Maybe we should 'get over it'?

Should women take every advantage offered to them, even if it is on the basis of gender?


Is this fair, equitable and in the line of the values of our society?

March the 8th this year, like every year, was International Womens’ Day.  It is a day (usually is preceded by a week) of celebrations and commentary about the status of women in society, how far we have come in affirming womens’ rights and how far we have to go.

In the world of women in technical roles, the role of women and the gender balance is something that is often talked about but remains divisive.  Quotas in particular are something that are hotly debated, by men and women alike.

“Are quotas a good thing?” is something young women often ask.  “I don’t want to get a job on the basis that I am a woman to even up the gender balance if there is a man that is better than me.  I want to know that I am there on merit…right?”

Perhaps.  Perhaps however, we should - as some senior women say - just ‘get over it’.

Now this may be a radical view point. Scratch that, it is definitely seen by some as a little crazy.  However, it was suggested to me firstly by an unlikely source: a fellow rig-worker.

“Rather than trying to achieve equal numbers in the engineering workforce,” he mused,  "why not publicly encourage those girls who want to 'do' engineering that they have the advantage because there are so few of them Vs their male counterparts?”

Curious, I thought. He then elaborated, and essentially said that there are huge advantages for women because of the push to level the playing field.

Why shouldn’t women learn to exploit every offer that could help them, and then show that success to others, he asked. Won’t that success then breed further success?There is a strange logic to such a perspective.

There are also alternative ways of looking at it. Would a man say no to any advantage he was offered because he wanted to be chosen on ‘merit’?  Don’t we accept quotas on the cultural diversity side of things?  What makes that different?

Clearly, we live in a society where there are discrepancies between the outcomes for men and for women, and not all of these can be pegged to biological differences.

Legislative changes in Australia have been around for a while, so it is safe to say that sometimes making the legal environment conducive to a change will not always guarantee the results expected.  Sometimes a little more encouragement is required.

I recently made a lovely acquaintance in the TV make up industry and asked how she got the position. Did she have to apply?

“No,” she laughed and shook her head when I asked.  “My dad works in the industry.”

“Oh wow,” I nodded, thinking that made sense. “So it’s all about having the contacts.”

“Yes… but you know what Dad said to me? I can get you in, but I can’t keep you there.  You still have to be good.”

There lies the crux of the argument.  Quotas, targets, positive discrimination - all of those techniques are about opening the door for people who wouldn’t usually get a look-in due to something they cannot control: their race, their gender, their age.  If they aren’t up to scratch, no doubt that will become known and further opportunities won’t be as easily made available.  As my new found friend said: the door may be opened for you, but after that it is on you to prove yourself and earn the right to stay.

Furthermore, almost every single person I know who represents some sort of diverse background will work harder simply to prove that they belong in a position, as they know that they, whether they like it or not, are somehow defacto representatives of an entire demographic.

Women have yet to earn the right to be mediocre so to suggest that quotas or targets will mean that less competent people will make it up the top is short-sighted.  We as women should also stop underestimating our own capacity, support one another and jump at every open door and opportunity that is made available.

Whether it is a door that is opened by a sponsor or a window opened by a quota, does it really matter? You tell me.

AFR Talking Points: Inequality in executive ranks

As I read the Business Council of Australia's target in the paper last week, I knew I had a fair bit to say! Luckily, the Australian Financial Review was partial to giving those opinions a megaphone... Here is what I wrote.

There is little chance women will ever make up half of senior executives in engineering intensive industries, let alone in 10 years time, unless there is a real push for more women in these sectors in the first place.

Companies have to look beyond rapid promotion and mentoring plans to the impediments that exist for women at the beginning of the executive pipeline if any change is to occur.  s (BCA) bold target of increasing the number of women in senior roles is a promising development. However, the lack of diversity at the upper levels of management in companies is a symptom of a problem that begins much earlier. It is the product of a range of obstacles that prevent women from reaching positions in which they are visible options, and, taking a further step back, from even considering these industries at all.

When I graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering I was one of seven females in a class of a few hundred. This ratio highlights a flaw in the way woman approach science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM) based disciplines.

Part of the problem is how STEM subjects are marketed to young women, or not marketed at all, from a young age. Far too many girls are studying maths in their final years of high school, effectively shutting down a whole lot of career options. This is reflected in university enrolments, graduations and industry employment patterns.

In oil and gas extraction in Australia, the percentage of females working in the industry is less than 12 per cent. As a fly-in, fly-out, high-visibility gear wearing field specialist, it is extremely rare to meet another female on any land rigs. Granted, the work is not glamorous and the environment is not suitable for everyone (male or female) but if, at the grassroots level in the field, there are very few females working, what is the chance of female talent making it to the top?

Field experience in engineering provides a level of depth and understanding of the industry that is critical to higher management roles. Recent counsel by a senior engineer at an oil and gas conference indicated that part of the reason females were not reaching upper management positions was due to the lack of field knowledge (and the networks and understanding of the culture that comes along with field experience) compared to their male counterparts.

The field environment is not nearly as hostile as people expect. With more women visibly taking on these roles, hopefully more will be encouraged; enough to achieve the critical mass required for real culture change. However, lack of field experience is not the only barrier.

Due to the low numbers of women in engineering, there is an extra layer of difficulty for women returning to the workforce after maternity leave.  In a field where experience on different projects is paramount and the work is extremely resource and time intensive, missing the months or years is more than just disadvantageous, it means that real opportunities for growth are missed. As a female just starting out in the industry, this is something that is always at the back of my mind. There is an opportunity for companies to play a much more significant role in this space, although ironically the understanding of the needs of female employees will be best addressed by female directors.

Women who study and work in engineering-based fields are not always comfortable discussing gender in the workplace either, due in part to the stigma associated with the discussion in such a blokey environment. In a world where women are outnumbered more than five to one, it is important that men are involved in this conversation. The report released by the Male Champions of Change is a symbolic move that should not be understated, as it signals that gender diversity is not simply a ploy by women to ‘move up the ranks faster’ and ‘be rewarded for gender not talent’, as some critics may choose to believe. It highlights the value of gender diversity to the business.

Cultural change is never an easy endeavour but it is worthwhile. The BCA’s move is timely and important. Working with industry to develop solutions that focus on the root of the problem can make audacious targets a reality.




So what do you think? Is the target a reality?  Would love to hear your thoughts!



Yassmin Abdel-Magied