To find a long-term solution to the lack of diversity in engineering, we need to look at the root causes, says Riad Mannan
We all know the theoretical benefits of a diverse engineering workforce. I say theoretical because we are not at a place when a majority of engineering companies sector can demonstrate the actuality of the statement.
To understand why that’s the case, I believe we need to understand the root causes of a lack of diversity and keep asking the “why” questions.
Why is it that we don’t have more people from all backgrounds, all colours, all ethnicities, all abilities in the engineering workforce?
Why is it that when you look at the boardroom of the majority (if not all) of UK engineering companies the view is very homogeneous around the table.
Why is it that I struggle to name 10, no even five, CEOs of big engineering organisations who happen to be women, or Asian, or from the LGBTQ community. (By the way, I genuinely struggle with that one, so if you can name them, please let me know.)
So we are aware of the problem; the challenge; the issues – whatever you wish to call them. And we probably know the solutions – better talent recruitment, role models, inclusive corporate culture etc. These are practical solutions to a real problem.
But to have a deeper, longer term solution, I think we need to look at the root causes. These are many and varied and have built up over the years, but I would highlight one key area here.
Perception and imagery
It’s important to recognise that from a very early age, young girls and boys are bombarded with images of the world they are growing up in; and from these, they create their own ideas of that world – and the people in it. So if the image we (as a society) give them of an engineer is that they are male, white and middle age, it’s no wonder they have that image too. This is borne out by research behind the IET’s Portrait of Engineer campaign which showed that the stereotype of an engineer is alive and well amongst school children.
According to a representative sample of children aged 9 to 16, a typical engineer is a white (51%), middle aged (31%) male (67%), with glasses (40%), a beard (27%), short (36%) brown hair (44%), brown eyes (21%), and slim build (42%). So even at an early age, children have a perception of what an engineer looks like. And if they can’t see themselves reflected in “engineers” at a young age, they are less likely to pursue an engineering career.
This perception can be changed, but it will take time – and it will take all stakeholders to change it; from parents and schools, to employers and advertisers – whether they are advertising toys or jobs. Clearly it’s not all up to engineering employers, but they do play a major role to play.
They are in a position to influence young girls and boys from a diverse background to have the ambition to become an engineer. Whether it is the engagement with schools from disadvantaged areas, or the imagery they use in job adverts, or blind recruitment or removing some unconscious bias, or encouraging LGBT networks; they have a role to play.
So the solution to creating a diverse engineering workforce starts at a young age, and it is complex – but there is good news. Engineering companies such as Jacobs, Fujitsu, Ramboll, Skanska and others are doing their bit to encourage, foster and embed a diverse workforce. They will be sharing their ideas and solutions at the IET Engineering Diversity & Inclusion Conference and Workshops on 8-9 November in London. Details of their sessions can be found at www.theiet.org/diversity
Riad Mannan is event portfolio development manager at The IET
This article has been sponsored by IET
Image: Attendees at the IET’s Women in Engineering conference