Interesting articles on issues ranging from a small town fighting for asylum seekers to stay, to Cambridge Analytica.
I was honoured to present the Mavis Robertson address at the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds in Brisbane this year. As part of the engagement, I answered a few questions for Investment Magazine on #BeatingBias. Here is some of what I said:
In your 2014 TED Talk, you make the point that acknowledging unconscious bias is “not an accusation”. Do you find many people still resist discussions about beating unconscious bias and get defensive?
In 2014, unconscious bias was a relatively new concept in the corporate world. Today, I think many people are aware of its existence, but rather than be outwardly defensive, sometimes they think it is an excuse for biased behaviour – as in, ‘Oh well, I am biased, there is nothing I can do about it.’ The other thing I often hear is people saying that they aren’t biased, and then immediately follow it up with a statement or question that demonstrates the exact bias they were trying to deny. Sometimes those who think they are the least biased are the ones with the most deeply entrenched ways of seeing the world.
How do you suggest people start the process of identifying their own unconscious biases?
It starts with being open to the idea that we are all biased, and that all of us need to go through processes of identifying and acknowledging the biases that we hold. It’s about asking ourselves about every single assumption we make and then questioning why we have made that assumption – where has the information come from, and is there space for that assumption to change? If we have a gut feeling someone is going to be a good leader, for example, is it because they have actually demonstrated anything, or is it because they are tall, they seem sure of themselves, they remind us of ourselves, etc? We need to be comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable – challenging our own biases is never a comfortable experience, but it is worthwhile.
In that TED Talk, you challenged people to seek out and mentor someone different to them. Have you seen any good examples of organisations doing that systematically? How has it worked?
There are a couple of organisations I see do this well, and it tends to be places where the idea of inclusion is a value that is built into the very DNA of the organisation. Organisations that understand how power dynamics work, that demand that you are on board with the culture of the organisation, that see supporting and empowering those with structural disadvantage as a must have, not a nice to have. It works best when everyone in the organisation understands that this is a company-wide ethos, and when individuals are willing to do everything they can in their power to make a difference for others. That sometimes involves sacrifice and discomfort, but when people believe in a goal that is bigger than themselves, it works out well.
What is your advice for someone who knows there is a problem with unconscious bias within their organisation but feels they are not senior enough to lead change?
Leading conversations at a peer-to-peer level is incredibly important and powerful, so that should not be underestimated. Cultural changes need to be both top down and bottom up, so finding ways to stimulate the grassroots conversation can be a stepping stone to broader understanding within the organisation. Also, looping in a champion, or someone else at a higher level who believes in the need for change, is also a good option.
What would you say to any senior executives or directors who are confident they are not afflicted by unconscious bias?
The science says that we all are – even me! The more we think we are not affected by it, the bigger the cognitive blind spot is. The first step in addressing any problem is to admit there is a problem, so I always encourage people to be open to admitting there might be bias, even as a thought experiment. Acknowledging unconscious bias isn’t saying someone is bad per se, but it is an opportunity for improvement – and what senior executive doesn’t like finding ways to improve?
I came across an article recently that articulated a view I've heard before. Like others before them, the author makes a false equivalence:
...this idea of agency is a controversial one today...We speak of privileges and systemic biases. We talk of our problems as if they are intractable, overwhelming and malevolently created. Even on the extreme right, there is an obsession with biological differences between sexes and races, about whether one gender or another is naturally better at this or that. Again, these are simply averages that have nothing to do with individuals. Our focus on it all, from either side, is a way of subtly erasing agency. We emphasise where we are disempowered rather than opportunities for empowerment.
The author seems to believe argument that highlighting structural inequalities, biases and systemic obstacles is disempowering, and rather focus should be on the opportunities available.
Now, I must make the disclaimer that I do speak and write publicly about bias and privilege, so it would obviously be in my interest to challenge this charge. However, it is important to realise that not all norms and challenges are the same, and these are far from binary conversations.
