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Engineering is still a 'staggeringly' male, white industry

Engineering Equality

Do a google search for “engineer” and you will find a preponderance of hard hats, girders and xy chromosomes.

In the real world, women make up 51% of the UK working age population, yet only account for 8% of professional engineers. Meanwhile 29% of primary school children are Black or Minority Ethnic (BME), yet 6% of professional engineers are BME.

A review of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Diversity Programme (2011-2016) was released on Wednesday 1 June.

It says the long-standing problem will need to be addressed in light of a looming skills shortage.

Estimates on how many extra engineers will be needed by 2022 range from 500,000 to 1.8M. Either way, this would roughly equate to a doubling of the number of graduates and apprentices coming out of universities.

The origins of the Diversity Programme date back to discussions in 2008, with £200,000 from the Department Business, Innovation and Skills kicking off the programme in 2011.

But Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive Philip Greenish makes light of the meagre funding, saying it forced the Academy to actively engage its partners and professional institutions.

Thirty two professional engineering institutions are signed up to a concordat (a non-binding voluntary agreement) with the stated goals to commit, take action and measure progress on diversity.

Perhaps interestingly, three professional engineering institutions did not sign, but the Academy now boasts that 99% of professionals in the industry are covered by a signing body.

But Greenish remains realistic about the progress made.

“There’s been a slight improvement, but it’s still a lousy figure,” Greenish says.

Business, Innovation and Skills secretary Sajid Javid says it’s “staggering” that 94% of the engineering profession is white.

“Nobody is suggesting that women or people from ethnic minorities are somehow unsuited to careers in engineering, so there must be other factors in play.”

As outgoing Diversity Committee chair professor Dame Wendy Hall calls the report “a milestone”, but as an engineer for more than 30 years, Hall said she was “frustrated at the current pace”.

“I liken it [diversity] to making a clearing in the jungle, it requires a huge amount of effort, people. And then suddenly, we’ve all gone somewhere else and the jungle grows back.

“It’s about constant vigilance in this area, because it’s too fragile, too embryonic, too early to say ‘tick, we’re done’

“At this rate it will be another century before we see a real difference. The skills gap is getting wider. We need to create a buzz that says anyone can enjoy a career in engineering.”

Incoming chair of the newly named ‘Diversity and Inclusion Programme’ Dervilla Mitchell said she was pleased with the work to date, but the industry was changing and needed to evolve.

The Arup director said she was “quite frequently surprised” by the lack of progress.

“Our focus going forward is to be more explicitly centred on what we can do well to galvanise the profession and increase inclusion.”

In the four-year strategy ahead, Mitchell said there would be a three-stage process: inspiring students from a young age, to developing professionals mid-career, as well as building leadership.

She says work needs to happen at all levels, to change the mindset across the profession: “That means not just turning up, reading the report, but actively championing the cause. More and more engagement.

“We want an engineering-wide recognition of the need for diversity and inclusion.

  • She made a direct plea for engineers to “deliver the project”.

“We deliver projects in our day jobs all the time. Think of diversity as another project to deliver on.”

The report attempts to “build a business case” for diversity. It quotes studies that show a connection between diversity and company performance: firms with a diverse range of staff showed higher financial returns on average compared to their industry counterparts, as well as greater innovation, staff motivation and increased customer satisfaction.

In addition, regulators will soon require large companies (more than 250 people) to report on their gender pay gap, and there are nine characteristics (including gender, race, age, disability, pregnancy and religion) are currently protected under law.

National Equality Standard chief executive Arun Batra says companies should show a strong public commitment to diversity, dedicate resources to the problem and monitor data on progress.

“Companies are willing to discuss risk when it comes to mergers or takeovers, but when it comes to taking on new staff, risking engagement with somebody from a different background, it somehow becomes a different equation.”

Royal Academy of Engineering head of diversity Bola Fatimilehin says the transition point of moving from university to work is a problem area: 25% of engineering students are Black or Minority Ethnic, while just 6% of engineering professionals are BME.

“When any woman anywhere hears a discussion about engineering and says ‘yes, that’s about me’. That is something of an acid test,” Fatimilehin says. 

Key facts

  • The engineering workforce is 94% white and 92% male.
  • Women make up 51% of the working age population, but only 8 per cent of professional engineers.
  • 6%of professional engineers are black and minority ethnic (BME) but 29% of primary school children are BME.
  • Companies in the top quartile for racial/ethnic diversity were 30% more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median.
  • Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median.



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