Scene: A womenswear ready-to-wear store in Toulouse, France. My sister, Camille, is trying on a cobalt blue neoprene dress. It’s love at first sight but expensive enough for her to need to justify its purchase.
- Where would I wear it?
- To work?
- You really have no idea of the environment I work in, do you?
Unlike my sister, I work in the luxury fashion industry. I can wear just about anything, long or short, black or colourful, fluid or fitted. Camille is an engineer setting up automated production lines for a company “that makes tyres, but not only”. Our professional fields could hardly be further apart. Since I was so surprised she couldn’t wear the dress to work, she gave me another example: the Zadig & Voltaire stripy jumper and A-line black denim skirt she picked me up at the airport in was already borderline because it was potentially impractical for some of her daily tasks.
Camille attributes her clothing restrictions to three reasons. The first two, cultural acceptance and her colleague’s perceptions, are expected in any industry. People turning up to my office in an ill-fitting, shiny black polyester suit would be frowned upon and considered a bad cultural fit.
Her third explanation, practicality and health and safety, is one I have never encountered, and isn’t one you will read about in any fashion magazine. The lack of representation of her field is one of Camille’s pet peeves when it comes to her monthly reads. Flick through the pages of an average Glamour or Vogue on either side of the Channel and you will find woman after woman working in fashion and media professions.
In the June 2014 issue of Red, there were interviews with and opinion pieces by a Hollywood actress, a Paralympic medallist, freelance writers/bloggers as well as fashion, beauty and restaurant entrepreneurs. Doing a round-up of professions in recent French editions of Glamour and Cosmopolitan, Camille also found: chefs, sex toy sellers, interior designers, community managers, comic book writers, lawyers, admin and finance directors…
Emma Bould, a mechanical engineer working in construction, started subscribing to Harper’s Bazaar a few years ago after switching from a technical to an office-based position. She’s also played the “list the jobs you see” game: “the roles usually profiled are that of successful women in finance, retail, fashion, law, marketing, PR and arts-based roles. It’s not often you see them talk to anyone technical and if there is, it’s usually someone who has been successful in IT.”
Professions such as politics, where there is in actual numbers, though not in proportion, less women than in engineering (6% of the UK engineering workforce is female vs. 22.6% of the House of Commons as of February 2014), are regularly represented in glossy pages. In jobs where success depends on public visibility, magazines can be useful. But the women who work in unrecognised or ‘backroom’ industries are equally, if not more, deserving of a space in the spotlight, if only because they’re not courting it for personal gain.
This is the first key thing all the featured women have in common: they all have a product, even if it is themselves, to promote. Secondly, they are often self-employed and therefore don’t have to abide by corporate communication rules that dictate who can use an employer’s name in public. One of the engineers I spoke to for this piece said she was “more than happy to talk to you and answer your questions. I will have to do so off the record as my company can be funny about these things.”
Camille studied Physics (which, as she puts it, “is not electricity”) at the prestigious INSA engineering school in Toulouse. The graduation picture on her fridge shows the clear imbalance in her class towards men: only a third of her fellow students were female. This is actually more balanced than British statistics. In 2011, 85% of engineering and technology graduates in the UK were male (HESA, 2010/11, quoted in WISE statistics 2012). In 2012, 12,880 men completed engineering Apprenticeships compared with 400 women, according to Education and Skills: Learner Participation, Outcomes and Level of Highest Qualification Held (Data Service, Quarterly Statistical First Release, March 2013).
What’s your cleanroom uniform?
Since graduating, Camille has held a few jobs, including one at a microchip company, the type that manufactures the touch-and-go chip your car is equipped with. As part of her quality checks, she worked in a cleanroom, une chambre blanche as it is known in France. A cleanroom is clean because no foreign body can be introduced, and that includes make-up. Not being able to apply make-up when you think you are having a bad face day and glossy magazines tout Touche Éclat as the answer can be hard.
Dr Ranah Irshad, a Systems Engineer with eight years’ experience who splits her time between the University of Oxford and RALspace, also works in cleanrooms. “It means wearing full-body overalls (‘bunny suits’) with hoods, overshoes, latex gloves, hairnets and masks. It’s therefore more practical to wear trousers. I’ve been known to wear heels in the cleanrooms, though not the mechanical workshops. I do have serious problems with the cleanroom suits, though - Oxford bought an oversuit specifically to fit me, but they don’t make overshoes in my size so I wander around with clown’s feet. RAL, however, just have default sizes so I have to roll sleeves up and make do.”
