Driving diversity in engineering

View from the Academy

Hayaatun SillemDespite some notable efforts, the engineering community still has a long way to go in building a more diverse culture writes Dr Hayaatun Sillem, deputy chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering

A fascinating new film will be premiered this month tracing the story of a group of NASA mathematicians – dubbed ‘human computers’ – who played a vital role in the US space programme, making crucial calculations to enable this superlative engineering effort. All were black women, and their story, Hidden Figures, celebrates a contribution thatwent largely unrecognised for decades.

Fifty years later, and despite efforts to improve diversity, statistics tell us that STEM professions, and the engineering community in particular, still have a long way to go in building a more diverse culture. For example, 20 per cent of physics A-levels are awarded to girls, the Institute of Physics found in its 2011 report It’s different for girls. Fifteen per cent of engineering and technology first degrees are awarded to females. Only 8 per cent of professional engineers are female, according to Prof John Perkins’ 2013 Review of engineering skills, and only 4.6 per cent of those registered with their professional institutions are female. 25.5 per cent of engineering and technology first degrees are awarded to people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, according to EngineeringUK 2016, while 14 per cent of the UK population are from minority ethnic backgrounds. But only 6 per cent of people in professional engineering roles are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, according to a Royal Academy of Engineering analysis of Labour force survey data in 2013.

Only six percent of professional engineers are from black or ethnic minority backgrounds

These numbers concern us because, on the whole, engineering graduates are highly employable, with 81 per cent of new graduates in full-time work and/or further study just six months after graduation. However, there is a noticeable difference in the full-time employment outcomes between ethnic groups even after such a short time: 71 per cent of white engineering graduates find full-time jobs after six months, compared with just 51 per cent of black and minority ethnic students.

So how can we create a more diverse and inclusive culture in the years ahead? How do people who are currently working in today’s engineering profession perceive its culture? Does it feel inclusive and appealing to young engineers starting their first full-time job? These are vital questions for the future productivity and dynamism of UK engineering – a sector that employs over 5.5 million people and accounts for half the country’s exports.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s vision is of an inclusive engineering sector that inspires, attracts and retains people from diverse backgrounds and reflects UK society.  There is plenty of evidence that diversity of background is good for business, and different perspectives within teams help to drive innovation and creativity.

To find out how close our sector is to achieving this vision, the academy is conducting a survey this month of people working in engineering. (We would welcome your thoughts at www.raeng.org.uk/inclusivecultures.)

We plan to publish the survey results later this year and will also use them to inform our new Engineering Talent Project and the work of our Diversity and Inclusion Programme, both of which aim to build positive perceptions of UK engineering, encourage future talent to join the profession and remove barriers to them doing so. Ultimately, we want to improve diversity, workplace culture and employment practices, so that the reality across industry matches the aspiration.

Ethnicity seems to be one of the most significant factors impacting the employment of engineering graduates. Our survey will tell us more, but it is clear that engineering employers need to do more to encourage and engage with engineering students from all backgrounds.

So what might be done? In 2012, the academy established an Engineering Diversity Concordat in its drive to improve the situation and this is now supported by 30 professional engineering institutions and the Engineering Council. Last month, the Royal Academy and the Science Council launched a joint progression framework to help professional bodies across both science and engineering to assess and monitor their progress on diversity and inclusion. Professional bodies provide important support to scientists and engineers throughout their careers, recognising and upholding their professional standards, as well as providing continuous professional development. The new framework is the first of its kind and gives professional bodies the opportunity to assess activities such as membership, awards and events against four levels of progress, and identify what can be done to improve.

As an academy we work in collaboration with employers, such as our current work with the transportation sector to develop common procurement guidelines for encouraging greater diversity and inclusion through the supply chain.

We also work with partners on programmes that seek to engage under-served audiences with the engineering profession directly. One example of this is our pilot Engineering Engagement Programme, which works with 12 employers and SEO London to increase the flow of undergraduates and recent graduates into engineering work experience and employment. This programme particularly targets disadvantaged, minority ethnic and female students, and students from universities outside the Russell Group.

This is promising progress, but it must be sustained and built upon. The future success of our profession depends on us harnessing all the talent available. Assembling a diverse set of skills to call on will maximise our chances of achieving this.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem is deputy chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and will be contributing a monthly column to The Engineer.