I’m often still really shocked by some of the attitudes against diversifying the workforce in our urban industries.

In July 2018, Manglin Pillay, CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering published this disturbing piece of writing, that clearly demonstrates why we need more women in our urban industries.

It’s titled: “Out on a rib.”

To be honest it took me a while to get this, until another Women in Urbanism member kindly informed me that it was an antagonistic title, a biblical reference to the ‘rib’ that Eve was made from. Fury and queasiness ensued.

Adam & Eve Peter Paul Rubens 1598-1600

Pillay suggests there shouldn’t be funding to encourage women into male dominated STEM industries. Because according to a paper published by Leeds Beckett University, women prefer “people-oriented careers.” Where as the men, well they prefer “things” and “mechanics.”
Plus women all want to be caregivers anyway.

Why is this relevant in a New Zealand context? Because one of Women in Urbanism’s biggest problems is that plenty of city builders in Aotearoa don’t believe Women in Urbanism is needed. We still see eyes rolling into the back of heads while we do the emotional labour of elevator pitching, and talking about issues we really wish weren’t issues. And the snide remarks like “why isn’t there a men in urbanism group?” always find their way back to us.

These are the same people who believe they are practicing inclusive design, and that their designs could not be improved by more women. They don’t agree that a woman’s perspective is needed in the work of city building. So then, why is it our city design is still so shit? Why do we still have to put up with places, spaces and transport networks that make us feel unsafe and unwelcome. Here’s the thing: you cannot claim to value diversity and be designing to meet the needs of all users, if you don’t value diversity around your decision making tables.

Back to Pillay, who actually spews this onto the page: “the fact that more men occupy high profile executive posts is not because of gender but because of appetite for workload and extreme performance requirements.”

Pillay, clearly struggling with verbal diarrhea, also goes on to dig this hole for himself:

But here’s the conundrum – given that money, time and resources are constrained, and evidence pointing to women being predisposed to caring and people careers, should we be investing so heavily in attracting women into STEM careers, specifically engineering, or should we invest in creating more gender-equal societies?

Pillay directly contradicts himself, for how does a gender-equal society come in to being, if women aren’t involved in industries across the board?

In the recent Auckland Museum exhibition titled ‘Are we there yet?‘ there is a photo of a woman holding a placard that reads ‘I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit‘.

Are we there yet?‘ is a great question. With so many seriously misguided people in leadership positions, who are predominantly older, male and white, it’s more than worthy of a conversation.

Women and men are both equally important and hold equal worth, but currently infrastructure funding benefits men more than it does women. Cities are designed largely by men, for men. Our built environment is sexist. Top CEOs in our industry don’t think women should be learning about engineering. Women’s pay is less (which has more to do with unconscious bias than it does women’s negotiating capability). Women’s experience of our transport systems are secondary to mens (women walk more than men, and men drive more than women. We have a perfect roading network, and a shit walking network. Women also cycle less in cities where there is no infrastructure). We have a long way to go to build an equitable urban environment.

The industry stats are bleak in Aotearoa too. There’s a serious lack of women in New Zealand’s urban industries at all levels. Only 15% of Mayors and 20% of District Mayors in Aotearoa are women. In the profession of Architecture, women make up 29% of the industry, 17% in Construction, and just 14% of Engineers are women. There are even fewer Māori, Pasifika and Asian women and men in these industries.

We’re not the only ones appalled by Pillay, and the state of our urban industries. Ferdi Nell from Aurecon, penned an open letter to Pillay, asking Pillay to apologise to the women of South Africa:

We believe the article published under your organisation’s name is extremely damaging to our reputation as engineers and is also insensitive to the ongoing challenges that women engineers face. The article stereotypes women by presenting them as soft and caring, yet ultimately ill-suited for roles that are technically and managerially demanding. It also stereotypes men who by implication are presented as less caring and less suitable for parenting or people-oriented careers. It justifies unequal pay, despite codes and legislation prohibiting discriminatory practices in the workplace. It even stereotypes industry leaders as disagreeable, power hungry and friendless A-types…We believe no single organisation can drive real change alone. We need to combine our efforts to eradicate gender discrimination within the engineering industry and continue to encourage others to do the same.

We need diversity across the board in our city building industries so we can make fair, representative, equitable and appropriate decisions that will ultimately benefit everyone.

I love that Pillay reckons us women prefer ‘people-orientated careers,’ whereas men like ‘things’ and ‘mechanics.’ It’s sort of an accidental confession from Pillay that male engineers don’t consider the people they’re designing for.

We know city design needs to consider the needs of people first. And Pillay does say that women prefer “people-oriented careers”. We have a long way to go, it’s true, until society recognises that if women are truly better off in more “people-orientated careers,” then they’re perfect for the jobs in our urban industries. Especially Pillay’s job.

