Women Must Speak Up About The Injustices In Their Fields

After the week in which we celebrate #InternationalWomensDay 2018, I feel inspired to write about the progress we've made with the #MeToo, #TimesUp and #WhyWeWearBlack campaigns. But to be honest, I would only be able to give you a few lines of inspiration. The truth is this, while we celebrate a stride in speaking out against sexual harassment and chorus #TimeIsUp (similarly I imagine to the suffragettes... oh, about 100 years ago)... sexual harassers still exist.

 

I listened quietly to the reports that came out, almost days apart. I discussed this start of a revolution with my husband, one that I would surely tell my little girl about in detail. But would I tell her about the sexual misconduct and sheer inappropriateness I had been privy to, but did not choose to speak out against? If we're really honest, we've all been privy to it. Did we think to report it? Or did we gossip and snigger about Brenda* from the ninth floor who was probably sleeping with the boss for her next promotion? Allow me to digress a little before we return to Brenda.

 

About six months ago, I concluded my research on the factors affecting the retention and development of #WomenInSTEM. I carried a qualitative study discussing many critical issues surrounding various topics of maternity, policies, culture and sexual harassment in the workplace.

 

The organisation allowed me to conduct the interviews on the basis that they would utilise the data to find methods to address the exact issues being discussed, saying also how this would be the perfect topic to cover, especially because they would be rolling out an initiative to increase their diversity figures. I was thrilled. I finally felt like I would be able to complete a piece of work that I knew would have a direct impact on the workplace and perhaps even improve something, something small, for one of my colleagues. I have yet to receive an ounce of feedback from the vice-president of HR, who assured me many times that he would look at the results in my document.

 

It soon became apparent that the details I had uncovered were probably too difficult to deal with during his term in the role. It's easy to say you want to roll out a programme to address diversity but unfortunately, if you're not willing to tackle the real issues of sexual harassment, gender bias and racial bias, you're only licking the cream off your cappuccino.

The interviews with several women in various positions in the engineering field revealed a fair number of dark secrets – of which I had previously been aware. During my fledgling years as a plant engineer, I had been warned to never approach the plant without a colleague in tow, especially during a shutdown** period. No men had ever been given this warning.

You see, it had become a known fact over the years that women who went out to various areas of the plant on their own, to complete commissioning checks on lines or equipment, were often taunted, harassed or almost raped (had it not been for the intervention of a passer-by) by the many unfamiliar and external contractors performing work during the shutdown period.

In a country where the national cultural wheel turns one cog every five to 10 years, we are fortunate to have at least started the dialogue #PressForProgress.

Let's just reflect on this for a moment. Those people accused of harassing women and behaving inappropriately were contracted employees. Does this mean that the rules on how to behave around a woman are different in their organisation or country?

Does this mean that from now on, as with tourists, we should perhaps provide a handbook for external employees? "Please be sure not to assume that you may approach, fondle or harass any female engineer, operator or technician walking around when the sun goes down – this may be seen as inappropriate behaviour."

And here's the thing – I experienced it too. The catcalling and inappropriate stares by roughly 20 men at a time. Did I do anything about it? No, of course not. I had been forewarned – surely that meant the onus was then on me to be more guarded and keep myself safe?

I'm not unreasonable. I know that change takes time. In a country where the national cultural wheel turns one cog every five to 10 years, we are fortunate to have at least started the dialogue #PressForProgress. As with #millennials who are told they can do and be anything, without understanding the actual steps that need to be taken to progress, so too was it for women.

My father encouraged me to be an engineer – he insisted that I could do anything that any man could. Like many men who have helped motivate women to strive and succeed in STEM fields when we had a lack of female role models, he was not aware of all the challenges. Their efforts were not in vain, though. We are here now, with degrees, with knowledge, bringing awareness.

It is now up to us and those who have been silent to speak up about the injustices within our fields. I want a young female engineer to go into a shutdown thinking about what problem she will tackle this time with greater vigour, rather than thinking about whom she should convince to tag along with her for fear of harassment by someone who has never learned appropriate behaviour.

As for Brenda... When I moved into an office setting, I assumed that the inappropriateness would be curbed. Rather naïve, I know.

It's not as if men stop being inappropriate*** once behind a desk. We were all aware of one particular male counterpart who ogled, passed inappropriate comments about or discussed the dress and appearance of the women in our team. We all knew about him – his comments and behaviour disgusted us.

We didn't report him.

Wendy Walsh summed it up by saying: "I know the power of patriarchy, I know what men do when they're angry." Well sisters, if anything, after #MeToo and #TimeIsUp, men now know what women do when they're angry – tell him to watch his step.

*Brenda is a fictional character

**A shutdown period sees a portion of the plant switched off to allow for critical maintenance or commissioning work.

***Insert profanity of your choice here.

The original post appeared in Huffington Post SA: Women Must Speak Up About The Injustices In Their Fields