“How Hard is Your Hat?”: Exploring Professional Culture in Water Engineering
Earlier this year we embraced the challenge of producing a short documentary for the 2018 Water Governance Documentary Festival. In the context of our Water Governance Module, we were asked to to explore different aspects of water governance processes in practice.
We took the opportunity to focus on gendered and professional cultures in the water sector. At the very start, the subject seemed straightforward. Sure, men had dominated engineering and water management historically, but that was true for many professions and as times changed, so would the number of women in the field. Looking around the Institute for Water Education IHE Delft, with it’s fairly even gender balance, it seemed women were gaining more opportunities and representation in the field of water, right?
The more we investigated, however, the more we discovered how gender affects professional culture far beyond numbers. Think of your idea of how an engineer should look, think, and act. Is it a masculine or feminine image? These associations are culturally specific and often subconscious, but have a profound impact on who has voice and authority in the field. One must not only work as an engineer, but act as an engineer to fit in.
Looking at the literature on the history of water engineering around the world, it became clear how much water management has been tied up with ideas of masculinity. From irrigation universities in Peru and dam construction in the United States to water bureaucracies in Nepal, being a hydraulic engineer has been intertwined with notions of manliness, technical prowess and national pride. Look no farther than here in the Netherlands and you can see the depth of masculinity in the field of water management. As you’ll see in the video, the job of the engineer has been to build and defend- to fight the sea as if the water itself were an enemy. Historically, the engineer has been portrayed as a heroic soldier and this has bred certain expectations about how a good engineer should look, behave, and approach water.
For our documentary, we chose to investigate this image of Dutch engineering and consider how this masculine culture may have shaped IHE. In 1957, during IHE’s first year, there was only one female student and all male instructors. The curriculum was focused on big infrastructure and on controlling water through force. Over time, the courses and student makeup have changed as the institute has expanded. Deeply held traditions linger, however, and professional cultures take far more than equal representation to adapt. Perhaps the growing interdisciplinarity and diversity may allow IHE to overcome past gendered norms and rethink what it means to be a water engineer. Watch the film and judge for yourself.
We wanted to create a movie that would make people think critically about how gender has shaped their own experiences and identities. We hope that whoever you are -engineer or social scientist, hairdresser or firefighter- you can learn something that will help you see you own profession in a new way.
Finally, we would like to thank all those we interviewed, our excellent instructors for the module, Tatiana, Jeltsje, & Margreet, two guest lecturers, Jan-Willem Liebrand and Edwin Rap, and Professor of Hydroinformatics Ioana Popescu, for contributing to our knowledge on the topic. It was a great learning opportunity and one that we will carry as we move deeper into the world of water governance.
Thanks and enjoy,
George, Neha, Max, Mohammad & Yukiko
MSc students in Water management and governance 2017-19