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  1. There was a great article in The Guardian yesterday about how cities would function better if “mothers” designed them (or at least had a hand in designing them!).


    (I’m not sure if I’m able to include hyperlinks here, but I’ll give it a go…)

    The basic message is that cities (and transport systems, etc), need to be designed to suit the people who use them, and in order to do this, it makes sense to include a diverse range of planners…

    Sigh… seems so simple, really…

    Thanks for the post, Emma.

    1. Thanks Michael. I think this gets to the heart of the problem: “lived experience is a great teacher”. Women have long campaigned for better freedom in and out of the workforce, and where they’ve achieved it, both women and men benefit from the possibilities. The diverse experience people can bring if they’ve been parenting or looking after elderly relatives, or taking any detour that builds a richer experience of people’s needs, should be valued and sought out.

  2. Unbelievable article from a preofessional institute, and good on one of the leading engineering firms for openly rebutting it.

    Thanks Emma, WiU and many others for all the energy you’re putting into changing this shit. Change can’t come soon enough.

  3. Emma, is there somewhere else we can read the article – on that link it says; “This article has been removed.” Ta. And thanks for your post.

  4. Great post Emma! And wonderful to see that Mr Pillay (or Pillock?) has removed the article from LinkedIn.
    In a tangential industry, I’m proud that commercial real estate has been increasingly more female-friendly over the years. It’s a trend has been led by university admissions and is spreading throughout the market. Our firm is now 59.6% female, and we are led by a fantastic female Chairperson.

  5. If men and women are functionally identical in aptitudes and preferences (this is the progressive theory that gender is simply a social construct), then gender diversity in itself shouldn’t be expected to have any benefit to group decision making – although other forms of diversity still may.

    On the other hand, if men and women as a whole differ in aptitudes and preferences, then these differences could be expected to manifest themselves in population level data.

    Logic would dictate that women and men can be absolutely equal, or absolutely different, but not both at the same time. Of course this leaves open the possibility that women are actually superior to men.

    1. Very clinical approach to a problem that has seen women systematically excluded from decision-making roles in many spheres. Do you think the Japanese women having their marks scaled down to ensure more men get into medicine is an isolated anomaly? Do you think the NZ education board’s system that meant pay and rank was determined by ‘unbroken’ years of service was not set up to reward men over women? Do you think the overt and covert abuse of women lawyers – such as ensuring they are sent on jobs out of town as soon as they return from maternity leave, and have to meet a full year’s budget in the remaining 8 months – is anything other than power-grabbing by men? Do you think the architecture field’s known issue of each senior architect choosing a mini-me male youngster to favour with attention and opportunities is fine because it’s not company policy, just common practice?

      Each person has different aptitudes and preferences, many of which are moulded by experience and opportunities. Discovering the barriers to opportunity is important not just for people who are otherwise stifled, but for welcoming in their contributions. We are all better off if decision-makers come from diverse backgrounds and haven’t had to get there through narcissism.

      1. All your points in the first paragraph are valid. We should definitely remove any and all forms of active discrimination such as what you described.

        Once that’s done though, i’d prefer to let the chips fall where they may in terms of people’s life choices.

        1. Agree. I think there are dangers in pushing girls into engineering or Pacific Islanders into medicine against their personal preferences, for example. I just don’t know if we’ll see the job of removing active discrimination ‘done’ in our lifetimes; it’s a work in progress and it does help to have as many people aware of the problems as possible.

        2. The architecture and law examples are recent NZ examples. The education example is NZ from a generation ago – an example for today is looking at the pay rates for part time teachers (they are complicated, and some of the claims don’t stack up by my analysis, but they are still not pro-rata), despite the research showing that half-time teachers do much more than half a full-time teacher does.

          An example I witnessed recently in the Auckland transport field was the exclusion of an amazing, experienced, positive woman from an important design process at a high level, because her style was seen as ‘combative’ when indeed she simply is straight-forward. That old “what’s seen as positive in a man is aggressive in a woman” chestnut that is there to actively discriminate against women getting too far above their ‘station’.

        3. I am not really sure your examples count as discrimination per se. In regards to the law firms I think that is abuse of power and maybe even crimes i.e. sexual assault. Were they discriminated against because of their sex? As we have seen in Hollywood the abuse of power occurred against men and women and by men and women. People abusing their power will always occur.
          For your anecdote, I cannot really reply because it is an anecdote and I do not know the details. However, I was hiring recently and there were a few males that I thought were too “combative” so did not hire them.

