Out on a rib
To the women in STEM – you know I am your friend. I wrote you Character Currency, gave you poetry and even sang you songs, so you know I am on your side. But we need to discuss a few things.
Several months ago I read an article about a PRASA female engineer. She said she loved her job, but had a “…bit of a struggle in a male-oriented environment. I have had to work twice as hard to prove myself.” She added later that she had to “…learn to wear a T-Shirt and jeans on site.” Really? I thought. Wearing a T-Shirt is the sum total of reasoning for male or female dominance in the work place. All workers should wear comfortable and safe clothes on a construction site – irrespective of gender. I didn’t understand the ‘working twice as hard’ bit either. What did she mean? Did she have to do the same job twice in comparison to a man? Did it take twice as long to achieve the same outcome? What exactly was she saying – I was not being facetious, I really wanted to understand.
Do women get paid less in the work place? The data indicates this clearly but the reasons are much more sophisticated than male dominance, patriarchy and oppression of women, especially in current western society. Life choice, phase of life, age, work life balance, nature of work, safety, fulfilment, potential for personal growth, flexibility, location of work, proximity to home – all play significant roles in the manifestation of disproportion. In fact where work was the same for exactly the same hours worked, women earned more than men – there are scientific studies and books written galore to verify this fact.
Also, the fact that more men occupy high profile executive posts is tremendous not because of gender but because of appetite for work load and extreme performance requirements at that level, choosing what is important and where to allocate time. These exceedingly stressful jobs attract only a minute group of people anyway, irrespective of gender. These are type A personalities that are disagreeable and highly competitive – workaholics, working 80+ hour weeks with almost no family, social or hobby time. The reason why women do not occupy these positions is that women choose to have the flexibility to dedicate themselves to more important enterprises like family and raising of children than to be at the beck and call of shareholders who will wake you up in the middle of the night to attend to shareholder aspirations.
Of SAICE’s almost 16 000 database, 17% are women. Of our almost 4 000 student members, 31% are women. Of our almost 5 850 graduate members, 21% are women. But the most striking is of almost 6 000 professionally registered members, only 5% are women. The increased representation of women at university level (31%) and graduate working level (21%) in comparison to say managerial and director levels (5%) might be explained by the same interpretation of data in the legal profession. About the time when graduates progress into middle management, is about the same time that majority of women wish to have families. In this phase, most women prefer to work part time or dedicate themselves completely to child rearing or pursuing other meaningful exploits generally related to caring.
As an aside, as a hands on and very involved father of our own 5, 3 and 1 year olds, I have witnessed first-hand how completely dependent babies are on their mothers in the first 2 years of development so life choice responding to maternal instinct makes sense. By the way, it is for the very same maternal instinct that women are more amenable than men. This is to avoid conflict in managing babies. In cases where salary disparity exists for the same type and duration of work, it is this agreeableness that prevents women from negotiating higher pay. If my sisters find themselves in this situation – same work, same time – stop being congenial when negotiating salaries.
The point is gender equality and equity needs deeper understanding than simplification into male dominance, patriarchy and companies providing baby care in the office. But here’s the conundrum – given that money, time and resources are constrained and evidence pointing to women being predisposed to caring and people careers, should we be investing so heavily in attracting women into STEM careers, specifically engineering OR should we invest in creating more gender equal societies?