Author: Fiona Gleed

When someone sets out an aspiration to be a positive man in 2018, they deserve a positive response. This reply is a personal perspective, reflecting on my own experiences in Engineering and Universities, to recognise progress and suggest ways we can all work for further positive change.

I was going to start this response by addressing #MeToo but, as Alastair notes that quickly becomes political - and also far too personal for a public blog platform. I will therefore leave that debate to others: to Tom Bradby highlighting the need for men to take a stand against lads’ culture; and to Jo Brand responding to Ian Hislop’s comment that “some of this is not high level crime”. Instead I will take my lead from Margaret Atwood, interviewed in The Guardian “The choices are: fix the system; circumvent the system; or burn it down and substitute something different entirely. Sexual assault is rarer in countries with less wealth imbalance, so why not start there?”

And if that’s where we are going to start, it is worth taking a look back to see how far we have come in rebalancing wealth and power. There are plenty of timelines setting out key dates, for example these Fawcett Society summaries of key UK events in their 150 year history, or this Guardian global perspective on money and feminism stretching back over 5000 years  but I am going to take a more personal approach and consider my own experiences and those of my Mother and Grandmother.

My Grandmother was an undergraduate about 1930, studying botany, which was considered a more acceptable subject for women than zoology. However she was required to stop working when she married, after a long engagement whilst my Grandfather qualified as a teacher and achieved a salary sufficient to support a family. In retirement they were completely dependent on his pension, which meant he continued teaching until his 70th birthday.

My Mother was an undergraduate about 1960, studying Geography. She considered a career in surveying but changed direction as professional qualification seemed out of reach. She was allowed to work after marrying, but was openly turned down for a secretarial role on the assumption that motherhood would swiftly follow. Whilst she could build up her own pension, married women were encouraged to elect for a reduced rate of National Insurance with their husband’s contributions determining their state pension entitlement. It was only in the 1970s that women were allowed to get mortgages without a male guarantor and granted a legal entitlement to equality in employment and training, with provision for maternity leave. This came too late for my mother, though she did get #ThanksForTyping on my Father’s first book, and went on to develop a career organising events and editing journals once my brother and I were at school.

I was an undergraduate about 1990, studying Engineering Science. The 1980s saw active steps to increase the number of girls going in to science and engineering, with the WISE campaign starting in 1984 and I went on one of their INSIGHT courses, a welcome boost before application to university. At interview for Imperial, I was one of only 2 female candidates in a group of 100. Oxford turned out to be slightly better, with 10% women, but in challenging Somerville College’s decision to admit men we discovered that some colleges were getting no female applicants for engineering. I can only remember one female lecturer, Dr. Gilliane Sills, though her specialisation in soil mechanics may explain why the final year Civil Engineering group was 50:50.  I also volunteered as a helper with the local Beaver Scout Colony, one of the earliest groups to include girls when the Scout Association started admitting them. Ratios were better when I started work at Arup, who were already recruiting about 30% women at graduate level.

A bright future for diversity in Engineering consultancy

However in regional offices, like Bristol, maternity leave was a rare occurrence and procedures had not been tested for some years when I had my daughter. Paternity leave was entirely at employer’s discretion so whilst my colleagues at Arup enjoyed a full week and the dispatch of official flowers, my partner’s employer allowed him a single day!

With my mother and daughter at Bristol Zoo

My daughter will still be an undergraduate in 2020. Whilst she will benefit from significant progress since her Great-Grandmother’s graduation, there are still challenges and some of them seem to be increasing. Much attention has been paid to the 20% proportion for girls in A level physics classes and research by the Institute of Physics concludes this may be related to a wider issue of gender based subject selection.

In looking for solutions, we do need to be careful to consider context as the UK is not typical. Some still claim that there is a “natural” ratio of women in Engineering, seemingly unaware that the proportion is much higher in other European countries. And looking to the US we need to be aware that their the ability to tackle gender inequality and sexual harassment are exacerbated by a political climate that limits contraceptive choices, access to health care during pregnancy, and employment rights, including parental leave. However, we also need to understand the extent to which some of these rights, even in the UK, are tenuous on fixed term or temporary contracts

So what measures would help with the final push towards equality? I’ll start with a response to Alastair’s suggestions:

Give women in a conversation the same space to talk as you would like. Interruptors are usually annoying whoever they are, but tend to be men far more often than women.

