instead of a man’s accomplishments it is his toadying which wins favor. This says more about the leadership of a company that encourages this dishonorable behavior than it does about the individual.

    It is greatly discouraging that women are more turned off by the idea of having to network in this way than men, as honor has traditionally been a male preserve.

    • Rob W says:

      Adam, you can advance without licking arse, but it takes longer. The bar for accomplished individuals without a network is set far higher than those in the in-crowd. The in-crowds always self-combust, and that is when the honourable men and women can step in and stand tall. In general, over time, abilities do determine outcomes, talk only ever gets you so far.

      Women have more things in life which define success for them, limited time in which to achieve them, and are less likely than men to tolerate poor behaviour. Men have fewer choices, and the work environment has developed around that fact. That it is deeply unappealing to women should not conceal that it is shit for men too. If leadership wishes to move an organisation towards a better future, it starts with making the organisation better for both men and women.

      • Frozen says:

        “That it is deeply unappealing to women should not conceal that it is shit for men too”.

        Curious really, considering men seem to be the architects of the organisation and its behaviours.

        • Rob W says:

          A good deal of management exercising power is essentially workplace bullying with a strong dose of cronyism. Those who have rise to a level to shape the organisation tend to repeat previous behaviours. Not a new observation on male group dynamics, but it is very difficult to change cultures which have become the normal way of doing things, no matter how odious they are.

  6. Sat Diver says:

    “The solution to this problem is simple, and doesn’t involve idiotic, arbitrary quotas of female engineers: stop promoting people based on their being craven arselickers, and start promoting people based on competence and timely, accurate delivery.” I have put up your quote to highlight one small problem. While I agree with what you say to an extent, promoting people purely on their competence does not work either. This is especially true in technical fields such as engineering. You end up with what is known as the Peter principle, which is that everyone gets promoted to their level of incompetence. To put it more simply just because someone is an excellent engineer and very technically competent, does not mean that they will make a good manager. My personal view is that the solution is somewhere in the middle. The first criteria for promotion should be technical competence and the second criteria should be “soft skills / management skills”. However these people as you are well aware, are harder to find than rocking horse shit. Another problem with promoting very technically competent people is you are then left with the retards doing the technical important work, which leads to massive fuckups. Sadly the lesser of two evils is often to promote someone with less technical competence so that they the damage they can cause is minimal. If I sound bitter and twisted about this its because I am.

    • Jake Barnes says:

      @ Sat Diver,

      Welcome, and thanks for commenting!

      To put it more simply just because someone is an excellent engineer and very technically competent, does not mean that they will make a good manager.

      I am in full agreement with this, which I addressed in this post where I said:

      The problem with this method of selecting managers is that it ignores the fact that management is more about personality than technical ability.

      In fact, I agree with all of your comment.

  7. Anomenat says:

    “So if an oil company is selecting engineers, the recruitment pool will contain more women than men and hence more men will be recruited than women.”

    Surely the recruitment pool will contain more men than women?

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