Peter Thiel (as the article pointed out), a billionaire who was upset at what was written about him in the press, was told that 'there was nothing he could do about it' because of the norms within media. He then went on to do something about it, and this is the example of 'high levels of agency' the author is asking us to consider, and perhaps emulate. It should be noted the author does not condone Thiel's actions per se.
However, being written about in the press and then taking that news outlet down is not quite the same as a systemic bias against women, or structural inequalities due to a history of slavery and colonisation. There are reams of studies that look at the structural nature of these inequalities, and some of them are overwhelming, intractable and malevolently created. To dismiss a focus on tackling structural inequality seems inconsiderate, illogical and ill-informed.
The reality is, folk who are marginalised have been succeeding in spite of these inequalities and biases. You want to know about agency? Talk to first generation migrant parents. I was unaware of the true impact of cognitive biases and structural inequality growing up because my parents refused to entertain that as an excuse, like many other migrant kids I knew. In fact, any systemic issue would be framed - on purpose - as an opportunity for growth. Work ten times as hard, because things are tougher for women / people of colour / Muslims, I was told. The way my parents brought my brother and I up was to believe that our agency would overcome all. And it did - until it didn't - but that's a story for another time...
Yes, individual agency is something we can control, and perhaps even underestimate. But talk of systemic and structural problems does not automatically mean that individual agency is disregarded, and does not have to be inherently disempowering. In fact, that fact that the public discourse has shifted to include the structural challenges is a step in the right direction. It means we are shifting to a place where we change the world to fit people, rather than people to fit the world.
Individually, we can control our mindsets, and do our best to fully utilise our agency. Not everything is within an individual's control however. Rather than dismiss that reality, those with more access and agency should do what they can to level the playing field. And don't say it can't be done... ;)
STEP 1: Sign a global petition (bold + italic = click for link)
STEP 2: Consider long-term support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign
For long-term, constructive support and solidarity, please support the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel which works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law
STEP 3: Support Volunteer Local Advocacy Groups and their Campaigns
STEP 4: Apply Political Pressure by emailing your local Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister:
Electronic Intifada: @intifada
Military Court Watch: @MCourtWatch
B’Tselem: Israeli Info Center for Human Rights in Occupied Territories: @btselem
Adalah: Independent human rights organization and legal center: @AdalahEnglish
I originally published this piece on Medium.
Charlotte Wood recently published an incredible essay about the anger of women.
It got me thinking about my anger, my rage, how I processed trauma; of recent experiences, and of simply existing as a Muslim woman of colour living in the West.
I must be clear. I do not think less of anyone for being angry. Often, almost always, the anger is justified. The world is not fair, trauma is real, and anger is an incredibly valid response to the pain the world, society and individuals, inflicts on us. Anger can drive change, and often does. It catalyses action in ways many other emotions do not. It is the fuel behind many an engine of transformation. It has it’s place, and is so deeply part of the human experience that to deny it completely would be folly, and perhaps, dangerous.
But like fire, anger can be the candle that lights a room, or a burning inferno that destroys a home. For the first time in my life, this year, I felt my anger spiralling out of control. I felt it consume the oxygen in the room, slowly creep under the doors. The flames of my fury licked at my window frames and threatened to engulf the safe house I had built myself to survive.
I frightened myself.
Charlotte Wood’s piece refers to this:
I won’t forget the look I’d seen on her face. It was fear, of drowning in her own rage.
My housemate, incredibly thoughtfully, bought a gift for my birthday. ‘It’ll help you get the anger out’, she said. It was a session at The Break Room, where you can break things, and feel good.
It was a wonderful sentiment, but I was strangely and involuntarily repulsed. My housemates were confused; they felt my rage. Surely smashing crockery was the perfect way of unleashing it. ‘I’m afraid of my own anger,’ I told them. ‘I don’t like the person I become.’ They didn’t understand, but how can they understand that sometimes we are most afraid of ourselves, of the darkness only we know exists?
We went anyway, despite my sullen mood and protestations. It was a wet Melbourne morning, the weather matching my demeanour. I watched the others take baseball bats to mugs, throw plates against the walls, hurl glasses with pure abandon. Loud metal music drowned the sound of chaos.
