dBx Acoustics

The Flaw in the STEM System

I am writing this on Women in STEM day. I’m one of those women, and I’ve never really thought about it before. Why is it that women still aren’t routinely considering STEM as a career path, and what can we do- all of us- to change this?

For those of you who don’t collect acronyms, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. I’m happy to count myself as one of those women. I graduated in 1998 with a BSc (Hons) in Audio Technology, one of only three women in my year. Since then I’ve worked in a variety of male dominated environments, both in the consultancies where I’ve been based, and in the design teams and on the construction sites of which I’ve been a part.

It’s not something to which I give a lot of thought in my day to day life. I’m often more comfortable in the presence of men, and there are times when being the female at the table can be an advantage, either because of an ability to calm the atmosphere, or the ‘talent’ to command attention, sometimes by acting in a less than ladylike manner! I’ve never felt that my career has suffered because of my gender, or that I have been treated differently because of it. In my younger days I was occasionally assumed to be the secretary, or the most junior member of the team, but grey hair and wrinkles is making this a less common assumption, and I feel at home sitting in a room full of men discussing the relative merits of different industrial equipment suppliers, as I did this morning.

Slowly, slowly, more women are appearing at the table. But certainly in acoustic consultancy we remain strongly in the minority, and nobody seems to understand why.

The baby problem?

Of course, much has been said in recent years about the costs of childcare and the conflicting roles of the mother and career woman. Many of the women I’ve worked with haven’t returned to work after having children which I can understand; it’s a battle! Returning to work for me meant spending more on childcare and travel than I was actually earning, and being paid for part time hours whilst effectively carrying out a full time job late into the night because I didn’t want to feel I was ‘letting anyone down’.

Organisations in the construction and engineering sector with a genuinely useful set of policies and flexible working to support mothers returning to work are few and far between. I’ve variously been told that my job couldn’t possibly done part time or flexibly (turns out it could, just somewhere else!), or had my requests for flexible working grudgingly approved not because a company wants to support me, but because the law prevents them from saying no.

None of this made me a more effective employee. It should be a no-brainer that women are going to perform better if they feel supported. The employers I have felt the most loyalty to are not those who will see me as a ‘resource’ to be drained, they are the ones who understand that I produce my best work when I’m happy and relaxed. The fact that this is still a rarity is certainly one of the big issues in our industry.

It’s true that the lack of childcare in our workplaces, the impossibility sometimes of being able to skip a meeting or site visit to make the school run or to look after a sick child, are issues. There’s a conflict which I have experienced between being simultaneously expected to be the nurturing parent, and the professional engineer who can attend site at a moment’s notice. But whilst resolving these issues would help to retain more women, I don’t think they are what stops us from following these career paths in the first place.

Men in Suits

I founded dBx Acoustics three years ago, not because I felt that I was in any way disadvantaged by my gender, but because I felt I could create a happier and more collaborative environment than I experienced in larger organisations.

In retrospect, I do wonder whether the environment I am rebelling against was a product of working in organisations run and dominated by middle aged men in suits. It seems that sometimes when we (both men and women) “suit up”, we lose something of our humanity and instead start to play a role, the corporate drone that we think we should be. Perhaps unconsciously, we then go on to recreate the models that we’ve seen go before us rather than seeking to disrupt and improve the workplace.

I’ve sat in rooms full of be-suited men who have wondered aloud how to attract more women into STEM, seemingly unable to resolve the image problem that they themselves are propagating. It’s one of the reasons why you’ll only rarely catch me suited and booted myself. A big career lesson which I wish I had learnt sooner is that trying to hide who you are, behind clothes and actions, doesn’t help anyone, least of all yourself. Just because you aren’t necessarily what people expect you to be doesn’t mean you are wrong.

So yes, the men in suits problem could well be part of it. No 16 year old girl choosing their A-levels is going to be inspired by the thought of spending the day shut in a stuffy meeting room with some men and a packet of Sharpies (well, not many). But again, I don’t think this is the root of the issue.

Who do you want to be?

I believe that the problem lies further back, in our formative experiences, with our schools and even more strongly with our parents. We still live in a world where toys are labelled as being for boys and girls, pink and blue. In so many households it’s still dad who will fix the broken things and put together the IKEA furniture, and mum who will do the cooking and the laundry. We replicate the patterns we saw in our own parents, which they in turn inherited, and we don’t question them.