Yasmin Ali, an Operations Engineer with four years’ experience, remembers working “at a power station and ending up having the biggest pair of overalls in the world. I was there for six months and had the arms and legs rolled up but the crotch still hung down to about my knees! It’s a bit of a pain getting all this safety clothing in lady sizes and shapes, the engineering and power industry hasn’t quite caught up with the female workforce when it comes to this area. It’s the same whenever we get any company t-shirts, the extra small is usually still too big for me and I don’t consider myself unusually small – 5’6 and size 10!”
Irshad and Ali’s experiences summarise the emails I received from the 26 female engineers interviewed for this piece, particularly regarding the sizing problem. For most of them, health and safety-led wardrobe restrictions are fine, because they are an integral part of the job. Resolving the sizing issue would of course make day-to-day work life easier. Wearing safety shoes every day is no crazier than the restrictive, impossible to walk in five-inch stilettos many women in my office teeter in. It’s just that Harper’s Bazaar will never write a feature on them.
Fashion magazines have a habit, for instance through the pernicious “women at work” and “my closet” type of articles, of suggesting that the women they photograph look like that every day. Whether in engineering, finance or even fashion, they don’t. No matter what your job is, there are restrictions to it and there are days you can’t be bothered. All the engineers I interviewed who labelled themselves as fashion conscious explained that they experimented with fashion during their time off, and often tried to bring a bit of it into their job with scarves and accessories.
According to a trainee at a prestigious automobile company: “When there is a factory which you need to enter on occasions, you need to wear safety equipment. I have a pair of pink safety boots! This is when I need to think more carefully about what I wear… Not many dresses look good with pink ‘Timberland’ style steel toe-cap boots!”
The dress vs. trousers debate was a recurrent theme throughout my interviews. An engineer who graduated in 1963 remembers that “in my day, skirt suits were de rigueur. Men always preceded you going up factory staircases! Nowadays, with trouser suits and smart trousers available, life is much easier. Basically what you wear for engineering work or for city type work is not dissimilar.”
How to dress for sexist situations
City or site, in any workplace, “being taken seriously” influences the way women dress at least as much as health and safety. Livia Garcia, a Project Engineer (Civils) with 18 years’ experience told me she avoided dressing “too lady-like because that will just attract questions like ‘Can you walk on that roof? Are you afraid of heights?’ I learnt that, until you are old enough that your experience shows no matter what you wear, the way you dress does help to project the image that you want other people to perceive.”
A few women mentioned that part of the reason they can’t wear what they want is because of sexist attitudes in the workplace. One of the engineers I spoke to related a conversation that her partner, who worked in the same place as her, had with a male colleague after she’d changed into her work overalls, leaving her dress in the changing room.
"Is that X’s dress hanging up in the…?"
"…Christ…" and he wandered off.
It seems her male colleague was less offended by her changing her clothes, more piqued by the idea that she was now naked underneath her work attire.
A construction engineer, who manages the design of power stations, tells a story that starts in a similar way to many women in the workplace’s anecdotes but ends with a twist inherent to male-dominated environments. “The balance between looking smart, dressing practically and not being mistaken for being the secretary is sometimes a fairly fine line. I regularly attend meetings where I am the only women in the room and I have lost count of the number of times I have asked where the ladies washroom is… because they are not next to the gents, they don’t know”.
Camille, who on her job visits suppliers on a regular basis, recounted something similar when I started working on this post. There are attempts to encourage women to go into engineering, and the need for their skills exists, but many companies are not set up to welcome them. Imagine going to a job interview and realising there is no women’s bathroom to use.
Sound familiar? Sheryl Sandberg, not an engineer by training or profession but who, from Google to Facebook, works in and with companies relying on engineering, told a similar story in Lean In.
As told in Spiegel International:
When the presentation was interrupted for a break after two hours, Sandberg asked where the ladies’ room was. The firm’s senior partner turned around and offered a blank stare. Stumped by the question, he said he didn’t know where it was located. The company had moved into the offices a year earlier.
"Am I the only woman to have pitched a deal here in an entire year?" Sandberg asked.
"I think so," the client replied, adding, "or maybe you’re the only one who had to use the bathroom."
Feature more role models
Sandberg is a non-engineer, in an engineering field, who has been doing the media rounds. The lack of representation of female engineers and the overrepresentation of fashion and media jobs in magazines mean that young girls and students reading them aren’t knowledgeable about these professions. They might be more inclined to go into fashion or media because it’s what is shown as ‘normal’, cool and glamorous.
Conforming to the norm and the desire to fit in is a real need at the age when most girls decide what they will study which, in turn, determines their first job. Engineering is a vocational profession. Even though it is always possible to retrain later in life, it’s easier to get into it if you have considered it at university.