I felt sick.
Housemates 1 & 2 insisted that I have a go. I smashed a few mugs. I felt a tendril of satisfaction. Then, I felt sick.
Allowing myself to be violent in response to anger felt like opening the door to the room on fire, the room which once held a candle. The fire was hungry for the rest of the oxygen in the house, and once that door was open — even just a crack — well, that was all the invitation it needed to consume the building.
Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps breaking things would starve the fire, remove the oxygen.
I still felt sick.
My anger was justified, I felt. I had been treated unfairly, I felt.The world was systemically set up against me, I felt. My anger felt safe.
I found allies in the anger, other women and people of colour who were also deeply enraged. Rightly so, because my feelings weren’t off base: the world was set up against people like us. My anger alienated some, but drew in others. I found community, in anger.
Anger, for a brief moment, was liberating.
And then, it wasn’t.
The fire had consumed all the oxygen.
I couldn’t breath.
I don’t like being angry, certainly not when it is without restraint.
I don’t like the person I become.
But anger is an energy, a fuel, and perhaps like energy, it is neither created nor destroyed, but only transformed into something different. Petrol engines transform chemical energy into mechanical energy. Perhaps there was a way for me to transform my anger into another form of constructive energy, into an emotion that does not consume the very essence of who I am.
I’m occasionally reluctant to talk about how faith plays a role in my life. Having grown up in quite an anti-religious society, I know how faith based discussions are received. Religion, like Islam, is often mocked and ridiculed, sometimes by the very same progressives who fight for the rights of those who practice the religion. Irony aside, it is obvious that we all have our own framework for understanding the world. Fabulous; the plurality of experiences makes our world the wonder that it is and coexistence is divine. Mine is, and has always been, faith.
My faith allowed me to believe there was nothing I could not handle. That every obstacle was an opportunity for growth. That I could use the fire of anger; contain it, tame it, channel it. It taught me how to use the fire to light 100 candles, rather than let it run free. It didn’t work alone — faith worked in conjunction with therapy, a strong support network and moving countries. But it gave me the fortitude to ask myself how I wanted to use my anger, and what I was going to do about it. I am an engineer, after all. Energy is only useful if it can be channelled constructively.
So yes, I have anger. But I am no longer angry, Alhamdulilah.
I am not so frightened of myself anymore, and god, how that helps me breathe.
The first day of the year often brings with it an opportunity to rest, reflect, restart. As corny and passe as that might be, I revel in and enjoy the chance to stop, pause and think. To give myself the time to listen; to myself, to others, to what the world is telling me beyond the conscious, perhaps.
Here’s to a 2018 where I learn to live beyond a destructive anger. A year of directing that energy to raising others up, to building, to maturing. A period of time to be treasured, as all time deserves to be.
And the price is often steepest for the women who can least afford it.
This opinion piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
Why do people leave organizations? Reasons often include dealing with bad management, finding a higher paid role elsewhere, or not seeing opportunities for promotion and growth. Workplace sexual harassment is rarely treated as an issue of retention, but it affects morale and career satisfaction at least as drastically as an issue like a difficult boss.
Sexual harassment is one of the many ways workplaces are a hostile environment for women, pushing them out of organizations and sometimes entire industries. And sexual harassment clearly reflects the power structures that define our society. It exacts a high cost on all individuals and communities, but the price is disproportionately shouldered by women who can least afford it. Women of color and other marginalized women are among those hit hardest by a culture that for generations has turned a blind eye to the epidemic.
Workplace sexual harassment comes with a steep cost: the cost of participation.
A 2008 study by the American Psychological Association found a correlation between “work withdrawal” and the aftermath of sexual harassment for black women. And in a 2016 survey of the Chicago leisure and hospitality industry, where the majority of women are of color, 49 percent of housekeepers said a guest had answered the door naked or exposed themselves. The most damning result? Of those housekeepers, 56 percent said they did not feel safe returning to work after the incident.
