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Where is our missing workforce? Diversity, inclusion and skills

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Meet the companies employing a more diverse range of engineers, to mark International Women in Engineering Day on 23 June and this month's 50th Pride.

At this time of year, for several years now, we have been running a women in engineering special issue. We get mixed reactions. Most responses are supportive but we also hear the question: “What’s all this got to do with engineering?”

Discrimination in engineering is rarely overt these days (although we have encountered that too) but more common and more persistent is subconscious bias. With that comes a systematic bias that’s built into processes, procedures and just the way of doing things that everyone in an organisation has got used to and thinks is the thing to do because, well, we’ve always done it that way and what’s wrong with it?

“I don’t care what gender, race or sexuality the candidates are,” is one argument we occasionally hear from managers in engineering, “because they have nothing to do with engineering. We treat everyone the same and what’s unfair about that?”

The bias experienced against women, LGBT+, BAME, disabled and other under-represented groups in engineering isn’t usually personal – it’s systematic. There’s prejudice in the process – pretty much any process really.

Fairness is more subtle than it first appears; treating everyone the same isn’t fair. It won’t result in fair outcomes.

Doing the company diversity course might keep you out of legal trouble but it is not enough to radically change a business. For example, the interview process is fair on the face of it. But what if the way a candidate thinks isn’t conducive to bringing out the best in them in a formal interview situation because they are, for example, autistic? That’s unfortunate for the candidate, you may think, but isn’t it what everyone goes through?

What if the candidate has the technical skills and abilities you need for the role in spades, but performs poorly in a formal interview that’s more a test of social skills that they may never actually need in the job? It’s one reason that only 16 per cent of autistic people in the UK are in full-time employment. That’s a lot of wasted talent, and it’s just one group. Women too tend not to interview as well as men, who are basically better at talking themselves up.

Graphic showing women on engineering company boards

Women on engineering company boards

Image credit: E&T

There are many things that businesses take for granted that could be done differently and would improve diversity. Most aren’t even very difficult. In this issue, we talk to the organisations who are leading in various aspects of diversity, find out how they do it and what benefits it brings.

Since regularly covering women in engineering, I have noticed a change in the preferred messaging. Conferences on diversity in engineering are moving beyond talking about what is the right thing for business to do, to talking about what is the advantageous thing to do for the company’s performance and the bottom line. Diversity is not just good. It’s good for business too.

The Rainbow flag flies over Savoy Place in June 2019

The Rainbow flag flies over Savoy Place in June 2019

Image credit: IET

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