Diversity and Inclusion is something that I’ve come to have a larger focus on in engineering as I’ve gotten older, realising the privileges that I had, and that a lot of people don’t get, as they’re entering into the field, even from a very young age.
Still today, there’s an imbalance, where people from diverse backgrounds struggle to get the knowledge and practice that they need to succeed in engineering, with the difficulties in having access to the opportunities that are supposedly available to everyone.
The Royal Academy of Engineering, and their work to hold this annual conference, was dedicated to discussing just that - which barriers people of all races, sexes and religions face when joining the field, and how we can work together to make life easier for all of them.
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The day began with an introduction from Rosa Morgan Baker, the Senior Manager for Diversity and Inclusion at the Royal Academy of Engineering, followed by Hayaatun Sillem, CEO at the Royal Academy, who walked us through the events to come.
The event was split into 3 sessions: People, Practice and Planet, and I’ll be covering the events of the day, including some of the more interesting insights from speakers.
Session 1: People
Session 1, highlighted the launch of the 2022 Inclusive Cultures Research - a massive report centred all around the current climate of diversity and inclusion in the engineering industry, and direct steps that could be taken to map it. Presented by Dr Arun Verma Senior Manager for D&I at the academy, and Yohanes Scarlett, Policy and Research Advisor, the pair tackled the key issues head on, addressing the need to bring an inclusive mindset to tackle global challenges in engineering.
Amongst the ideas of the presentation, the idea of macho’ism and stereotypes in engineering was also discussed - the stigma behind a lot of engineering culture being perceived as naturally more masculine, as well as the difference in outspokenness for issues of diversity and inclusion within companies, for people from diverse backgrounds.
The topic of intersectionality was a big theme - the fact that all of us identify as part of multiple groups, in terms of race, gender and ethnicity - and this has an impact on our perception of the industry as well.
And finally, they covered the key drivers and detractors to inclusive cultures in engineering - and recommendations for removing the barriers, both in education and in the industry, to give people the representation they deserve.
Following the presentation was a panel talk from a number of guests, working in sectors all around the engineering industry. Chaired by Louise Parry, Director of People and Organisational Development at Energy and Utility Skills, the talk involved a number of questions from the audience, as well as a discussion about how companies, and specifically senior managers at those companies, could develop an inclusive culture in the workplace.
Louise was joined by John Bradbury, Senior Consultant at Eunomia, Vanessa Burton, Assistant Geotechnical and sub-structural engineer at Mott MacDonald, Ben Rose, Associate Director at Atelier Ten, and Mohammed Marikar, Senior Director of Digital Engineering at the Royal Bank of Canada.
One of the first points that struck out to me in the talk was that achieving diversity and inclusion wasn’t said to be just about compliance and ethics, but about successful business as well. Companies who promoted a campaign of diversity amongst their employees brought about more innovation as a result of the difference in perspectives, which led to better ideas and better results.
They also discussed that the core, day to day interactions with employees was what inclusion and diversity was all about - not just the laws and policies that have been put in place around it. Creating a culture where other people feel welcomed into the space to contribute and discuss is essential.
On top of that, ED&I isn’t specific to any role in the company - it’s a standard that everyone should uphold, to make sure that new hires and people from diverse backgrounds feel it’s okay to speak out.
One of the quotes I took from the conference went something like this:
“We hire people to find different ways of looking at problems - a particular style of communication and line of enquiry” but when you feel you’re not communicating like everyone else, you don’t feel involved.
Rebecca also raised the point of the gender imbalance in engineering, especially at university - and that only around 18% of undergrads and 14% of apprenticeship students are female.
Sometimes when there are only a few women on an undergraduate course or at a company, too much burden is placed on those few women in the industry to represent the whole group.
Another really interesting and inspiring point I heard in the talk was about the idea that though there are obvious barriers, we need to find other ways around it, other than the traditional routes - embracing the new technology that’s come out with COVID - using other social media platforms like tiktok, and showing the public what engineering is actually like, which is something I hope to do on this blog.
Coming back to the theme of diversity - studying engineering is hard regardless of race. When there are differences, you stand out even more, because you’re easier to spot. People do get put off at university, and it always stems back to the people that you’re with - lecturers, managers or even students who make you feel like you aren’t meant to be there. It has an effect. You have to be very stubborn to say "tough luck, I’m staying". But hopefully changes can be made to make life easier for all of us.
Session 2: Practice
In the second panel discussion on practice, the audience was joined by another 5 guests: Dame Sue Grae, Former Director General of the Defence Safety Authority, who chaired the panel, David Osei, Control Systems engineer at Delta Cosworth, and alumni of the graduate engineering engagement programme, Melissa Sabella, Founder and CEO of The Honeycomb Works, Joanna Whiteman, Head of D and I at the royal Academy, and Helen Townend, Head of Inclusion and Social Value at Amey Consulting.
With another round of interesting conversation, I resonated more with David Osei’s experience of growing up experiencing a barrier to getting engineering experience. As a student or young worker, it’s hard when people ask you to show them what you’ve done, because you haven’t had much time to reach those opportunities. So it was highlighted that bridging the gap between getting experience from companies, with programs like GEEP, especially through online means, was essential.
Melissa emphasised an important point, that everybody has some level of power and privilege that they can use to drive change, and that it takes a very small portion of the population to change their behaviour before the majority begins to conform.
And finally, the power of storytelling - that the more we’re able to communicate our experiences, the more we can’t ignore the reality. We have to be in the place of the uncomfortable to bring the change that the industry needs.
Following the panel talk was a break for lunch, dessert, and networking with the other guests, and I had some time to look at this amazing piece of artwork that the staff at the academy had created during the day, to highlight the key conversation topics of the event.
Session 3: Planet
In the final part of the conference, the session aimed at Planet: we were joined by Dr Shini Somara, an award winning science, technology and innovation broadcaster, as well as an avid mechanical engineer and fluid dynamicist.
In her keynote speech, she delivered some important messages - recalling that 20 years ago, nobody would have been willing to talk about issues with diversity like they are today - and that there were no statistics for women or people of colour in engineering, simply because nobody really valued them.
But with the industry wide push, and the work of the academy to encourage it, campaigns to promote diversity in the workplace have flourished.
She also noted something really interesting, in that engineering is still a mystery to so many people - confused with hard hats and that man who comes around to fix your washing machine - but there’s so much more to it, and such an essential thing moving forward for all engineers is to have the courage to communicate what they do, and celebrate the field for what it’s really about.
Even as an engineer, it’s often really confusing trying to figure out what another engineer does in their day job, simply because the field is so diverse and multifaceted. As an aerospace engineer, I can get away with saying I build planes and rockets, but in other industries it’s not that simple, which is why education on these topics is so important.
Rounding it off with a final panel chaired by Aleida Rios, Senior Vice President at BP, who invited Emily Nott, head of D&I at Innovate UK, Tim Walder, Senior Director at Arcadis, Ed Warner, CEO at MotionSpot, and Dr Somara to the stage - the group went over the final topic - how to bring sustainability into the picture.
One of the key takeaways that I took from the discussion was that digital transformation was very important - using technology and the internet to operate cohesively on a global level, in a way that would benefit the environment in the long term.
With all the new developments in artifical intelligence coming out, it was said that in the future, we’ll be teaching engineers about things that we haven’t even discovered yet, and so employing a diverse workforce of people who are equipped to deal with those problems can only be a good thing.
I'm amazed at the progress that the industry has achieved in recent times, promoting initiatives to give all engineers equal opportunities, and encourage more students into this amazing field.
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