The system was failing these women. Formal report numbers were low, partly because the workers didn’t believe it would make a difference to tell their stories. In fact, 43 percent of respondents said they knew someone who had reported harassment and seen nothing change. Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded. Two-third of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some sort of retaliation, according to a 2003 study cited by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And although times are changing, they might not be changing for women in certain workplaces just yet.
When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.
The outpouring of recent allegations of sexual harassment and subsequent consequences for some perpetrators have prompted many to say we’re in the middle of a turning point in how sexual harassment is dealt with. This is true for some women, but not for all.
When allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men turned Hollywood upside down, Jane Fonda pointed out the obvious: The women speaking out were being listened to because they were famous and white.
Fatima Goss Graves, the CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, agreed, saying, “Class and race and stature play into whether someone is believed.”
Ironically, the #MeToo movement was started a decade ago by black social activist Tarana Burke. It took Alyssa Milano, a white actress, using the hashtag for it to go viral ― among other white women, at least. We’ve seen this before, such as in the racism of the suffragettes, FEMEN’s attempts to “liberate” Muslim women despite protests, and the exclusive nature of the Women’s March. When marginalized women, particularly women of color, need solidarity, their white sisters don’t often show up.
We have seen this play out in the cases of black actresses like Lupita Nyong’o and Aurora Perrineau. The implication is clear: Yes, women who allege sexual harassment and other forms of abuse are to be believed ― if they’re the right kind of woman. The majority of women don’t fit that criteria, and those who live and work at the intersections of marginalization ― whether due to race, religion or disability ― are often hardest hit by harassment. Unfortunately, they’re also the least supported. The eventual outcome is dismal.
For women who are not famous, wealthy or otherwise influential, socioeconomic, cultural and historical disadvantages compound to make it more likely that harassment will occur and less likely that it will be taken seriously.
The history of sexual exploitation through slavery has created a culture where black women are more likely to be sexually harassed but less likely to be perceived as victims. They are therefore less likely to report, and the cycle continues. Socioeconomic status exacerbates this vulnerability; the majority (58 percent, as of 2013) of low-income families in the U.S. are a racial or ethnic minority. Low-income women of color often lack bargaining power, face language and financial barriers to accessing legal services, and in some cases, are not even aware of their rights. Undocumented workers also face unique additional challenges, as fears of retaliation or deportation may deter them from taking legal action.
It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.
It is imperative to acknowledge that efforts to improve the lot of one group of women may only tangentially affect women in other groups.
If we are truly interested in building a world where all women feel safe, supported and able to fully participate in their communities and workplaces, we must remember a rising tide does not lift every woman’s boat. We need to be proactive in our advocacy for low-wage women and women of color. We must ensure vulnerable women are provided adequate training, in the language they are most comfortable in, so they understand their rights. The more educated a workplace is, the less likely potential perpetrators will be to think they can get away with harassment. We need to find ways to support these women ― legally, financially, emotionally ― when action is taken.
The #MeToo moment will be incomplete if it serves only the white, wealthy and otherwise privileged among us. Look around in your own workplace and make sure no woman is being overlooked. Failing to do so will not only affect the women as individuals, but will ultimately damage our workplaces, our communities and our societies. We will all be poorer for it.
I wrote this piece early this year, before the Elon Musk twitter storm that led to theTesla battery installation a couple of days ago. It appeared in the latest edition of The Stick, and given the chat around the battery installation, I thought it was worth re-sharing the piece, and thinking about the impact of these recent developments beyond the novelty.
On September 28, 2016, South Australia was hit by a once-in-50-year storm. Despite being a world-leader in integrating intermittent renewable energy generation into a constrained electricity grid, the state’s energy system was tested by the extreme weather event.
