Having all the eagerness knocked out of your ice-cream experience by the wind of contempt; is a pretty good summation of Friday’s session.
After receiving the invite to a Think Tank session hosted by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) (in its post-Manglin-era); you would’ve seen my social media activity, which displayed a fair share of positivity. I was (and still am) grateful for the ability to have sat down with: the SAICE executive board, members from SAICE, consulting engineering companies, representatives from WITS and other organisations who were instrumental in speaking out during the time of the ‘Out on a Rib’ piece, by the then-CEO. I was warmly greeted and introduced to others as “THE Kamentha”, which then seemed to leave the other person with a sense of discomfort - much to my own amusement.
The day’s agenda was supposed to be focused on diversity and inclusion, with the hope of drawing up a plan and even having possible steps towards drawing up a policy within SAICE. It sounded reformist and had obviously gained support from the almost thirty people in attendance. SAICE had even chosen to utilize a third party to conduct the session; which I reasoned was a logical step. An ‘outsider’ may have a more objective stance, given the tension around the said incident. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions; and the use of this particular facilitator may have been the single worst decision of the day. Being unable to understand his audience’s standpoint or the very emotions felt due the existing dialogue around women in the engineering space; the facilitator went down a slippery path of offensive rhetoric. “It’s still a man’s world - you know like the song?”, “how many men haven’t said worse than what was said in that article”, “I’m too old, so it’s too late for me to rewire” and so the wind whooshed in, causing the day to spiral into a rather sad mess of well,…the melted once-delicious-attention of all the attendees.
At this point it was most interesting to observe the reactions around the very diverse room, to this complete melt down (if you’ll allow me to stay with that ice cream metaphor). The youngest members of the attendees objected fervently. Those in the midst of their careers attempted to calm the room by suggesting openness to the dialogue being created. And those close to a retirement; remained silent. Peter Block mentions in his book, Flawless Consulting, that the presenting problem is often never the real issue. We were not there to find a clear path to creating a gender diverse and inclusive policy for SAICE. It turns out; we were instead putting the entire 115 year old organization under a magnifying glass. From my outside perspective, the ageism was finally in full view. Bearing its shameful backside to all in the room. My own mind recalled recent revelations that there will soon be five generations present within the workforce. Had anyone in the room read any of that research? Had anyone in the room digested the typical bite-sized five quick tips on how to prepare for this eventuality?
“The incident (the article) is not relevant here today...it was (like) catching a cold to check your health”. I cringed a little when I heard this - for two reasons. One: Yes, the article is still relevant. It was the very reason that all these amazing minds were gathered in one room, willing to have an open discussion on how to bring about change. I asked the question to the group – does everyone agree with what was offensive about the piece? Silence. The women understood the severity of the words and were even more fed up knowing that they had spent an entire day reliving and repeating themselves. A young white engineer bravely explained that the article spoke about many topics but from a place of privilege, which he understood well. Two: An organization which has been in existence for 115 years should not wait until a PR nightmare to begin assessing its health. Here’s where I speak to all those engineers in the room who complained about the difficulty with maintenance and how little of it we do within our infrastructure. It seems that in business too, the same holds true. How often should organisations consider their health? With 11 000 members pointing out various issues from time to time, it would surely be wiser to take council on at least on a yearly basis? And when you do, how willing are you to really listen and act on the diagnosis?
While the board and other attendees reflect on the day’s discussions, I hope that we will all think about not just about diversity, action plans and rushing to draft a document. Dialogue is necessary and if anything, Friday’s discussion was revealing in more ways than we may all have cared to accept.
While there are indeed generational differences between us; saying that it is too late to change and that it is now time for the younger generations to make things right - removes yourself from the solution.
A wind of change is coming. Your voices will most certainly caution us, but allow us to try to step out. And when the ice cream plops to the floor; let’s turn back together to go inside. Let’s get another one and start over…because we can.