EqualEngineers and masculinity in engineering

19 March 2020

Mark McBride-Wright, Founder and Managing Director of EqualEngineers, explains how making the engineering industry more inclusive improves mental health in the workforce

EqualEngineers was established in 2017 when founder, Mark McBride-Wright, saw how a truly integrated approach was needed to improve equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) for underrepresented groups in the engineering and technology industries. His mission centres around creating inclusive organisations by diversifying their workforce, improving stakeholder health and wellbeing, and connecting inclusive employers with diverse candidates. This was led by research that showed how companies with a diverse workforce make organisations 35% more likely to outperform their competitors, while inclusive teams outperform their peers by 80%1. Highlighting these benefits and teaching companies how to implement ED&I programmes has an overwhelmingly positive and long term impact.

Taking an entrepreneurial approach to this mammoth task, Mark realised a year into his work that there was a distinct lack of engagement from the male majority. The engineering sector is a male dominated industry, with only 9.7% of women in the engineering workforce actually occupying a position as an engineer2; so, for any real change to happen, engaging the male majority was key. Interestingly, it was during a leadership panel in April 2018, at The Women in Construction & Engineering Awards, Mark posited that to truly engage men in D&I programmes, they have to first understand their own diversity story. By allowing men to be vulnerable and open about their own experiences, what makes them different, and how their own stereotyping of their gender can negatively affect them, the conversation becomes fully inclusive and helps foster empathetic learning. This has a positive effect on workplace culture by creating a space for everyone to feel safe, heard and validated.

Mental health and masculinity

Male suicide rates in the construction sector are 3.7 times higher than the average3, and it was this alarming statistic that led Mark to commission his own research on mental health in the engineering sector. Coinciding with World Mental Health Day on the 10th of October 2018 and closing on the 21st of December 2018, the Masculinity in Engineering report – the first of its kind – revealed some interesting findings. 

  • 1 in 4 engineers believe society expects men to be macho, i.e., displaying showily or aggressively masculine characteristics
  • 75% of female engineers would say society regards men in a positive light, although more men disagree than agree with this statement
  • Men are 3.5 times more likely than women to admit they’ve self-harmed or considered taking their own lives
  • Fewer women engineers suffer from poor mental health and suicide ideation than male engineers

These statistics reveal a worrying trend that highlights how men’s opinions of themselves, how they think society sees them, and how they view their general mental health and wellbeing is pretty poor. Furthermore, the report revealed how engineers are more likely to discuss their physical health rather than their mental health, which means the number reported doesn’t necessarily reveal the true extent of the crisis.

Diversity and Inclusivity

So, what can be done to tackle these issues? The Masculinity in Engineering report suggests several ways to combat the negative stereotypes around masculinity, and how creating an inclusive environment for everyone to benefit from has positive effects on workplace culture and wellbeing. 

Treat physical safety and mental health the same way 

Employers tend to focus on the physical safety of their employees rather than their mental health, with wellbeing programmes typically an ‘add on’ or ‘opt in’ provision alongside workplace benefits. The Masculinity in Engineering report suggests that Health & Safety departments start viewing wellbeing as their issue too. Doing so ensures the psychological and emotional safety of a workforce, which empowers them to talk openly about their mental health as well as their physical health. H&S departments need to make appropriate resources available by working with the leaders of their organisation to embed positive mental wellbeing programmes, which are then set against key metrics to track their progress.

Focus on inclusion

The fact ED&I programmes exist is because underrepresented groups have fought for their right to be heard. Their hard work and determination is why huge strides have, and are, being made in the workforce around diversity. These groups still have a place; however, the Masculinity in Engineering report suggests that because a significant amount of men feel excluded from most D&I programmes, and engaging the majority is key for embedding an inclusive culture, tackling the reasons for this lack of engagement is the next step. Ways this can be achieved is by enabling the male majority to:

  • Understand what makes them different (learning what their own diversity story looks like)
  • Discuss the negative impacts of gender stereotyping
  • Learn how unconscious biases influence their workplace culture

Doing this will help foster empathy, lead to higher engagement and understanding of other people’s experiences, and allow the male majority to feel heard and supported alongside their peers.

Offer flexible working opportunities

The benefits of a healthy work-life balance are well documented for both an individual and the company they work for. Increased productivity, lower levels of stress, and overall job satisfaction mean offering flexible working opportunities for all engineers, regardless of their background, is an intuitive solution. The Masculinity in Engineering report revealed that both male and female engineers are about as likely to have caring responsibilities, and of those who have them, 72.4% work flexibly. By diversifying its available forms and making it available to everyone – including senior leaders who need to role-model its possibilities – everyone can reap the benefits.

Allow men to define their own masculinity

With the current mental health crisis in the engineering sector, it’s more important than ever to embolden men to proudly define their own masculinity, talk about their mental health, and feel included in the beneficial D&I culture. Shifting the conversation purely onto the ‘toxic’ in toxic masculinity, the discussion can centre around the specific traits and behaviours associated with the macho culture that need addressing. This makes way for healthy, diverse and inclusive work environments for everyone. 

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