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!