Over 40 per cent of South Australia’s energy is generated by wind and solar power, and there are no longer any coal-fired power stations operating in the state. The only back up power comes from the neighbouring state of Victoria, heavily dependent on brown coal. Unfortunately for South Australia, and the advocates of renewable energy, the storm caused the state to lose all power. The statewide black out, which dragged on for days, was an unprecedented and catastrophic engineering failure. However, South Australia’s failure should not be seen as the failure of the renewables transition. Instead, it is a prime opportunity to understand the delicate engineering challenge of integrating new, intermittent and asynchronous sources of power into ageing infrastructure reliant on conventional power generation. Understanding what happened in South Australia enables us to understand what is possible with today’s current technologies, and what truly stands in the way of a complete transition to a carbon neutral future.
So what happened on that fateful Wednesday afternoon?
According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO)’s final report into the events, South Australia’s series of woes began with two tornadoes with gale force winds of 260km/hr knocking out three major transmission lines. When a transmission line is damaged, it often short circuits. As a result of such a “fault”, the line almost immediately disconnects, protecting the rest of the system. Almost. For a fraction of a second, the voltage dips in the grid, and it was these voltage dips that lead to the cascading failure of the system.
Typically, power generators — whether wind, gas or otherwise — are designed to “ride-through” a voltage dip, allowing them to continue to operate through a fault. However, unbeknownst to the AEMO, responsible for operating energy markets and power systems, several wind farms in South Australia had been set up with a protection feature limiting their tolerance for disturbances. If the number of faults in a specified period of time exceeded a pre-set limit — for instance, two faults in two minutes — the safety mechanism activates and a wind turbine will either reduce its output, stop operating or disconnect from the network. Strangely, this critical protection feature had been left out of all simulation models submitted to AEMO, so the market operator had no idea that their wind turbines were vulnerable to disconnection due to voltage dips.
The damage wrought by the weather caused six voltage dips to occur over a two minute period. Without warning, nine wind farms activated their protection features and 456MW, or almost a quarter of South Australia’s energy demand, was lost from the system. The remainder of South Australia’s generation was wind and “slow responding thermal” (gas), and therefore unable to pick up the slack in time. Instead, Victoria, the neighbouring state, which was already providing 24 per cent of South Australia’s electricity requirements at the time, began to compensate. During the seven seconds of power loss from the wind farms, the system began to draw significantly more electricity than the single interconnector between the two states could handle.
It was like trying to light a football field from a single powerpoint, blowing the proverbial fuse. The interconnector tripped, and Australia’s fourth largest state became an “electrical island”. The entire population of 1.7 million was plunged into darkness. It was known as a Black System event, and it took 13 days for the last of the remaining customers to have their power restored.
South Australia’s Black System ushered in weeks of finger pointing and blame shifting among politicians, energy operators, pundits and consumers. Conservative politicians blamed renewable energy, renewable energy purists blamed the market operators and the majority of the state and nation simply wanted the problem to be solved.
Part of why the South Australian example is so important is because it is tackling what is known within the industry as the “energy trilemma”. This is the tension between energy security (reliability), equity (affordability and accessibility) and environmental sustainability. As we move importantly and inevitably towards sustainability, there can be no question that energy security and equity will be tested. How they balance out is being watched very closely.
From an engineer’s perspective, the focus is often squarely on reliability. The challenge of integrating intermittent renewable power generation sources into a system that hasn’t been designed for it means the energy supply is not always as resilient, and therefore, potentially less reliable. This poses a significant political risk for leaders and often the argument for baseload coal and gas generation is offered as a solution. However, in this case, AEMO found the operations of the gas generators had little to no material effect on the event, to the dismay of renewable energy opponents. Yet a quarter of the state’s energy was coming from Victoria, largely powered by brown coal. So although South Australia may not have coal-fired power stations within its borders, it is still in some way dependent on their operation for baseload power. The answer for the perfect mix of power generation is certainly not clear cut.
What is clearer however, are the broader consequences of such an event and the potential loss if it is interpreted incorrectly. The lessons learnt from these massive engineering failures provide invaluable insight into how to design out a system’s weaknesses. Technical industries rely heavily on learning from major incidents; the oil and gas industry, for example, designed many safety systems from lessons learnt after Piper Alpha in 1988 and Macondo in 2010. The opportunity here to improve the system and avoid a similar incident in the future not only benefits South Australia, but can also have a global impact. By demonstrating how renewable sources of energy can be integrated into an ageing electricity grid, South Australia is providing a blueprint for the energy transition globally.
