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 1 June.
It says the long-standing problem will need to be addressed in the light of a looming skills shortage.
Estimates for 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 Academy’s diversity programme date back to discussions in 2008. In 2011, £200,000 from the Department Business, Innovation and Skills kicked off the programme.
Royal Academy of Engineering chief executive Philip Greenish makes light of the meagre funding, saying it forced the Academy to actively engage with 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.
Greenish remains realistic about the progress made.
“There’s been a slight improvement, but it’s still a lousy figure,” he says.
Business, Innovation and Skills secretary Sajid Javid says that it is “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.”
Outgoing diversity committee chair professor Dame Wendy Hall calls the report “a milestone”, but as an engineer for more than 30 years, Hall says she is “frustrated at the current pace”.
It’s about constant vigilance in this area, because it’s too fragile, too embryonic, too early to say ‘tick, we’re done’
Wendy Hall, diversity committee
“I liken it [diversity] to making a clearing in the jungle, it requires a huge amount of effort and 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 Royal Academy of Engineers’ newly named diversity and inclusion programme Dervilla Mitchell says she is pleased with the work to date, but that the industry is changing and needs to evolve.
The Arup director says she is “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
- Developing professionals mid-career
- Building leadership.
She says work must happen at all levels, to change the mindset across the profession: “That means not just turning up and reading the report, but actively championing the cause.
“We want an engineering-wide recognition of the need for diversity and inclusion.
Think of diversity as another project to deliver on
Dervilla Mitchell, Royal Academy of Engineers
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.
Diversity improves performance
It quotes studies that show a connection between diversity and company performance: firms with a diverse range of staff delivered 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.
The National Equality Standard (NES) is an initiative launched by management consultant EY to develop a diversity assessment tool for employers.
NES 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.”