Opinion: Why the time is right for greater diversity in industry

There has never been a better time to work together to create real and meaningful change through greater diversity, says Christina Rebel, chief innovation officer, head of data intelligence and co-founder of Wikifactory.

This month, International Women’s Day has provided an opportunity to both reflect on how far we have come, but also the distance many industries still need to travel before the playing field is truly level. In my personal experience, I have seen a great deal of positive change over the years in the engineering and manufacturing sectors. When I first started out, I was often one of the only women in the room at industry events and conferences but today, I find myself surrounded by truly inspirational female founders, engineers and product designers from all backgrounds and parts of the globe. The wider view however, shows that there is still a mountain to climb, with recent figures revealing that within the manufacturing industry alone, only 2.7 per cent of companies worldwide are led by women. This journey forward now also has the added complications and challenges brought about by the pandemic, with many studies indicating that women in the workforce will be especially vulnerable to its impact for years to come.

IWD2021: This is what an engineer looks like

IWD2021: Why I choose to challenge gender imbalance in STEM

IWD2021 Q&A: Shifting perceptions of women in STEM

However, it has often been said that from great challenges come great opportunities and if there was ever a time to be positive, it is surely now. The rise in new and innovative technologies combined with the growth of global teams has potentially paved the way for greater diversity and equality in industries around the world. Interestingly, previous RAEng studies have shown that developing economies – including Myanmar, Tunisia and Honduras – lead the world in gender parity in engineering, with the highest proportion of female engineering graduates at 65 per cent, 42 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively. Most OECD countries increased the number of female engineering graduates over the period 2008–12, with the most notable rises seen in the emerging economies of Mexico, Hungary and Turkey (by over 150 per cent). Moving forward, it is important that we take inspiration from these successes, as well as learn lessons from recent events in order to implement positive change for the future.

It is well documented that greater diversity improves industry growth but it is also important that we move beyond solely financial metrics as our primary means of determining value and success. Greater diversity – including more women and ethnic minorities – in the engineering and manufacturing sectors, will hopefully accelerate the journey towards more sustainable, collaborative and ethical ecosystems. So, our goal right now is to encourage this change to remake industries for the better – for both people and the planet. To make sure this happens, my advice to anyone, either working in, or considering a career in, these sectors and regardless of gender is as follows:

Encourage a culture of empathy and understanding

If the challenges of the past year have taught us anything, it is that extending understanding and empathy towards our fellow humans can help see us through even the most difficult of times. This is just as important in the world of work as it is in our daily lives. Although it has been a while since many of us met with our colleagues face to face, the pandemic has encouraged us to consider each other as individuals – with our own unique set of circumstances and pressures – rather than just workmates, and provide support where needed. To continue with this culture-shift will help to make sectors more appealing to a diverse range of talent in the future, creating innovative, flexible and resilient teams and companies.

Practice honesty and open communication

About two years into developing Wikifactory with my co-founders, I fell pregnant with my son. It was an exciting yet very risky period in our start-up journey and we were just a team of four, so naturally I was concerned about how it would impact my contribution to our company. Choosing to be open about my own fears and discussing these concerns as a team enabled us to build a true shared belief that rather than being an obstacle to success, becoming a mother was only going to make me a more creative and agile entrepreneur. This helped cement our core values of openness and diversity plus aided our path towards finding new ways of organising ourselves to accommodate each of our individual needs and strengths.

Work toward a shared vision

It has been said that companies will always be in competition with each other, but perhaps success also can be guaranteed through collaboration. If we work together to improve diversity in the industry, we all end up winning. As well as having our own personal targets or those of the businesses we work for, it is important to adopt a wider view and take steps to create a more diverse and inclusive future. Wikifactory, for example, is part of the EU-funded program Critical Making – an initiative aimed at developing systematic methods to promote diversity and inclusion in open hardware development. So, whether it is in our daily interactions with our colleagues or our involvement with wider projects and schemes, there’s never been a better time to work together to create real and meaningful change through greater diversity.

Christina Rebel, chief innovation officer, head of data intelligence and co-founder of Wikifactory