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Alexis Field: Making a difference

Alexis Field

Equality and diversity in civil engineering

Unconscious bias affects us all. Rightly or wrongly, we automatically sympathise with someone that has similar characteristics to our own, and when applying this to engineering, we can easily cater for those similar to ourselves.

So, if the majority of engineers are white, male and wearing a hard hat and yellow vest - how can society relate to us? And how can we provide a truly sustainable environment?

As an industry, we are slowly becoming more diverse, with physical attributes such as gender, ethnicity and disability becoming categories that most of us are familiar with. But we are not as aware of the varied nature of social background, education and other important factors which are often overlooked when looking at the subject of equality and diversity.

The more we encourage a wider range of people into our organisations and industry, the better we can plan, build and maintain for a diverse society with equal opportunities for all. This is not just a moral or theoretical debate; there are real business benefits to being able to empathise with our customers, the public.

As representatives of the Institution, we must be seen to be an independent and trustworthy source of expert advice - a profession that can influence policy regardless of the politics. There is even a chance that engineers could be held in the same regard as doctors, as an essential part of life. We already know we are, but who else does?

It is clear that more needs to be done to realise the potential of all prospective future engineers, with the necessity to remove perceptions and ensure that all levels of membership are viewed with equal importance by all, not just the Institution. We live in a world of ever increasing opportunity, and as practicing engineers we should relish this chance to be the profession that is accessible to all. This does not mean lowering our high standards, but creating a working environment in which talented people will thrive, regardless of categorisation.

As an industry, we need a more open, visible and inspiring presence, highlighting our high levels of professionalism and integrity.

Marie Wilson, founder and president emeritus of the White House Project, said: “You can’t be what you can’t see”. We as civil engineers need to change this, by providing role models and a variety of career paths which future potential engineers can aspire to. We all should reflect on how we can make a positive difference - whether it is through our designs, the way we recruit or how we interact with policy makers, the public or the media.

We should recognise that those different to ourselves can bring something special and unique to the role of the engineer. By having an industry where people from all backgrounds are welcomed, we will become far more accessible and therefore more trusted as a profession.

  • Alexis Field is chairman of ICE South West Region

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