By Megan Berger
Picture a civil engineering laboratory: full of heavy noisy testing equipment, aggregate dust and hot bitumen, and pressure to get results out quickly. What about the people in the laboratory? Is there a mix of men and women? Chances are, you visualise a male dominated workplace and through no fault of your own.
Today we’re surrounded by things that reinforce stereotypes of roles and genders, as evidenced in this experiment. But now, for the sake of this article, envisage a woman leading that same laboratory scene – her name is Janet Jackson.
Janet is the Technical Services Manager at Road Science (a division of Downer NZ). She oversees the design and testing of asphalt pavement structures which involves managing 40 laboratory staff. “I run and manage the laboratories for Road Science, making sure that all the testing is done to the IANZ standards, while also overseeing some of the technical engineering decisions of the contract.”
With 43 years of experience under her belt, Janet is practiced at handling this workload. Starting a career in engineering in the 1970s, some things were very different from today, but others are still stubbornly the same.
Janet was one of five other female engineers in her graduating year, and before them, only 12 had graduated in the engineering field. While numbers are significantly higher these days, we’re still a long way from seeing equal gender diversity in the engineering industry.
Once Janet started working, she continued to be the only women engineer in her field for most of her career. “I started in one of the contracting companies and I got told by the CEO in the first week, ‘Remember, Janet, this is a bloke’s company’. I had no female mentors nor any women above me to look up to. The only other women were the administration staff, so it was quite lonely but regardless I really enjoyed the work,” says Janet.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my engineering career in the civil contracting industry, but I have been knocked back, belittled and bullied because of my gender. I’ve been told I’m the token female and referred as the girlie, but you’ve just got to continue to grow from it.”
Thankfully, the comments and initial start to her career didn’t get her down. When Janet decided to pursue a role working in the civil contracting industry, she knew it would be different and difficult. “I decided to set some values for myself: integrity, excellence and courage,” says Janet.
“I looked at all these men and I thought, I don’t really have to be like them. I was very much daunted by them, because they look at things differently from how a woman does. I just decided that I would live by my values and do it my way. Sometimes I would think, ‘Oh, so I need to be more like him. Am I going to be more successful if I’m like him?’ But you can’t be like him because you have a different approach as a female.”
Janet is not alone when it comes to having to navigate tricky situations in a male-dominated workplace. In addition to the values she set for herself, a comment by someone many years ago has also guided her career: be the best you that you can be.
“That really is what you’ve got to do. Females are different but you don’t have to stand out, you’ve just got to be the best you that you can be. You have to have courage, because you will be tested all the time,” says Janet.
As a manager overseeing a large team, Janet plays a central role in developing the policies around important workplace practices, including flexible working. Her stance on things like parental leave was shaped by her own experience years ago. “I was very fortunate when I started in my career to have a boss who, when I had my first pregnancy, actually wrote a letter and asked me to take [parental] leave. [Parental] leave hadn’t even been brought in to the workplace yet at that point. It wasn’t law, so it was a big move for them,” says Janet.
Once Janet did start working again, she was given a phone and a fax machine so she could easily work from home for some hours during the week. There was a 14-year period in Janet’s career where she didn’t work a single full week in the office, but continued to hold down national positions and receive promotions and she is eternally grateful for the flexibility that allowed her that.
“Because I was given that opportunity, I now work very hard at making sure that my staff can do the same. We have staff that come in late or early and then work, or maybe go home early, or need to leave for school pick-up and drop-off. It’s for the men just as much as it’s for the women,” says Janet. “I’m very much a supporter of it because I was given that level of flexibility and I understand how life changing that can be.”
The female impact
Over the course of Janet’s career, she has seen a marked difference in the number of female engineers entering the civil contracting industry, and she has a few ideas on how that shift has occurred. “When I first came to Downer NZ 14 years ago, there were no female engineers. It was only because of the Christchurch earthquake that we started recruiting female engineers. This has made a huge difference to the culture of the company,” says Janet.
“There were so many times throughout my career when I thought ‘I’ll never be a manager because I won’t ever manage people like a man does.’ I now know that I can be a successful manager doing it my way”.
“The women that are coming through now have a balance of male and female engineers to look up to. There is also developmental courses and mentoring available, which is something we simply didn’t have in my era,” says Janet.
Many leaders today are still dragging their feet when it comes to implementing better diversity and inclusion policies aimed at attracting the best talent. For Janet, the case for flexible policies and the effect they have on a workplace is simple. “You’ve got to think about how you can get the best out of a person. Most of the time, you can get the best out of someone if they’re comfortable with the hours that they work,” says Janet.
“If you dictate that they must work from eight to five then they’re actually quite stressed, as they have to leave right at five o’clock, or they’ve got to try and get someone to look after their kids. So I think it’s about creating a balance where the person can give their best at home and at work.”
A message to the up-and-comers
It’s worth mentioning that it’s not just the leaders and organisations that need to change their way of thinking. A lot of young engineers tend to enter the workforce with a bit of cockiness that can get in the way of them developing meaningful relationships with older, more experienced colleagues.
“I have noticed that some of the younger men and women tend to write the older people off. The older ones might not have today’s technology skills, but everyone can contribute,” says Janet. If you listen to them they’ll then start listening to you, and that’s when change happens. You’ve just got to do it gradually and gain each others trust and respect.”
Through more awareness and more initiatives like the Diversity Agenda, Janet hopes to see more women engineers entering the workforce. “If you’ve got an analytical brain and you love solving problems, going to work each day and finding solutions, then why not pursue engineering. It’s a shame that it’s just not a career many women know about or see themselves in,” says Janet. “As long as you aim to be the best you that you can be and you’ve got that passion for the field, you’ll be set for whichever path you choose.”