A cross-section of Mott MacDonald engineers

Do you look like an engineer?

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Around one-quarter of UK engineering graduates come from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, yet only around 8 per cent of engineers are non-white. What explains this discrepancy and how can engineering firms go about hiring a workforce that is more representative of society?

“Sometimes you don’t want to go to the pub!” exclaims Dr Nike Folayan, a chartered engineer. However, when advancing in an engineering career still often involves informal bonding over beers, certain employees – most obviously Muslims – often struggle to feel they belong.

Folayan, who is the chair of AFBE, the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers, highlights pub visits as just one example of how British engineers who don’t come from a white British background can face challenges in their careers. While overt racism seems to be a relatively uncommon occurrence in the industry today, there’s still a long way to go before British engineering can be considered entirely inclusive.

Take the statistics. AFBE’s research shows just 0.05 per cent of engineering board members are from a non-white background, and the Royal Academy of Engineering recently reported that black and minority ethnic (BME) engineering graduates take significantly longer to get hired than their white peers. What’s more, only 8.1 per cent of engineers are BME – while the 2011 census shows around 14 per cent of Brits aged 16-64 are non-white.

Ken Clark, a social scientist at the University of Manchester, also points to a recent study which suggests that engineers have more unconscious racial bias than other professionals.

That said, while engineering is far from perfect, it is improving – Folayan says numbers of BME engineers have risen since her association launched in 2007. Certain firms – such as Mott MacDonald, which is covered below – are striving to improve diversity in the sector.

Besides the obvious ethical reasons for eliminating discrimination in the industry, there’s a hard-nosed business case to counter it too. McKinsey, the consultancy, has conducted research showing that diverse companies record higher profits than less diverse firms. The general interpretation of this correlation is that employing people from different backgrounds encourages new perspectives and ideas, and possibly opens up new markets.

Vanessa Burton, an assistant engineer at Mott MacDonald, puts this into context. On a recent project, she says, they had “thirty-three different nationalities and 34 languages spoken across 18 different offices... This diversity led to an increased awareness across the team of our various cultures and backgrounds bringing together different skills and approaches, which overall created an exciting and dynamic team with innovative ideas.”

Should we be actively encouraging BME engineers? The standard argument against any kind of ‘proactive measure’ for hiring people from BME backgrounds – or from any minority group – is that these approaches are not far from quotas and that they undermine meritocracy, while simultaneously patronising ethnic minority engineers.

However, Clark believes these arguments miss the point. Not only might there be various conscious and unconscious biases in the hiring of engineers which undermine genuine meritocracy, but he also points out that actively expanding the potential pool of job candidates is hardly a bad idea.

Without a more proactive approach, many people with the brains for engineering may pass the sector by. For example, Kalita Patel is a chemical engineer who has mainly worked in the food and beverages sector. She explains that “engineering was never advertised to me as a possible career”. If it wasn’t for a specific school’s outreach programme from the University of Birmingham, she may never have become aware of the possibilities in the sector.

If firms take active steps now, the idea goes that diversity in the industry will eventually become the norm.

Case study

AFBE programmes to support BME engineers

AFBE has developed a range of programmes to support BME engineers at different stages of their careers, including:

• Real Projects, which sees students placed on real-world projects including Crossrail

• Transition workshops, where grads undergo mock-up interviews and learn about the hiring process

• Chess club, which supports careers progression through ‘lunch and learn’ sessions to help professionals plan their next steps.

Mott MacDonald is a major employee-owned global consultancy focusing on engineering, management and development. With an HQ in Croydon, the firm employs some 16,000 people in 150 countries.

In October 2018, it was one of the first companies – and one of few enginering firms – to commit to the Race at Work charter, a campaign by Business in the Community, a charity.

“We were already taking several steps outlined in the charter and we saw this as a great opportunity to publicise our ambitions of creating a workforce which is representative of British society” explains Sophie Lea, an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) advisor at Mott MacDonald. The firm has a team of three EDI specialists who introduce actions across the business to encourage inclusivity (these are not just limited to ethnicity).