That is, if the interpretation of the event and the subsequent discussion remains true to the technical findings.
Unfortunately for engineers, the reality of the energy trilemma means that the technical solutions alone are not always enough, and run the risk of getting lost in posturing and agendas. The political and economic challenges are steep. Tackling these requires moving away from blatant and dogmatic ideological approaches to a view that is committed to achieving the optimum balance of sustainability, affordability and reliability. This may mean not turning of all fossil fuel powered generators tomorrow, but it also means not shying away from pushing for the carbon neutral future that we need to survive. For whether we like it or not, if we don’t get sustainability right, there may not be a world for us to live in where affordability and reliability matter at all.
Thanks for reading! This is my first technical piece, so please share any thoughts / feedback / comments below! ❤
What does being a woman on an oil rig have in common with being a Muslim in Australia? Watch Yassmin Abdel-Magied give an impassioned speech about what it means to be misunderstood and misrepresented in the press and culture. What is it like when you show up and don't look like anyone else?
So I was quite nervous about this talk. Everything about it: writing it, memorising it, delivering it. And this is from someone who talks, well, for a living now.
When Andrew Hyde from TEDx Boulder asked me to be a part of the program this year, I jumped at the chance. I loved the idea of the Boulder community, and the opportunity to flesh out a new idea. My initial draft for a talk was on a wildly different topic - one that I was looking forward to sharing because I thought it was new and innovative.
Writing the speech felt like pulling teeth. It simply didn't want to happen. Although I was intellectually committed to the concept, my heart wasn't in it.
So a few days before the event, I threw in the towel and wrote a new speech. This is it. Some of you may be familiar with some of the stories; I wrote about it in my TeenVogue piece a few weeks ago. This, however, was the first time I spoke publicly about in a formal setting - and to a completely unfamiliar audience.
They were kind, rewarding me with a standing ovation. This certainly helped the nerves. But ultimately, this talk is not about what happened to me in Australia. This is about sharing the lesson that so many of us have learnt the hard way - the need for structural and systemic change.
Alas, a 12 minute talk isn't enough to do the topic justice. But here's to being a part of the conversation.
To those who have been trying to tell me this for some time... sorry it took me so long to get it. I guess I always learn things the hard way! *bemused face*
It was my first night settling in. I wiggled into a comfortable nook in the couch, put my feet up on the edge of the coffee table and switched on the TV.
...only to release a high pitched squeal.
There was a hijabi lady reading the news, in Britain! THERE WAS SOMEONE WHO KINDA LOOKED LIKE ME! And she wasn't even talking about terrorism, or women's oppression!
My first instinct was to send a pic to my insta story, the next to tweet about it. I had to share my excitement, after all.
That's honestly been the most remarkable thing thus far about this move. Seeing myself, reflected.
I can't quite explain what it is like to walk around a city - an English speaking city at that, which, for better or for worse, feels more like 'home' - and see myself in the faces of those around me. London is (visually, at least) truly multicultural in a way no other place I have been is. To think of myself as becoming part of that is something that feels remarkable, subhanallah.
It's delicious. I'm walking around and seeing hijabi women - of all the colours - wearing all the styles wander past me. I am yelling 'Al-Salamu Alaikum!!' to every single one of them, my toothy grin in their face. They look at me with bewilderment, but that's fine. Their confusion increases my joy. Because who they are isn't unusual here, and I guess that means I am not unusual either. Who would have thought it would feel so good to be 'not-unusual'? I mean sure, I've only been here for a few days, so it might be hubris, and sure, I am proud of who I am wherever I am, and sure, I love standing out...
...but for the first time, I know what it's like to be one of the crowd.
To have people say 'oh you're from Sudan? I love Sudanese people!' instead of being the first Sudanese person they know.
