There is clearly work to be done in the U.K. when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) in the engineering sector. Research shows that 83.5.% of engineers are male and only 7.8% are Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME).
Within the umbrella term “equality, diversity and inclusion” are three different issues — all of which need to be addressed — for real industry change to happen. In the engineering space, when we refer to inclusion, we are referencing a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging — a factor that is often overlooked when it comes to minorities in the workplace — but is nonetheless crucial for maintaining a diverse organisation.
Companies often address diversity through recruitment, but they also need to look at how they attract and retain people from diverse backgrounds by avoiding or addressing counter-inclusive practices. These practices can include something obvious such as using golf matches to conduct business meetings, when not everyone has had exposure to playing golf. These practices can also be much less palpable but more pervasive, such as stereotyping, flat out disregarding others, interacting with an unconscious bias or “code switching,” which involves individuals using diction or references in the workplace that they wouldn’t otherwise use.
Examples that come to mind of being disregarded in the workplace include minority engineers being spoken over or not listened to in meetings and women being given nonengineering tasks — such as organising events— which can take away time from career development. There are also times when colleagues get the names of female colleagues mixed up, seeing women as a group rather than as individuals. Not surprisingly, sometimes people go too far the other way: They may act overly cautious around an individual viewed as different, rather than treating the person like any other member of the team. These behaviours can leave people feeling many things other than a sense of belonging.
Although it can take time to change behaviours and thought patterns that have become ingrained, there are small steps that can be taken that make a big difference. These include acting as an ally and speaking up when someone is being disregarded, asking deliberately for the opinion of someone who is being overlooked in a meeting, asking how to pronounce someone’s name properly rather than just guessing, or asking for someone’s thoughts on a topic without assuming the person can’t speak knowledgeably because of gender or ethnicity.
Throughout workplaces across the globe, we are starting to see change, and there are several great initiatives that have been put forward both here at Burns & McDonnell and in the wider engineering industry.
At Burns & McDonnell, we have created an internal strategy for diversity, equity and inclusion, which includes practices such as a reverse mentoring scheme — where younger employees encourage older colleagues to embrace a more inclusive mindset. In addition, in our U.K. offices we conduct ad hoc inclusion presentations, during which someone gives a presentation about a particular religious or cultural holiday that the presenter observes, all with the goal of expanding understanding and awareness among the team. Plus, we have several employee resource groups within the organisation, such as the Burns & McDonnell Network of Women (NOW), which allow the underrepresented to share experiences, create a sense of solidarity and suggest ideas to make change. Everyone is invited to join these groups, which means a wide breadth of individuals who might normally be excluded can collectively be included in important conversations.
Several larger, industrywide movements exist as well, including the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) where women share ideas and best practices as they take part in networking events and educational meetings and conferences. We also have hosted a student event for the Association for Black & Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK), which celebrates higher achievements in education and engineering among minorities.
There have been some wins in terms of inclusion, demonstrated by growth in the number of industry initiatives and organisations, as well as the more conscientious behaviour we have witnessed amongst colleagues throughout the industry. There are, of course, still challenges and barriers to overcome, which will take time. But we must collectively continue to chip away and change peoples’ behaviour so that future generations benefit.
The added reward in the engineering sector of incorporating ideas and perspectives from underrepresented groups, is that the real-world practical results are infrastructure solutions that will have a positive impact on the lives of us all.
Combating counter-inclusive practices helps create an inclusive working environment
that not only attracts but retains talent from underrepresented groups.