Sex, Power and Engineering: an engineer's brain trapped in a queer mind

This post first appeared on ReTheZine.

This was the title of a paper that I drafted ages ago. I stopped writing because it was a bit fragments-and-rage but it went like this: You start your career in an engineering firm in RichCapitalCity where callers assume you are the admin person when they hear your high-pitched voice on the phone. After getting some experience, you wangle a job working in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster. Sharp intake of breath on first visiting MassiveUK-BasedNGO, on seeing just how many women work there – it is so unlike any workplace you’ve seen (later you realise this is one of the constraints on maternity packages, odd since tackling foreign “gender issues” is a corporate/strategic objective). 

You have worked through the young+female engineer thing where it takes a while for snarly or slack-jawed reactions on construction sites to abate but then you get transplanted to PoorCountry. In PoorCountry, seniority and a professional education really matter. Not by coincidence then, engineers are (usually) men, they’ve had an education and are older than you. You ostensibly become their line manager. Your organisation is bringing a nice, non-hierarchical and participatory togetherness ethos but laying it over a society and a profession where hierarchy is paramount. Tricksome.

Then during a chance crossing from PoorishCountry into QuiteRichCountry, you get detained and feel a bit paranoid and affronted that the person detaining you looks about 12 and has a gun AND is female. You are ashamed to realise it’s because you also now think young+female should not mean that kind of power. You feel old. It reminds you of coming back from a remote, conservative area to a UN meeting and being embarrassed for yet another bronzed Euro-Intern looking so naked in a strappy top. Then you wonder how that might feel if you were a 50 year old engineer from PoorCountry or a droopy-tashed foreman with 30 years experience from ReallyPoorCountry. Oh gawd, this is SO AWKWARD.

Then to top it off you also feel a bit gross and guilty about being gay in all these Poor Countries that outlaw it. You even start to sympathise with resistance to gay marriage because you can see how someone might see it as a premature extension of certain material privileges before everyone has been allowed to catch up; before other things are fair. But then you see a bling foreign-style wedding and think but isn’t all marriage a bit gay? The only difference between these two people, equal and homogeneous on all other socio-economic indicators (and this is a major prospective spousal filtering priority) in this UpAndComingCountry, is that one is a dude and one is a chick.

These days you get invited – guess why – to answer the (one) question on “shelter and gender”. But here’s the thing: surely you don’t have to be a woman (or a gender specialist, for that matter) to wonder about sex and power. You read the “gender paragraph” reporting the percentage of female-headed households on an NGO beneficiary list and think, jeez, this is without any context or curiosity about sex and power. You see articles like this and realise that there are other people who find it sad – even deliberate or sinister – that honour crimes or EsGeeBeeVee (SGBV = Sexual and Gender Based Violence) (which are real and horrific) are still all the world knows about the relations between men and women, power or inequality in that PoorButStrategicallyImportantCountry. Then you hear a journalist called Shereen El Feki on the radio saying “not all men are powerful in the hetero-patriarchy” and you think, tell me about it.

I know conflating my frustration at the international humanitarian system with some more difficult, generalised distrust of the hetero-patriarchy is not helpful but it’s an advance on an “overarching singular way of thinking” (dismissed resoundingly by Michael Sandel here). It gets me away from a predisposition towards a black and white world view but means that I am fated to wish constantly for order, while simultaneously being madly irritated by ambiguity and by the people (and the hetero-patriarchy) who see none.