To walk around and see my aunt, uncle, brother...
...to hear my aunt, uncle, brother, grandmother.
And to see them right alongside my neighbour, my boss, my colleagues.
What a gift.
So, I've arrived, Alhamdulilah. Two suitcases, my social media accounts and a smile - that's what I bring with me to this new adventure.
I'm based in Shoreditch for the next three months at least, inshallah. If you're around and would love to hang, let me know. I'm up for all the recommends, all the meet ups, all the things. If you'd asked me a year ago where I would be, I would most certainly have not said 'setting up a new home in a new city halfway across the world', but subhanallah, here we are.
The weather is a little cooler, and I think the cloud cover will take some getting used to... but the bubble of anticipation and childlike excitement in my stomach is hard to contain. Yallah!
SDG 3: Achieve gender quality and empower all women and girls
Imagine a new men’s toilet block being commissioned for your local sports club. The old toilet facilities have fallen into disrepair, and the governing council of the club announces it is time for a refurbishment. The governing council of this sporting club also happens to be all women.
When it comes to confirming the design of facilities, it is unanimously agreed that they will be exactly the same as the newly designed women’s facilities. Those facilities, the council reasoned, had come out quite nicely. 'Everyone' was pleased with the result.
The men in the club were uncomfortable with the outcome but were told by the governing council that their perspectives had been taken into account. Even though no men had been involved in the decision-making process, they were told this was the best solution for all.
Now, that does not make sense, you might think. Why would a group of women decide on the design of facilities on behalf of the men? How could they do that without even properly consulting them?
Of course it doesn’t make sense. That is the point.
The above scenario would almost never occur in real life because often, the reality is in fact the opposite. It’s not just with infrastructure projects - this is the way decisions are made for and about women living in almost every society, every day. Choices that directly and indirectly affect women’s lives - whether as obvious as a toilet block design or as obscure as the lighting at public transport stops - are often made without women’s involvement, and as such, the outcomes are often unfit for purpose. At the very best, they silently marginalise the community they are meant to serve. To combat this and make the resulting infrastructure fit for purpose, engineers need to ensure that they have input from all sections of the community they are serving.
This is one of the reasons why the UN’s fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5), to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, is incredibly important. Full and effective participation of women in both engineering projects as well as in leadership roles - and equal opportunity across the board: political, economic and social - is imperative to an optimally functional and cohesive society. One of the reasons, but not the only one.
Full and effective participation is not only about ensuring societies’ infrastructure is designed in a way that is fit for purpose. Like many teams, the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. When women are empowered and have access to participation and leadership, all of society benefits, and some of these benefits we should not do without.
The statistics speak for themselves
The International Labour Organisation suggests that women’s work may 'be the single most important factor in reducing poverty in developing economies'.
Christian C. Dezsö and David Gaddis Ross argued in 2011 that firms with females at the senior executive level added $44 million to the company’s value.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report shows that for many countries, raising women’s workforce participation to the same level as men’s could raise GDP (gross domestic product) per capita by significant amounts – in Egypt for example, by 34%.
The book, Sex and World Peace1, suggests that the 'very best indicator and predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not wealth, military expenditures or religion, but how well its girls and women are treated'. The book goes on to argue, using 148,000 data points over 375 variables for 175 countries, that 'the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields'.
So not only does full and effective participation of women in leadership mean better suited and more sustainable infrastructure, which will arguably lead to safer and more inclusive communities, it will also be economically and politically beneficial for countries across the board.
Men and women may have differing ways of engaging with leadership, different leadership styles and may want different types of opportunities. The question is not about how the opportunity looks or presents itself, but that it truly exists in the first place.
At the end of the day, roughly half the population is made up of women, or those who identify as women. Society simply cannot function at its full potential if only half the talent is being utilised. It is incumbent upon us that we allow every possible opportunity for the other half of the talent to participate and to lead. Together, we can work towards a world that looks after us all.
1 - Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-spanvill, Mary Caprioli and Chad Emmett, 2014