I’m not suggesting that we overthrow the patriarchy, that women should throw down their saucepans and refuse to do anything more until they have been allowed to put up a garden shed. What each of us is good at, and what each of us chooses to focus our energies on, is really nobody else’s business. But we do need to be aware that our actions and words influence our children, and in the same way as I would never describe myself as fat or mention dieting in front of my daughter, I would also never say that something technical would have to wait until daddy gets home.

My parents always told me, “you can be anything you want to be”. Such a simple phrase, but one which shaped me and has stayed with me. Even when I arrived home from school with dreams of being an astronaut, or the Prime Minister, or even both simultaneously, they never pooh-poohed my ideas or suggested that perhaps only men should aspire to fly Nimrods in the RAF. I was lucky enough to go to a school where a similar message existed, and our ambitions were encouraged, whether technical or artistic.

This simple message is what shaped me, and it’s why I work in STEM today. It’s because I wanted to follow this path, and because I never doubted for a minute that I could. I believe it’s this which is missing from the lives of our children and it would be so easy to change.

You can be anything you want to be, but always be yourself.

dBx Case Studies - Education

There is a proven link between acoustic conditions in schools and educational outcomes. Building Bulletin 93 (BB93) mandates minimum standards in primary and secondary schools for noise levels and room acoustics, as well as acoustic separation between teaching spaces.

The dBx Acoustics team can help you comply with BB93, but our expertise goes even further. We have extensive experience designing environments for pupils with additional needs, including autism and hearing loss, as well as higher education and noisier, practical workshop spaces.

New and refurbished school buildings must comply with Building Regulation E4 and the acoustic performance standards of Building Bulletin 93 (BB93) ‘Acoustic Design of Schools’. Whilst BB93 is not mandatory for higher education establishments, it typically forms the basis of the initial design for such establishments, with modifications as appropriate to allow for specific HE uses. Where projects are being designed with BREEAM in mind, credits HEA05 and POL05 are also relevant.

There are a number of different acoustic aspects which come together to ensure that acoustic conditions in schools are appropriate to support learning, and it’s so important to get it right – studies have shown that educational attainment can be directly correlated to acoustic conditions.

Our involvement often begins at the planning stage with an environmental noise survey, which allows us to advise on ventilation and glazing requirements to control noise ingress to the building. If mechanical ventilation is proposed, if there is an external MUGA, or if community use is proposed, the noise survey also allows noise emission limits to be set to ensure that existing neighbours are not adversely affected by noise.

Internal ambient noise levels in teaching spaces are also affected by mechanical ventilation, and we work with the M&E consultant to specify appropriate noise control measures, such as silencers.
When it comes to the design of the building itself, BB93 requires us to specify partitions and floors to control airborne and impact sound transmission between teaching spaces, based on their relative sensitivity and noise generation characteristics. The detailing of junctions and sealing of any services penetrations is critical in maintaining acoustic separation between adjacent rooms.

Having provided a suitably quiet teaching environment which won’t be adversely affected by activity in other classrooms, our focus moves to room acoustics and control of reverberation. Often this is as simple as specifying the acoustic performance of a suspended ceiling, but for large spaces such as Assembly Halls and Sports Halls, we undertake acoustic modelling to optimise the specification and placement of acoustic finishes. Where an exposed soffit is preferred, we calculate the specification and quantity of finishes, such as acoustic rafts and wall panels to control room acoustic conditions.

Finally, we carry out pre-completion acoustic testing on-site to ensure that all of the acoustic criteria for the project have been complied with on-site.

The dBx Acoustics team also have a particular interest in acoustic design for SEN schools, particularly schools catering to neurodiverse pupils. BB93 specifies design criteria for “children with special hearing and communication needs”, which is intended to include autism, ADHD and auditory processing difficulties, and assists in providing an environment in which speech transmission is clear and effective. The standard does not, however, consider the other acoustic aspects of school life which affect such pupils, including auditory sensitivities and the need to provide spaces to allow a retreat from the noise and bustle of daily school life. Our team’s direct and personal experiences of neurodiversity, both as parents and as individuals, helps us to understand the requirements of individual educational clients, and help guide the design of educational buildings to provide an acoustically diverse and appropriate environment.

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