Why the scope of industry’s diversity drive is too limited

secret engineerOur anonymous blogger contemplates the limitations of industry’s current approach to driving up diversity 

I was recently talking to friends about the new “W Series” motor sport championship where all the drivers are female. The discussion regarding whether there is a need for this and what it might – or might not – achieve soon turned to the lack of women in engineering and science. Thinking about it that was probably down to me, but the current dearth of female competitors in motor sport in general and F1 in particular can be used as a parable for industry in the wider sense. There are some women, but not very many at all.

Although there will always be those with antediluvian views I cannot think of anyone I’ve recently worked with who would openly object to more women working within engineering. Some may mutter darkly behind closed doors or patronisingly mock in private but so long as they keep it to themselves and don’t adversely influence a woman’s career path then who cares? In addition there has been much effort put into getting girls at school interested in science and engineering. So given that there appears to be no real resistance from the workforce, backed up by a programme of active encouragement generally, how come I’ve only worked with a couple of female engineers in the past decade or so?

So far, so familiarly perplexing. What made this particular conversation more interesting though was the input from a friend who happens to be transgender. She highlighted a slightly different view that I had sort of been aware of but which I hadn’t yet fully formed as a coherent thought. The problem isn’t so much that there aren’t enough women but that engineering has a very high percentage of white, straight and male people working within it. Again, not exclusively so but enough for it to be noticeable. To give some context, although the brevity of these pieces mean that I can only give pointers, women account for just under half of the UK workforce in total whilst 1 in 5 staff  in the NHS are “non-white.”

Why is this a problem? For a start there is no section of society that holds a cast iron monopoly on engineering excellence and we are therefore failing to tap into a valuable resource. Solving the problem of a Spitfire’s engine cutting during “negative g” manoeuvres? A woman did that. The founder of computer science as we know it? A homosexual. The BBC computer that was pivotal in making Britain “computer literate?” You can thank a transsexual for that one. So it goes on with many examples from just about any group other than white, male and straight. By pushing out from the standard pattern of “the engineer” you also gain a positive in that you open up the chance of insight and opinion informed by experience and culture outside of the current norm. Those of us who correspond to the stereotype of the engineer generally work as part of an organisation to produce items for everyone. However we cannot be helped but have our decisions and interactions predominantly informed by our own viewpoint. This is a distinct limitation.

We have been wringing our hands over a lack of women within our profession for so long that I fear we’ve lost sight of the real issue. What is perceived as a specific failing regarding resource is in itself, and by its definition, limiting in the scope offered by the 21st century society we inhabit. What is needed isn’t the target of pulling people in from a second group but rather the move away from a single group. I’ll freely admit that, given how it should be through actively spreading the net wider rather than discouraging those already most likely to join our ranks, I’ve no idea how to achieve this. What I do know is that simply saying “more women should be in engineering and science” wilfully ignores the reality of the world we are living in.