        4. Discrimination has never fitted into a nice recognisable box. It seeps up from the complicated mire of culture…

        5. I disagree. I don’t think removing active discrimination is enough. Centuries (millienia even?) of active discrimination has meant we’ve inherited a deficit that needs reversing, not just neutralising. I think there does need to be a temporary period where disproportionate investment is required to rebalance things again.

  6. In free and prosperous societies men and women will make their own choices about which field of work they will enter. There are no legal barriers to enter any field of work and I think boys and girls at school are well aware of career opportunities. Not sure if anything can or even should be done about people making the choices they make.

    1. “Not sure if anything can or even should be done about people making the choices they make” – Yes and no. The issue is that greater inclusion and equality is held back by the rate at which our culture changes.

      The best way to change a culture, is to target the children. That means intentional social manipulation to be blunt – Rather than the current situation of (mostly) unintentional social manipulation, currently towards a North American way of thinking due to immersion in their culture through popular entertainment (TV, movies and music).

      In the 80’s our schools adopted a more Maori-friendly viewpoint than the decades before, where to be Maori was little short of having committed a heinous sin. The result was that my peers are generally less racist than our parents. Casual racism is still and issue, but that’s a cultural issue that is in ascension and in need of serious work.

      If we want more females to consider “traditionally” male interests and careers, we need to work on a creating a supportive culture at school and in child entertainment.

      When I was first training (90’s), we had 4 female students out of ~50 males over three intakes (multi-year study). That was a pretty damn low amount of representation. The girls that were studying were just like any other girls, which is only relevant because the expectation of my non-engineering friends was that the girls interested in electronics must be geeks or “something”. The culture at the time was not supportive of free will in that respect.

      I seriously doubt that our society has evolved far from that mindset. It needs to. We all have the ability to encourage societal change in the right direction, even if we’re not hiring/firing people, and we need to say what needs to be said. We shouldn’t still be where we are.

      So yeah – We do need to consider how we encourage our children to think. We need to help them become better persons than we are as a whole.

  7. Thanks Emma, all power to you.
    The joy in diversity is celebrating our differences, not trying to make everyone fir the same (white male) model. Diversity brings different perspectives and a much more rounded, holistic approach to pretty much everything, which in turn gives a much better result.

  8. Engineering in NZ needs the international expertise of all the Professional institutions. We can’t afford to let slip attitudes that don’t actively encourage the diversity that the profession needs to be able to engineer the infrastructure that society needs. Civil relates to Civic; Engineer does not relate to Machine. As an old, white, male engineer, I had to get old first to be much good. I need to be working in a diverse team to be the best I can be, and to make the team the best it can be in order to make the city the best that it can be.for everyone. Don’t let stereotyping carry on.

  9. Its great to see women working to promote various fields to increase the gender ratio. That is their right to do that and good on them. Over time, things will change.

    As an engineer I have seen many female colleagues leave the industry to have children(or other reason) and never return. In most cases it is by choice even when given the option to return. The bosses sure as heck didn’t want to lose another skilled engineer. Not sure why they didn’t want to come back. I don’t think it was because of discrimination because we are all on the same pay bands and women are being promoted up the ranks. Many companies bend over backwards trying to accommodate workers with kids.

    However, I have a problem with the idea that diversity of race/gender/whatever is somehow a magical thing that we all need more of for some unexplained reason. If there were any financial benefit to hiring more women, greedy corporations would have jumped at the idea decades ago.

    Diversity of thought is the only diversity that matters. If your opinion is illogically stupid or wonderfully astute, being a blind brown lesbian Pastafarian doesn’t suddenly make your opinion any less stupid or more astute. That type of diversity is irrelevant. No matter how unique you think you are, someone has probably already thought of the same idea or held the same opinion at some other time in history. Unless you are working right at the cutting edge of theoretical science.

    I feel that the key is being around people of diverse thinking to challenge you and to gain insights from the clash of opposing ideas. The best innovations are often derived from combining old ideas in ways no one has thought of before. Those insights come from clashes of ideas and challenging the status quo.

    Anyway. More women in decision making roles is an admirable goal, but don’t expect much change to society if the women in charge all think the same as the men.

    1. I wonder if Engineering NZ or your bosses have done much research to find out why the women haven’t come back after child-rearing? I vaguely remember research into what fields women engineers moved into, but I don’t remember any qualitative research. I personally found my male engineering colleagues down-to-earth guys easy to get along with. More traditional, perhaps, than the average. But the odd experience like having a new boss sit me down (as soon as the ship had set off) to make it clear why he believed that women should never work off-shore! Maybe the few negative experiences come back to haunt when you’re in the middle of floundering with hormonal mum stuff.

      It’s possible that lack of support for new mums has as much to do with what mums do next. It’s also possible that engineering as a profession provides less opportunity for part time work? My (fantastic) boss offered to set up a creche on site – how many would do that?