Expectations are very variable, even between families. My own family have a history of both deafness and debating, neither of which are conducive to developing good behaviours in conversational turn taking!
This post by Prof Athene Donald on Taking the Chair has some useful points on ensuring all voices are heard, at least in formal meetings.

Give women a step-up when it makes sense. E.g. if you’ve been asked to give a talk somewhere, think if there’s a woman you know who doesn’t get the publicity time she deserves who would do it better. Another positive action is to give approval for well-balanced panels at conferences and events.

There is a significant role for monitoring and possibly quotas. Monitoring is important to understand context, for example understanding disparities in subject choice at A level, can inform initiatives to attract more undergraduates.
Quotas tend to be more contentious when discussed, but there seems to be a general acceptance of existing ones. The IStructE Council has quotas for region, a relatively arbitrary characteristic seeing that it is possible to work in Western Counties whilst living in Wales, but seems reluctant to use similar measures to achieve a better gender balance for either candidates or delegates.

If you see unacceptable behaviour taking place, say something. Depending on the situation, at the time – for University of Bath, here is the guidance on reporting sexual harassment

Speaking up can turn the path of events. Whilst I definitely saw more unacceptable behaviour in army cadets or waitressing, there have been times in Engineering when I have been grateful for a colleague’s challenge to attitudes on working mothers – and sorely missed back up on the display of “girly” calendars, which were still being distributed well in to the 1990s.

Look at women in the face whilst talking. 

Eyes do matter – but this can be problematic both ways. Humans are highly tuned to faces, to the extent that it is quite possible to walk in to someone if their face is well above your eye line! As with interrupting, there are also differing social and cultural expectations, and specific issues related to disabilities such as autistic spectrum conditions.

Amplify women’s contributions if you are in a sector where they are under-represented. E.g. via Twitter, in formal meetings, conversations etc.

This one needs some refinement! There is a danger of echoing the Punch cartoon featured in Athene Donald’s blog “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” and also in Prof. Mary Beard’s exploration of the Public Voice of Women. It may be better to pass the question than amplify the answer. However, there is definite scope to ensure that citations, examples and illustrations diversify expectations rather than reinforcing streotypes.


I would also offer some further suggestions:

  • Next year will be the Centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society, formed in 1919 to support women who had developed engineering skills during World War 1. The organisation continues to support women to this day with affiliated student groups such as WESBath. Whilst full membership is reserved for those identifying as female engineers, anyone supportive of the aims of the society is welcomed as an Associate Member and with an International Women in Engineering Day on 23rd June each year, there is a great opportunity for outreach.


  • Show you care, and recognise others who care. We need to expect, respect and facilitate men’s contribution to parenting so that responsibilities, and rewards, are more fairly shared. It’s much easier to achieve a work:life balance if you can adjust both sides of the ratio! And we need to be honest about hours. Long hours may be necessary but if they are under-reported then that impacts on workload models and assessment of efficiency as well as the logistics of childcare and time available for additional activities, whether social, professional or essential for wellbeing.



  • Try something from outside your comfort zone. Whilst J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series has done a great deal to provide a common canon of childhood literature, there are many books that are primarily read by girls or boys. So maybe it is time to read Alice in Wonderland and contemplate how much easier it is to achieve balance if we are willing to take from both sides of the mushroom. There’s a similar issue around sport. Whilst I’ve been a willing participant in various social sports from indoor cricket, hockey and squash through to paintballing and a half marathon, I’ve never had the courage to try 5 a side football. Perhaps, rather than hoping women can catch up on skills honed at every opportunity by boys, men could give Netball a go? It seems to be a curiously British expectation that this fantastic sport is not played by men as well as women.

So Alastair, thank you for opening the conversation – though I dare say if I truly want to Change the Patriarchy, I should not have waited for permission to write!

Posted in: Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering


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