A letter for Emma


To whoever it may concern,

I write to you, because I would like to share some of my personal and professional experiences. Between 2006 and 2010, I coordinated an NFP (Netherlands Fellowship Programme) course on Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in Peru. My contact person at NUFFIC (the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education) was Emma Peraza-Menendez, a dynamic Dutch-Mexican lady, full of unpredictable life, unpractical tastes, and unexpected humour. With her I developed a good working relationship, until later towards the end of the project, she tragically passed away in an accident, without seeing the final results. Although the courses were generally evaluated positively by the participants and specifically included ‘gender in water management’ as a topic, we were not successful at attracting and selecting the 30-50% of women that we aimed to become participants. During the project, Emma kept asking me the justified question “why?” and pushing us to do better. I was unable to answer her satisfactorily, because I could not even lay my own finger on it (or is that a Dutch expression?). As a result, I remember that I felt uneasy about this, because we were somehow failing to do what we promised. Luckily, some of the best participants in our courses coordinated from Wageningen were women, who later proceeded to do MSc’s and PhD’s and are making interesting and different contributions to the contested field of water management and mining exploitation in Peru. But Emma’s question must have remained in the back of my mind.

Meanwhile and seemingly unrelatedly, I was doing a study of how water policy is made in Peru with a female Peruvian colleague and water professional, Maria Teresa Ore. We interviewed a range of senior water professionals and former government officials, who had been influential in making water policy and defining the professional field of water management. We discovered that they more or less all came from the same eminent agricultural engineering school in Lima, Peru. Whilst doing the research, it struck us both, and not for the first time, how ‘masculine’ the professional field of water management was and how strong and warm the fraternal relations were between these elder male engineers, as if they were family. Without intending to, they showed this to us in different ways. We also interviewed several generations of women engineers, about how they experienced and responded to this academic environment. Because of the strange twists of our own professional lives, we wrote a paper on the policy making aspect. However, we did not find the time to focus on the obvious but (in)visible fact that water management dominantly was/is (?) a ´masculine´ and ´white´ profession –  meant not as biological or racial characterizations, but as social constructions – and that this partly originates in the history of engineering education, as illustrated by this Peruvian university. A way in which this is easily visible is in the old group portraits of study generations and even in more recent conference pictures of irrigation, water or engineering associations. Also, the way in which often fieldwork and the instruction in maths or technology are presented and conceived as masculine activities. Through discussions with colleagues in the Andes and other parts of the world, we found that this is more general, goes much beyond this case, and should also involve questions about our own professional formation and the (gendered) identities that we assume or get assigned.

Over the course of several years, under very different professional circumstances, we had the chance to write up and articulate some of the latter findings. A slow and uncertain process, which nevertheless advanced because I felt a deep fascination for and urge to write about this topic. Perhaps unconsciously because of Emma’s question? The article ‘Engineering masculinities: How higher education genders the water profession in Peru’ is the result. After having finished and published it, as part of a special issue with Margreet Zwarteveen on ‘Engineering Masculinities in Water Governance’, a recent insight that has gradually trickled into my mind, is that our articles somehow provided a late and unintended answer to Emma’s pertinent question: “Why?”. I write this to you, because I suspect that some papers may have relevance to other professional fields and to the general NUFFIC objective of achieving equal access for women and men to its courses. We would like to invite you to read our paper(s), skip the wordy parts if you like, see if you agree, and if there are any parallels with your own field(s) of specialisation. In particular, I would like to point your attention to the provisional interpretive framework that we present in Figure 1, which details through which different cultural and performative dimensions the water profession is gendered and (re)produced as masculine. I hope that this can be of use to some of your other courses, which are dealing with the same issues and struggling with the question of where and how to start changing a professional field, to make it more inclusive. And this is for Emma.

Best regards,

Edwin Rap

Here you can read the entire special issue on “Engineering Masculinities in Water Governance” of the journal Engineering Studies

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