Women Engineers- Are Things Changing?

December 6, 2011

December 6th- An anniversary of a tragedy, which I like to mark each year with some thoughts on women engineers.  Last year I talked about the benefits having women engineers could bring.  This year I had a multitude of ideas, but focused in on one: are things changing?  Is this old boys club really becoming a gender neutral, equal for all club?  The short answer is things are changing, but I wouldn’t call it gender neutral, equal for all just yet.

When I first left the doors of my university in 1997 and into my career in water treatment I quickly came face to face with decidedly non gender neutral language.  In all my jobs I write technical operating manuals, and normally one is given previous manuals to modify for a new job.  “He”, “Man Machine Interface”, “Man”, “workman”. etc. etc. etc.  Back then I changed the manuals for my company, without asking permission, without them really knowing, and used gender neutral language.  Why?  So that I would feel included that is why.  If I’m operating a water plant and must use the “Man Machine Interface” or “MMI”, do I need to ask a man to push the buttons for me, or can I push them my own damn self?  The industry now uses “HMI” or “Human Machine Interface”.  See, we can all operate water plants now!  Instead of man or workman, Operator works very well.  After all I’ve met a few excellent female water treatment plant operators in  my time.  I did this in my next company, and the next.  After that I was writing my own manuals from scratch, which I’ve done at the last 3 companies I’ve worked at, and they now have very gender neutral, inclusive documentation. 

Things have gotten better in the years since I graduated, but not perfect.  Not by a long stretch.  Around 4 years ago I found myself phoning a person asking if the e-mail SHE had written entitled “Gentleman” meant that I was not invited to their networking event, even though I was clearly on the list.  SHE was genuinely befuddled as to why I would have a problem with her language.  Just two weeks ago I got a quotation for a very large pre-fab building, one that is expensive and will make the company a healthy profit margin I’m sure.  It comes equipped with two Man-doors.  Does that mean I have to go in and out of the water treatment facility via the windows.  Only if they are people windows however.  I also recently answered a request for proposal (a company asks my company to quote on a water treatment plant, my job is to design it, cost it out, write out a process description and scope of supply, and fill out their documentation) in which I had to fill out their documentation.  Their documentation that stated very specifically that my company representative was male over, and over, and over.  I may have ranted a bit (a lot).  This implies to me that a company representative could not possibly be female (except I am) nor could fill out the documentation (except I was).  So what can I do?  I think the building manufacturer (who is our customer) will receive a bit of a chat.  I can’t do much about the other situations, as they are my customer, and gosh darn it they are right, now may I please have your money?  Can I get the man-doors changed to, let’s see “doors”?.  “Human doors?”.  “People doors?”.  The term must be gender neutral, but distinguish from the equipment doors.  Suggestions?

So why does the non-gender neutral language annoy me?  It is because it excludes me on a basis of my gender.  Even as I perform the same tasks, even when I’m the company representative, even when I can walk through a door.  It is a barrier that tells young women you do not belong, you are not welcome, you can’t play here.  When I left university in 1997 I didn’t believe this, and I still don’t, and that’s why I’m still changing things from the inside, even when companies don’t realize it is happening.  I’m opening doors, and I’m leaving them open behind me, just as women who have gone before me have done.  The old boys are retiring, and we play a different game.


3 Responses to “Women Engineers- Are Things Changing?”

  1. Cheryl said

    Good for you for changing the documentation, and challenging (non-customers) about their non-gender-neutral language.

    I agree that the language in documentation, RFPs, etc., should be as gender-neutral as possible, and that one should not use “gentlemen” (or “ladies”) in a general salutation.

    Personally, I do not have a problem with “man doors”, and that’s what I call the “human door” on our garage. I suppose if there were a less awkward word for it, I would use it. I also have no problem with words like “chairman”, “postman”, etc. Maybe it’s because of my German background and classes in linguistics, where I was taught that the suffix “man” came from the Germanic/Old English “man” which was gender-neutral originally. “Wer” was man and “wif” was woman, although they also used “Mann” (as opposed to “man”) to mean an adult male. Eventually “man” became used in place of both “wer” and “Mann”.

  2. Heather said

    Keep on keeping on, Anne!

  3. Sonia said

    Oh how I wish there were more people like you in the workplace. I am hopefully in my last decade of professional life in Calgary and it’s gotten better. I remember when I wasn’t allowed to enter the Petroleum or Ranchman’s clubs! However, it wasn’t too long ago that I was asked to be sure to bring a male partner to a client meeting (by the client no less!). Keep up the good work!

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