  10. OK I have held back as I can’t promise not to offend but here goes. Diversity of all types promises to improve the range of views and possibly the quality of decisions. But my experience of diversity in practice doesn’t work that way. Women on the outside look in and see too many men. Non-white people on the outside look in and see too many white people etc etc. But as a white man on the outside I look in and see a bunch of arseholes making all the decisions. When pushed to be inclusive they tend to look for women and non-white people who hold exactly the same views they do. The result is they find female arseholes and non-white arseholes to sit on boards of directors and government quangos. The result is basically the status quo. There should be equal opportunities regardless of gender or race but why can’t we use that evening up to get some people who actually give a shit about others into the room.
    As for the trade people choose just let people make their own choices and avoid the fake restrictions on entry to some jobs used to create competitive entry. Don’t discourage anyone. When I studied engineering there were 58 boys and 2 girls in my class. Now it is closer to 2/3 and 1/3. Not equal in numbers but equal in the way it is offered to people.

    1. Post of the Day.

      The diversity push tends to benefit a small cabal of professionally-connected women, who then have a monopoly on gender-allocated roles. You get genital diversity at the expense of life diversity & intellectual diversity.

    2. 2/3 and 1/3 has been achieved in large part through educational programmes that have focussed on how the content of school subjects can be made more interesting for girls, because guess what, it’s not been presented in a gender-neutral way. The stats will show you that just a few Auckland schools are providing most of the women engineering students here. I think there’s a lot of truth in the rest of what you say. It’s kind of what I mean about narcissism…

      1. I’d expect (IE: guess) that Auckland would be responsible for most of the progressive views and stats for NZ, due to it being the only properly diverse place in the country.

        It’s a different world south of the Bombays…

      2. Heidi, this is so true. One situation I know is where 10 years ago a single female engineer studied and then occasionally went back to promote engineering in their school and it has created an ongoing stream of girls from that school doing engineering. It was the school encouraging it and part of that was getting recent alumni to come talk about it. Just knowing that others from your school did it is enough to get the idea in the head they can do it too.

        1. A lot of career choice, I’ve been told, comes down to identifying with the people who are in that job. So what you say about alumni coming back to talk makes good sense. This picks up on Jon’s point, too, about how much mainstream US culture is influencing our children. Who are our kids identifying with, and are they in realistic or socially-beneficial jobs?

  11. It’s interesting that someone from a Civil Engineering Institution should say that there shouldn’t be funding or encouragement of women into STEM industries because “women prefer people-oriented careers… whereas the men, well they prefer things and mechanics.” I can’t speak for all the various engineering disciplines but, when I was teaching in a civil engineering department, then-IPENZ were pretty insistent that we spent a fair amount of time including the “non-technical” elements of a professional engineer in our curriculum (e.g. ethics, risk mgmt, communication, teamwork, consultation, creativity, engineer’s role in society, etc) as well as the “technical” stuff (design, analysis, modelling, etc). A common factor in a lot of this stuff is that it involved dealing with PEOPLE, be they your colleagues, clients, decision-makers, general public, etc.

    (as an aside, when it comes to a civil eng sub-discipline like transportation, people become even more important because they are the key “material” you are working with, as road users, rather than the fairly inanimate steel/soil/water/concrete/etc that my other civil colleagues had to worry about…)

    I have to say it was actually quite a hard sell to some of the students, who couldn’t understand why they had to spend time in courses learning this “qualitative” stuff rather than more time on how to design a bridge or the like. We did try to bring in some practitioners from “the real world” to help convince them that these were essential skills for a good professional engineer, but I had to reconcile myself with the fact that some graduates would only appreciate this fact once they themselves had spent a bit of time in industry…

    1. I reckon the attitudes you’ve seen in some of the students (which don’t seem to have changed in a generation) reflects somewhat on the nature of how the subjects are taught at school, and who is therefore attracted to engineering. There’s a bit of work to be done at curriculum level.

      1. Yes, that was always an interesting challenge too; what to present to future prospective high school students on open days. It always seemed to be a slight fiction to show a lot of pics about designing/building all these amazing engineering structures when (in NZ at least) we spend more time these days operating and maintaining the assets we already have rather than building many new ones.

        I did like to put in slides talking about engineers tackling some of society’s bigger problems (eg environmental ones) as I thought that might trigger interest in a few more women. And I always described a professional engineer as essentially “a problem solver, a designer, and a communicator”, to make it clear that it wasn’t all about back-room modelling stuff. Hopefully it worked for a few…

  12. As one involved in the civil engineering side of things, I have encountered a lot of young female civil engineers quite high on the food chain of major projects. There are also an increasing number behind the controls of some very large machinery.

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