When it comes to gender, we may have something to teach

The now-viral #MeToo social media campaign has allowed brave women around the world to share their stories of sexual harassment, and prompted Betsy Agar, P.Eng., to reflect on her experiences in engineering, which she says make her grateful for the supportive men she worked with.

Sexual harassment is a condition apparently plaguing the film industry, the military, the police, the legal community—the list is growing as fast as media can report cases. Given the relative dearth of women in engineering, I’m left wondering whether this male-dominated industry is likely to join this hall of shame.

To me, the answer is not obvious.

Throughout my undergrad and master’s studies and in practice, I was somehow sheltered from the types of interactions struggling actresses and naïve cops faced, particularly while establishing their careers.

Here I would love to name names of the bosses, colleagues and mentors—particularly at Peto MacCallum Ltd.—who only ever showed me respect and support, who treated me equitably and looked to me for guidance on identifying and addressing potential challenges I might face as a woman. Their minds were open and they were ready to help.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect but with my mentors and colleagues I felt empowered to point out biases and to shape needed change. My vulnerability to assault was only apparent to me when I was onsite. One particular event stands out.

I was managing the wall assembly inspection of a building conversion from a local high school to condos. After grinding through so many new builds, I was excited to finally be part of a retrofit project—rehabilitation of existing buildings was what attracted me to building science in the first place—and there was this really chatty carpenter I enjoyed bantering with while I was onsite. It was a project I looked forward to.

On my last day he hugged me.

He stood about six feet five inches and I was suddenly overcome with the realization that we were isolated in a part of the building where no one else had cause to enter and with only one way out. I left immediately, hoping I had documented the inspection properly, and relieved I would not see him again.

Whether that hug was as threatening as it felt I will thankfully never know, but what became abundantly clear to me is that the vast majority of men would never find themselves in that situation. He had crossed a very clear professional line yet I was the one who felt vulnerable and somehow ashamed. He has likely never thought twice about it.

I told no one. I worried I would be kept off certain jobs because I am a woman, or worse, that they would think it was no big deal and that I was being silly to worry. I can read the words I am writing and think exactly that but when I close my eyes and return to that day, my sense of panic rushes in.

Other contractors made assumptions about me too, like that I was one of the “girls in the front office,” but my male colleague—they were all male—corrected that misperception before I could even form a response. More often, though, contractors carried on rich conversations with me about the elegance of architectural features being lost as masons were being pushed into engineered masonry or about the toll that installing tar and gravel roofing takes on a person’s mind and body.

While I did not emerge unscathed, the majority of my experiences were positive, particularly when it came to my colleagues. They welcomed my ideas and trusted that if I showed up at the office wearing a skirt I would have coveralls to slip over my clothes. My #MeToo story has made me grateful for the men I worked with.

I have not practised since having kids 15 years ago, which is why I am feeling particularly reflective about my time in engineering. Since leaving, I have ironically had more experiences that emphasized my gender than I had while practising—from men and women. What is surprising is that these have been at their worst in the not-for-profit, social entrepreneurial world—a world I blindly expected would be more enlightened and equitable.

I can only assume that the effect of being a self-regulated, male-dominated field is that the engineering approach to supporting women must be more robust and deliberate—even if flawed—than is possible among other professions.

There will be women reading this who have suffered in ways I have not and it is not my intention to dismiss their experiences. My idealist hope is that the engineering profession has been considering how to be more inviting to women for so long that while we may not be making headway statistically, perhaps we are ahead in professionalism, especially in terms of sexual harassment.

Regardless, it is worth opening the dialogue preemptively, both to uncover aspects of the engineering culture that we may need to change and to make sure we are all on the same page about how equitable, respectful work environments should look and feel—namely safe and empowering. Maybe mine is a uniquely positive experience—let’s find out. We may discover we have more to teach than the story our numbers are telling us.

Betsy Agar, P.Eng., is a PEO member now living in British Columbia. She works on accelerating renewable energy and energy efficiency towards achieving a low-carbon and just economy.