From not having enough toilets to accommodate biological female needs, to a lack of spacesuits of the right size to accommodate an all-female spacewalk, to testing seat belts on crash dummies modelled on men, these are just a few examples of how women’s needs have not been considered in engineering design. In some cases this exclusion has led to minor inconvenience, in others social exclusion and at the most extreme, increased risk of fatality in comparison to men.
To practice globally responsible engineering means to embed inclusion into the heart of the engineering design process. Considering who you are designing for is just as important as considering what you are designing, and that means embracing the diversity of humanity.
At Engineers Without Borders UK we take inclusivity seriously, embedding it as a fundamental component of the globally responsible engineering approach we promote. This message seems to be making an impact; at last year’s Engineering for People Design Challenge finals some of the competing teams designed specifically with women in mind, an often excluded group in the focus area of Tamil Nadu, India. The winning team designed a community space for women and children, made of sustainable resources. This proposed space was intended to address the need for the women in the community to get together, share and support one another. The runners up designed culturally sensitive and affordable sanitary products, including a cotton pouch to cover the sanitary towel whilst drying. This helped women and girls hygienically manage their menstrual cycle and sensitively overcome cultural stigmas associated with menstruation. Focusing specifically on women, highlighted to students that new opportunities arise when considering the needs of different groups of people and that this influences engineering design in profound ways, often becoming the deciding factor in the success or failure of a project.
The Sustainable Development Goals specifically pull out the importance of achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls in Goal 5. Good engineering design that is inclusive should mean that women aren’t discriminated against in the products we use or systems we rely on. But inclusivity also goes beyond ensuring we’re incorporating the ergonomics and biology of women into design thinking, it’s also about how wider engineering infrastructure is helping or hindering achieving gender equality.
Gendered division of labour is often particularly stark in communities with little to no access to electricity and water. Running a household under these circumstances is more onerous and often falls to women and girls to undertake these daily tasks; forfeiting paid work or education which could lead to improved quality of life. This deficit of access to basic necessities in regions such as sub Saharan Africa has led to initiatives such as the Efficiency for Access Coalition; accelerating the growth of the off-grid electricity industry. Accessibility of engineering infrastructure can directly and indirectly play a role in achieving gender equality, as a result, inclusion is an issue for all in engineering.
Providing the tools that engineers can use to embed inclusion (of gender and wider diversity) into all engineering design is a subject close to the heart of Dawn Bonfield MBE. Dawn is Director of Engineering Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Aston University, one of our university partners. She is a Royal Academy of Engineering Visting Professor of Inclusive Engineering which studies many aspects of inclusion related to engineering outputs. One aspect of this is considering the gender perspective globally:
“…it’s [about] looking at the role of women around the world and trying to see how engineering and technology can support these women who are often disproportionately disadvantaged in terms of, climate change, poverty, hunger, health etc.”
Starting with a repository of case studies to highlight inclusion and exclusion in engineering design, Dawn is now going beyond raising awareness of this topic by working with a variety of partners to influence the next generation of engineers.
Ensuring the inclusion of women does not mean the exclusion of men. Jo Ashbridge, Engineers Without Borders UK Change Maker and founder of architectural charity AzuKo points out that in her work which has included working with communities in Bangladesh, Canada, China, DRC, Uganda, the UK and Vietnam, everyone in the community has to be, and is consulted. Her team’s role is to facilitate the most appropriate way in which to hear everyone’s opinions increasing the chance that they will achieve the most effective and inclusive solution.
It’s not easy, but it’s the right thing to do.
“Gender equality is a moral imperative – it’s simply the right thing to do. And I believe (and studies tell us) that women’s empowerment leads to society’s advancement – it’s a no brainer.”