Lea explains that the EDI team started by looking at the numbers. “Our strategy is data-driven and intelligence-led; we reviewed data from our EDI dashboards on our diversity stats in recruitment, headcount, promotions etc and combined it with information from our internal EDI employee engagement survey.”

From this analysis, team members were able to start developing strategies and techniques that might help address the issue more widely.

Mott MacDonald’s initiatives include:

• Replacing experience-based interviews with a strengths-based approach.

Lea explains that even when interviewing recent graduates, experience is often highly prized in job interviews. The problem is that a white student is more likely to have a relative working in engineering, so might be able to wangle a summer internship at a prestigious firm. This means they’ll have an advantage over an equally capable black student who doesn’t happen to have that kind of foot up – and therefore lacks that crucial work experience. Strengths-based interviews aim to counter this.

• Working with AFBE.

Mott MacDonald has worked with AFBE to support BME engineering students to transition into their professional careers (see box on AFBE’s programmes).

• Training on unconscious bias.

Human beings appear to have an unconscious tendency to identify with, and therefore to hire people who look like themselves. Lea explains that Mott MacDonald has introduced training on how to counter this ‘unconscious bias’ with its recruiters.

• Reverse mentoring schemes.

Mott MacDonald has introduced reverse mentoring schemes where junior BME staff, as well as disabled and LGBT+ engineers, work closely with senior staff in order to promote understanding.

• Creation of networks for BME staff.

By providing the opportunity for BME staff to meet up, networking groups help provide support.

• Transparent advertising of all internal job opportunities.

This is intended to help reduce the risk of unconscious bias in internal recruitment.

• The creation of e-learning tools.

The firm has created a variety of online training tools to help train staff about unconscious bias, the benefits and purpose of EDI, and ways of increasing diversity.

• Opportunities for airing problems.

Mott MacDonald has an anonymous and confidential phone line where staff can report discrimination.  

Mott MacDonald’s EDI team monitor progress and look at ways to encourage more inclusivity. While Lea stresses that success isn’t measured by ‘quotas’,the firm does use data to assess its progress in the number of BME applicants to its graduate schemes, for instance. EDI actions have produced a cultural shift, with 81 per cent of UK staff feeling that their colleagues take EDI seriously, and 72 per cent saying EDI policies are effectively implemented. 

Mott MacDonald is leading the way when it comes to increasing ethnic diversity in the industry. The use of a range of tools to tackle this complex issue is a sensible approach.

Is this something every engineering firm could replicate? Clark and Folayan agree that for smaller firms, which don’t have the same kinds of resources, introducing large-scale new policies of this sort can be a challenge. But, with strong leadership and support from associations like AFBE who can provide advice in this area, there’s no reason why they can’t start.

While there’s a lot of progress still to be made, Mott MacDonald shows that with an action plan and solid leadership, the industry can become more inclusive to BME backgrounds – even if that means swapping the pub for the park from time to time. *

Not your poster girl!

One engineer’s experience of getting into the industry

“I sometime seem to get singled out for promotional photos” says Kalita Patel, a chemical engineer. “I’m not only from an ethnic minority background, but I’m also a woman” – a double whammy for public relations departments, but which sometimes appears to overlook her value as a highly trained professional.

That said, Ms Patel says she hasn’t experienced direct discrimination in her career so far, and notes PepsiCo, her current employer, has been “brilliant in terms of diversity”.

Raised in Dudley, Ms Patel was the first in her family to pursue higher education, inspired by outreach visits to her state school from Birmingham University who provided the opportunity to meet current students and learn about their studies. She went on to complete an undergraduate degree in engineering and added a Master’s degree to her CV in 2014. A year’s placement at food and drink companies opened her eyes to engineering opportunities in that sector.

Above all she emphasises that would-be engineers should build a network of contacts to open up a career in the field – “take the opportunity to talk to people who come and do presentations at school or college and find out about work experience opportunities by building up contacts”.

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