Silvia Boschetto, the Director/Founder of Silvakey with 22 years’ experience agrees: “having women in engineering represented in media shows female students a career pathway. People that you can associate with, and therefore see yourself becoming, will always stimulate aspirations. It takes a thick skin and an ability to ignore others opinions when you are going against the trend and media/fashion are areas where women are “expected” to work by society - my teachers expected me to become an accountant because I was good at Maths & Science when I had always said I would be an engineer from age 13. Not everybody is comfortable challenging “normal”. So by changing how engineers/scientists are represented we can create a new “normal”.
Tara Saleh, a third year Chemical Engineering Student at the University of Sheffield and a member of the Women in Engineering Students’ Society, is directly in touch with the issue and full of ideas about what female magazines can do to encourage girls to go into engineering. “If you mention the engineering profession in magazines, young females will want to be these professional females. They will see how successful these women are and what they have achieved.”
Saleh has first-hand experience of the identification problem: “I saw a personal stylist in a magazine and wanted to be that but reality hit me right in the face. I have the impression that to thrive in a fashion career, you have to be the cream of the crop, top class! An article just showing a female engineer, describing her job and how she got to where she is, along with some personal parts showing that not all engineers look like the stereotypical ones but can love fashion and beauty too.”
Breaking the engineering stereotype of a woman in a hard hat, sometimes one uncomfortable to wear because hard hat manufacturers don’t think about people with long hair or a fringe, is key to getting more women in the field.
The women I interviewed for this blog post, from students to retired engineers, came from varied fields. Saleh suggests magazines show the diversity and prestige of careers available, linking it directly to fashion if needs be: “We can work for cosmetic companies, for example L’OREAL. We can work anywhere in the world! It is a great degree to have and can lead to great careers, for Rolls Royce and Bentley, the top dogs in cars, along with many other companies like Haribo, Cadbury…”. Camille has applied for jobs with luxury jewellers.
Engineers aren’t completely absent from women’s mags. Last January, Vogue UK featured Jo da Silva, a civil engineer at Arup. The article was praised in the field, covered in specialist blogs and earned the publication a few more readers. Ali actually bought the magazine for the first time in ages because of the feature.
Irshad stopped buying glossies because she couldn’t imagine her size 12 in the outfits presented. In that sense, female engineers aren’t different from the many women who have stopped reading glossies because they can’t afford the overpriced clothes and can’t relate to the skinny models and the celebrity news.
But not all engineers feel alienated by their lack of representation. “I read Cosmopolitan, Glamour. I find all their articles really generic and therefore can be applied to any job, even engineering,” Angela Webb, a development engineer with 3.5 years’ experience, told me.
Boschetto’s explanation of the lack of women engineers in glossies has a lot to do with ingrained clichés. “I would also say as an engineer you are often considered somehow strange if you are interested in reading fashion magazines - so maybe fashion magazines don’t see female engineers as their audience? And therefore feel less need to represent them in their publications or in the media generally?”
Lara Yusuff, a Quality Engineer with over five years’ experience, reads magazines ranging from Ebony to ELLE. She “wouldn’t expect to find inspiration on fashion ideas for work in particular and wouldn’t say I do or don’t recognise myself at all in them. I feel there are different aspects to who I am as a person, individual and professional. As a vibrant young lady who is very much interested in fashion, I can say I do recognise myself in some of these magazines but as an Aeronautical Engineer, I wouldn’t say I do.”
Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo and first woman engineer at Google in 1999, has been a regular on fashion pages since her appointment. Most articles mention her love of fashion and friendships with designers such as Oscar de la Renta. Vogue’s feature on da Silva also had her in fashionable work clothes. As a female engineer, you can be featured in women’s magazines, as long as you comply with their idea of what women should wear.
Choosing not to feature women engineers isn’t just stupid from an inspirational and a feminist perspective; it’s a short-sighted business decision. Considering the salary difference between a fashion employee and an engineer, the latter are much more likely to have the money to purchase the items shown on glossy pages. By missing out on entire professions, magazines are cutting a big part of advertisers potential customers. And, with falling readership numbers, they aren’t really in a position to ostracize any potential readers.
There is no excuse for the under-representation of female engineers in glossy magazines. As tempting and easy as it might be for writers to feature jobs similar to theirs, when I put a call out to groups aimed at the promotion of women in engineering, they all answered. WISE, which aims “to increase the gender balance in the UK’s STEM workforce”, The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), WES Women’s Engineering Society “inspiring women as engineers, scientists and technical leaders” (its executive Vice President Dawn Bonfield inspired the title of this blog post) as well as the #awesomewomen network were particularly helpful. In the end, I interviewed 26 women, either as background research or for quotes. Considering that my blog averages 5,000 monthly readers, I can only imagine how keen they would have been to share their views with a national magazine.