Turbulent mixing, multiphase flow and process kinetics University of Saskatchewan College of Engineering
Suzanne Kresta > Personal Links & Outreach > Blogs > Professional > Women in Engineering > From a Sea of Suits to a Rainbow of Humans

From a Sea of Suits to a Rainbow of Humans

December 11, 2016

Removing structural barriers is better for everyone.

A friend of mine just shared an acceptance speech by Madonna, whose comment, “I think the most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around.” struck a chord with me, along with Shonda Rimes’ acceptance speech earlier this year, “How many women had to hit that glass (ceiling) before the first (hairline) crack appeared?…when I finally hit that ceiling, it just exploded into dust. Like that. My sisters who went before me had already handled it.”

I write this post on December 6, 2016, 25 years after my PhD defence, a few weeks before I’ve been a professor at the UofA for 25 years, a few days after the US election which has hit those who believe in decision making based on mutual respect and thoughtful consideration hard. The rejection of human dignity, equality and education as core values is even harder to absorb. Another quote sticks out for me – “Explain to me again how a man who is accused of sexual harassment can have his career ruined.” I’ve always been skeptical of this particular “monster under the bed” fear as more of a way to silence and marginalize victims than as credible concern for any honorable man.

On the up side, professional women (and thoughtful people of all kinds) have finally had it, and are finding voices that are clearer, calmer, and stronger than I have ever heard before. Somehow it is a relief to have the silent elephant in the room finally outed.

I have been grappling with finding some meaning to shine light in the midst of all of this important chaos. I can offer one simple model, and one hopeful story. The model occurred to me after watching Michelle Obama’s rather remarkable speech, and it goes like this. Imagine you have 100 men and 100 women. Among the men, there are two predators, and each of them misbehaves 3 times a year. Over 10 years, this means that 60 women have a bad experience, some of them repeats, so say 50. OK. Stay with me for a second. This means that 98 of the guys are honorable, decent guys who avoid the jerks. 50 of the women managed to avoid the bad experiences, and they want to believe it won’t happen to them…so when any of the 50 women speak up, there are 150 people who would really really viscerally like to not believe them. Playing with those numbers made me feel a lot clearer about the 2% – and this unbelievable practice we have had – for decades – of not believing the victims. Thankfully, that practice of shaming and silencing is ending – even if the predators remain.

So after 25 years…or 50 years…it seems that the 2% is not likely to go away. Maybe we should just lighten up. After all, it’s only 2%. What happens if we let that slip to 10% of men and they misbehave 5 times a year? OH. That’s where we used to be. 50% of women had a bad experience at work every single year. Shit. We have to stay vigilant. What a drag. What else could we possibly do? OH. The 50% of women who have a bad experience are actually in a better position to get leverage than the 148 who weren’t in the room! The reality is that we can never perfectly protect the people we love – even though we’ve made a LOT of progress – but we can give them strong voices and big, brave, hearts and teach them how to protect themselves when the predators come calling.

Finding voices that are firm, calm and clear and sharing those with our children and young adults is now a possibility. Models of conflict resolution and ways of teaching respectful behavior are expanding (check out the books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations) – and I spent last Monday in a workshop about how we could expand these practices at our university so that students can learn and facilitate conversations that heal. I love the visionary leaders who give us the latitude to explore these possibilities and build an environment where students can grow as leaders and humans as well as scholars.

Part two of the story comes from the AIChE. The Institute sent me a fancy certificate of old age (25 years of membership) last summer. I was startled and bemused. I was much more pleased to be elected a Fellow shortly after that. Two of my good friends convinced me that I should and could go to my first Fellows Breakfast – in San Francisco, one week after the US election. I sat at a table with several friends that I have known for 25 years – and several new ones who are fantastic and I look forward to seeing again.

When I first met this tiny collection of women (and men), we were at a grand old hotel called The Palmer House in Chicago. It was 1990 and Barack Obama was in his second year of law school – the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. There were about 20 women at the AIChE meeting – and about 2000 men in dark suits. All of us women wore a red blazer at some point during the week – visible trail blazers by instinctive and collective agreement. We met each other on a balcony above the lobby where we all laughed and marveled at the sea of dark suits below – with an occasional splash of red – and the terrifying tables of 100% fried food at the evening receptions.

After 25 years the meeting has transformed – but more importantly the leadership has transformed. Our breakfast table had 5 women, 2 white guys, two past presidents and an incoming president – and none of the Presidential population were the white guys. Fresh fruit was a welcome part of the meal. The hallways are now filled with animated discussion and a whole rainbow of humanity – including a few children – and a number of folks who wear blue jeans with their blazers. This arrival into a diverse rainbow of recognized leaders emerging from a sea of dark suits was a really joyful event for all of us.

Please God, and Father Christmas, if you love us at all, give us the strength to continue to build a world where there are fewer walls and more chain link fences in 2017 and beyond. Let us seek solutions that allow everyone to enjoy the game in ways that we haven’t yet dreamed of, and that create a world that works better for everyone.