What can engineering firms do to improve diversity and inclusion?

With the sector looking for ways to improve on diversity and inclusion, we look at some of the barriers to overcome and what approaches should prove successful.

Providing solutions for everything from climate change to healthcare, the engineering sector plays a key role in shaping the future. But in other ways the workforce is not moving forward with diversity and inclusion, compared to other industries. Women make up only 16.5% of those in engineering roles within the sector, which is significantly lower than other industries. Although black and Asian students accounted for 22% of those on UK engineering and technology undergraduate degrees in the academic years 2019/20 to 2020/21, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, only about 8% of UK engineers are non-white.

What’s more, an estimated £11.2 billion is lost annually because of homophobia in the industry. This cost stems from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals being an estimated 30% less productive when 'in the closet’. That’s largely because of bullying, with more than 60% of gay engineers experiencing homophobic comments in the workplace.

Addressing diversity and inclusion issues is a major concern for the sector, though it’s not something that can be fixed overnight. But for those companies that can make big strides, it will also help the current skills shortage. We get the low-down from the Royal Academy of Engineering, which says best practice for diversifying the workforce is very much a work in progress. Robert Adediran​, Senior Manager for Diversity and Inclusion, shares some tips for how companies should begin to think about putting diversity, inclusivity and equity strategies in place – and what not to do.

“Engineering has a diversity problem, like many professions,” says Adediran​. “For many years the industry has focused on gender – the most visible issue – but now we’re starting to acknowledge other dimensions of diversity.” The Academy has made improving diversity within the sector a strategic priority up to 2025.

The issue is complex and multifaceted, but Adediran​ singles out the lack of role models as a key challenge to address. The engineering sector is stuck in a vicious cycle: it cannot attract diverse candidates until they see themselves reflected in the existing workforce, he says. “It may seem simplistic, but it’s incredibly powerful. We are much less likely to see ourselves having a positive and fulfilling future in the workplace if we don’t have role models.”

Beyond the moral obligation, the business case for better diversity is increasingly well understood and empirically documented. Numerous studies show diversity can boost creativity and relevance, particularly in the top brass. Research from Morgan Stanley in 2019 found that a more diverse workforce is correlated with higher average equity returns. Companies with a holistic approach towards equal gender representation outperformed their less diverse peers by 3.1% per year.

“There is a massive connection between inclusion, belonging, wellbeing and performance,” explains Adediran. “For many companies it’s an important driver.” But he notes that it’s vital to “dispel the myth that diversity dilutes quality” – the challenge is that there are rarely causal links.

Tapping this vast and underused pool of diverse talent is an obvious way to help attract the 1.8 million new engineers and technicians needed in Britain by 2025, particularly as this demographic is projected to grow sharply as a share of the UK population up to 2051. “It is definitely right to say that improving the diversity of the workforce could increase its overall size and therefore have an impact on the workforce shortage,” says Adediran.

New blood is even more urgently needed because engineering has a retiring workforce, and technology is creating new opportunities. He says the sector is a fascinating one in which to launch a career: “We’re going to have to engineer ourselves out of the crises we’re in at the moment. That is quite thrilling. It’s also a growing and stable career that has the potential to be hugely rewarding.” So selling the engineering sector as an incredibly exciting sector to work in, being at the forefront of our planet’s future, is important too.

As a whole, the sector is keen to address the skills shortages and increase diversity, says Adediran, particularly with persistent tightness in European labour markets. “Companies are very aware of how they’re perceived by the potential workforce. When recruiting in a restricted talent pool, it matters to companies that they are seen to be big on inclusion. That’s not something you can manufacture overnight.”

Indeed, there is no silver bullet solution — employers must recognise that for those unfortunate enough to suffer discrimination, the experience will be unique to the individual. This is known as 'intersectionality', and Adediran urges organisations to recognise everything that might marginalise people, in order to be truly inclusive: “One key strategy is not to focus on single issues.”

Another is to be led by data, he continues. “It’s about going beyond the staff survey and really listening, having focus groups and drawing out those stories and qualitative information that enable us to interpret those higher level statistics. Once you engage with that data you have a deeper understanding of the problem and can design targeted interventions.”

Many employers have tried to increase gender diversity by encouraging more women to choose science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) classes at school, college and university. In 2021, there were only 29,650 female applicants for undergraduate engineering degrees in the UK, against 125,320 male applications, figures from UCAS show. Employers also want to ensure they transition into the engineering workforce by designing more equitable recruitment processes.

But Adediran says the real problem is retaining this diverse talent — and that means creating workplaces that are more inclusive. For example, he says some women drop out of the workforce because of societal expectations around childcare responsibilities. Employers could improve paternity policies to make this a more even playing field.

In addition, giving women and other minority employees more role models in senior positions to aspire to, as well as establishing sponsorship programmes (people who advocate for an employee’s advancement), are also powerful levers to address gender and other imbalances in the workplace, he says.

It’s clear that to attract and retain a more diverse workforce, the engineering sector has a long way to go. And once they’ve got these candidates, it’s vital they don’t lose them. People will leave if the culture is not inclusive – or employers just won’t get the best out of them.

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