Comment: Driving diversity in engineering has never been more important

Addressing the barriers under-represented groups face in pursuing pathways to STEM education and careers has never been more important writes Engineering UK chief executive Dr Hilary Leevers

Engineers play a vital role in shaping our world, from where we live and how we communicate, to what we do for leisure. We frequently highlight their importance in response to global challenges – including achieving Net Zero and securing sustainable food, water and energy for all. But their importance has rarely been more visible than during the global pandemic – engineers, technicians and manufacturing companies have been integral to producing personal protective equipment, ventilators and medical infrastructure and supplies.

While engineers have responded fast, flexibly and with huge personal commitment at this time of crisis – we know that it could have been better. We know this because workforce diversity improves innovation, creativity, productivity, resilience and market insight and the engineering workforce could and should be much more diverse. For example, women make up just 12% of the engineering workforce and those from minority ethnic backgrounds, 9%.

The shocking convergence of the coronavirus pandemic and the killing of George Floyd – leading to global engagement with Black Lives Matter – challenges us to consider how we can build a better society. Much of the growing commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, may have been driven, in part, by the productivity argument, relayed above, or regulatory requirements, such as transparency about the gender pay gap. But we can hope that this commitment will be strengthened by giving greater weight to the moral argument to ensure that people’s backgrounds do not determine their opportunities.

While it’s well established that young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer educational opportunities and outcomes, we are bracing ourselves for these differences to be exacerbated by the impact of school lockdown.

Engineering is often misunderstood by the public in general, and, more worryingly, by young people and their parents and teachers. Furthermore, these misconceptions often relate to stereotypes about who can become an engineer and may be one of the reasons that diversity narrows at each educational decision point. Now more than ever we need to understand and mitigate the barriers that under-represented groups, including women and those from BAME backgrounds, face in pursuing pathways to STEM education and careers.

Other issues are a lack of confidence in the abilities underlying engineering, access to unbiased careers advice and STEM work experience, the availability of STEM education and expert teachers, and many other societal and cultural factors.

While it’s well established that young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer educational opportunities and outcomes, we are bracing ourselves for these differences to be exacerbated by the impact of school lockdown. In our rapidly changing world, we at EngineeringUK will be researching young people’s understanding of engineering careers, their aspirations and the best ways that we can open-up engineering for them. For instance, it may be that they see engineering as more desirable if its life-saving impacts are now more visible, on the other hand, it may be seen as less attainable due to educational or financial barriers.

Perhaps the most important thing that employers can do at this time is continue to recruit and provide training and careers for those entering the profession. We need young people to have these opportunities at a societal level, but individual organisations also need a balanced workforce. We know that some employers are experiencing real challenges, but urge them to consider how they can help young people and also to be mindful of the impacts that decisions about furlough, staff retention and progression are having on diversity. We know the Institute for Fiscal Studies research has found for example, that more women are being made redundant and furloughed in general. This would risk decades of hard-won diversity gains if true of the engineering workforce – and would be likely to impact on the appeal of the profession in the future.

Engineering is a varied, stimulating and valuable career and we need to work harder than ever to ensure that it is accessible for this generation of young people – for their own life chances and so that we have a diverse and insightful workforce that enables the UK to thrive. EngineeringUK aims to work with education, government and industry to grow our collective impact to help young people understand what engineering is, how to get into it, and be motivated and able to access the educational and training opportunities on the way – whatever their backgrounds.

Dr Hilary Leevers is the CEO of EngineeringUK