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Engineering equality | Breaking up bias

Why does civil engineering need more diversity?

Studies have shown that non-diverse workplaces can be happier and display more co-operation among employees, but despite this, they do not match up to the performance of more diverse teams.

“The more homogeneous offices have higher levels of social capital,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) economist Sara Ellison. “But the interesting twist is that … higher levels of social capital are not important enough to cause those offices to perform better.

“The employees might be happier, they might be more comfortable and they might be co-operative places, but they seem to perform less well.”

2010 qld week qo y 094 cropped

2010 qld week qo y 094 cropped

Abdel-Mageid believes members of diverse teams challenge each other’s opinions more

Mechanical engineer and Youth Without Borders founder Yassmin Abdel-Magied is championing diversity in the work place.

The 2007 Young Australian Muslim of the Year and 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year has worked on oil and gas rigs, is a passionate motorsports fan, and has written widely on the topic of diversity. Her Tedx talk online: “What does my headscarf mean to you?” has upwards of 1.6M views.

To her, diversity is not just about pushing any one group forward; it is about changing mindsets to create more diverse teams in general.

Magic happens

The reason she says is simple: magic happens when people and ideas are challenged.

She says biases that stop us from putting diverse teams together exist within society. When people all have similar backgrounds and similar training they look to each other to confirm what they already think, she adds.

Extreme example

One extreme example she cites is the massive explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010. Just before it exploded, tests were carried out on the rig to check if it was secure. The rig failed the test, but the rig team’s interpretation of the results showed that it passed.

“Somebody in the room with authority interpreted it in a way that most people had, in their minds, already agreed with and they looked at the information to confirm their existing beliefs,” she says.

“Everyone in a group thinks about things in the same way, there was no one to stand up and say, I think something is wrong here.”

Short cuts

Our brains make short cuts, Abdel-Magied says, to enable us to process huge amounts of information.

“Most of the short cuts are fine,” she says. “They’re learnt behaviours like: ‘hot stove, don’t touch’ – that’s an unconscious bias. But if those biases are made up on information that is flawed, or on information which is going to affect people unfairly, in promotion or decision making at work, then where do we end up?”

To illustrate the point she cites this story: “A father and a son driving along on the highway and they get into a terrible car accident and the father dies. The son is taken to hospital and needs surgery, but the surgeon looks down at him and says, I can’t operate, because the boy is my son. Now how can that be?”

I go into an engineering company where someone has worked with a female engineer before and they thought she was rubbish, thus all female engineers are terrible

On telling this story to a full lecture theatre, she says that around three quarters of people’s initial reactions were confused, assuming the surgeon was male, rather than his mother.

“That is unconscious or cognitive bias,” she says. “We go through the world expecting certain things and that shapes how we make decisions.”

Abdel-Magied says that this form of bias describes the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions. This anchors down a ”truth” which people do not want to change, even if they see different information.

“I go into an engineering company where someone has worked with a female engineer before and they thought she was rubbish, thus all female engineers are terrible,” she says.

Challenging inherent bias

So what can be done to make sure that these inherent biases are challenged or even designed out of the system?

The first thing she says is to keep checking yourself. Despite best intentions, there will always be a bias that manages to creep back into your subconscious. Harvard University has produced a really quick quiz called the IAT tests which are designed to check what your implicit biases are. Abdel-Magied admits that when she took the tests, despite campaigning on the issue, she was still hard-wired to believe that women were the homemakers and men the breadwinners. So she says it is important  that people keep checking themselves and make sure that they are interrogating their own decisions.

Call yourself out

The second she says is to call yourself or other people out.

“If you notice that the women are always doing the minutes or making the tea, check that’s what someone wants to do,” she says.

Thirdly, she says people should step out of their comfort zones and sponsor somebody different. “I’m here where I am today, because I was sponsored by people who don’t share the same characteristics as me,” says Abdel-Magied.

Sponsorship vs mentoring

She says that sponsorship is different to mentoring. Where in mentoring advice is given to a person, sponsorship is where you put yourself on the line for someone else.

“My sponsors are men who are far more senior than me and have said, I recognise something in you, I’m going to give you an opportunity that if you screw up it will look bad for me, but I trust that you’re going to do a good job.

“Look outside the world that you’re typically used to.”

But despite these good intentions, the reality is that working in a diverse team is actually harder. This is why we like homogenous teams, she says; you won’t need to translate as much, you won’t need to go through because everyone is on board.


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