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Diversity report points the way for more gender inclusivity at the ICE

A new report commissioned by the ICE makes a series of recommendations for attracting more women into the industry. New Civil Engineer speaks to its author, Dawn Bonfield.

Dawn Bonfield, chief executive of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), uses a very visual example to highlight the reasons why the engineering profession isn’t attracting a more diverse workforce.

Referring to a recent article that appeared in the business section of The Daily Telegraph, she describes the way a story about profits at handbag maker Mulberry, a company with a turnover of £110M, appeared alongside an article about profits at engineering firm Atkins – a company whose turnover of £1.76bn dwarves that of the fashion brand.

Network Rail equality

Network Rail equality

Employers such as Network Rail are beginning to embrace the benefits of a diverse workforce

“Which gets the most airspace?” Bonfield asks. “Handbags. Mulberrry commands much of the broadsheet page, including a large photograph of model Cara Delvigne […] Atkins, by comparison, is tucked in the bottom corner with no pictures.”

The example appears in Disrupting Diversity, Bonfield’s comprehensive 40-page report looking at what can be done to promote gender diversity in engineering. The report was commissioned by immediate past ICE president David Balmforth during his presidential year and makes a series of recommendations about measures that the ICE can take to influence change internally and externally in the wider construction industry.

In response to the Telegraph story, one of the measures Bonfield recommends is for the industry to establish an Engineering Media Centre to represent the sector in a consistent and gender diverse way. But this is just one of a multitude of recommendations she makes in her wide ranging and exhaustive study.

“It’s not supposed to be a literature review or an overview of the industry,” she says, speaking at ICE headquarters a few weeks after the report’s publication. “We’ve got loads of examples already of that type of work. This was just my take on ideas of the way we can move the industry forward. It’s just a conversation starter, nothing more than that really.”

This appears to be a modest take on the potential impact of the report. The ICE intends for it to result in concrete changes to the way it tries to foster and encourage diversity.

“ICE can and should be one of the absolute leaders of this. Inclusion is one of the building blocks of engineering,”

Dawn Bonfield, WES

An action plan is currently being put together, based on the Disruptive Diversity report recommendations and other industry diversity reports, all of which were debated at Council in December. ICE Council will discuss the proposed action plan at the next session in April, and following that debate, a final plan with the measures to be implemented will be set out and made public.

That the industry still has a problem with gender diversity is beyond doubt. As the introduction to Bonfield’s study lays out, women make up just 11% of the construction workforce, 1% of workers on site and only 7% of the UK engineering workforce in general – the lowest proportion anywhere in the EU.

To gain a sense of how little things seems to have changed over the years, you need only look at a graph showing the proportion of women in engineering flat-lining at roughly 7% for the last 7 years. This could very easily be extended to the last 97 years.

When Bonfield first presented the findings of her report to ICE Council in December, the debate that ensued focused on her idea of mandating diversity and inclusion training for all ICE members. Perhaps to prove that the issue is being taken seriously, the executive board has recently received training in unconscious bias.

Dawn Bonfield presented the findings of her report to ICE Council by video link

Another of the main recommendations of the report is for the ICE to develop a diversity action plan. This could include key actions such as assessing inclusivity as a personal characteristic that is required in every member in the same way as ethics and safety are required. This is something that could be assessed at professional review.

“ICE can and should be one of the absolute leaders of this,” says Bonfield. “Inclusion is one of the building blocks of engineering. To get that inclusion, as with something like health and safety, you have to have processes, but when you get the hang of it you see it in everything. I think health and safety, ethics and inclusivity should be the foundation of everything we do, every action we take.”

The report divides the way the ICE can influence change into two separate strands. First of all, it has to enact lasting cultural change in the Institution itself, then it has to pass on this best practice to the wider industry – particularly to SMEs who don’t have the resources to implement it themselves. The study stresses that such an approach will also generate wider benefits for the organisation.

“[Cultural change] will not only allow [the ICE] to fundamentally influence the future of the engineering and construction profession, but it will allow it to attract and retain new members who see it as leading the way amongst professional bodies,” the report states.

Measure the data

For the Institution to implement this change, Bonfield thinks it will have to improve the way it collates and acts on data about diversity in the organisation.

“There’s a huge piece on data, measuring the statistics that we’ve got and comparing them to other institutions,” she says. “We need to try to get some consistency in what’s being measured and drill down into why we are losing so many women at certain ages.”

Bonfield is referring to a report last year which revealed that 57% of professionally qualified women engineers drop off the Engineering Council register under the age of 45 compared to 16% of male registered members. The Disruptive Diversity report ascribes this to members failing to return from a maternity break and recommends returnship programmes to close the gap. These are short-term placements within industry for 6 months to a year which offer a low-risk step back into the profession.

But the report also recommends measures to attract women to the industry in the first place. One of these is for the ICE to challenge all universities with an accredited engineering degree to achieve the Athena Swan Bronze award. This award recognises and rewards diversity in university departments.

Elsewhere, the report suggests that unconscious institutional bias can be even more insidious. Did it ever occur to the ICE, for instance, that its headquarters at 1 Great George Street might not be particularly welcoming to a diverse audience?

ice hq

ICE headquarters

The report bemoans the fact that there are only two portraits of women at the ICE headquarters at 1 Great George Street

“It has only two noticeable paintings of women in the whole building, one being the Queen, and the second being past president Jean Venables,” the report writes.

The report also commends New Civil Engineer for its coverage of diversity issues and urges the ICE to use this publication to disseminate its work on inclusion. This sentiment was echoed at ICE Council by vice president Keith Clarke who praised this publication’s coverage in the meeting.

“In summary I said NCE has been showing considerable leadership and they haven’t had the backing of the ICE that they should have done,” Clarke said. “It’s time the ICE became implicit and public in its leadership of diversity.”

But Bonfield is positive about the way her report has been received by the ICE so far. “I think it went down well,” she says. “We had a very positive discussion at the council meeting about it and so I think it was generally accepted that it makes sense. I was hoping it would be taken that way and that it would not feel as if someone is cracking the whip.”

Once the ICE takes action on this issue, Bonfield feels confident that it might also apply to other minority groups in engineering. “I would have liked to have done the report from a wider diversity perspective but that would have been a big ask,” she says. “I just hoped and assumed that what works for gender diversity works for other types of diversity.”

To read Dawn Bonfield’s Disrupting Diversity report, click here.

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