Back story: Dr Hayaatun Sillem, ‘We want to celebrate the differences engineers make’
Image credit: Teri Pengilley
TV presenter Dr Shini Somara talks to Dr Hayaatun Sillem CBE, CEO of The Royal Academy of Engineering.
Dr Hayaatun Sillem CBE has extensive leadership experience in UK and international engineering, innovation, and diversity and inclusion activities. She chairs the UK government’s Innovation Expert Group and the St. Andrews Prize for the Environment, and co-chairs with Sir Lewis Hamilton his Commission on Black Representation in UK motorsport. She is a trustee of EngineeringUK and the Foundation for Science & Technology; a member of the Made Smarter Commission on Industry 4.0; a director of Festival*UK 2022 Ltd; and an advisor to accelerateHER and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation. She has been named as one of the ‘Inspiring 50 Women in Tech’ and one of the most influential women in engineering.
Shini Somara: How should we see the role of ‘engineers’ today?
Hayaatun Sillem: Engineers have a responsibility for designing and delivering products, services and infrastructure that are representative or reflective of the society they serve. It is for this reason that we need to make sure engineering outcomes are inclusive. Engineers should care about how engineering activities result in things that benefit and meet the needs of all groups in society.
SS: Why do we still have such major under-representation within engineering?
HS: We still have a particularly narrow stereotype around what an engineer looks like and what they do. I have seen change in leaders within engineering, who acknowledge that it is core to their role and their business success to improve rates of inclusion. However, we still haven’t translated that into measurable progress yet. Inclusivity leads to creativity, innovation, productivity and attracting and retaining talent.
We focus on gender in engineering because it’s so obviously visible. But we’ve also seen through our work at The Royal Academy of Engineering that there are so many different dimensions of under-representation. Inequality, lack of fairness, differential experiences all tend to be neglected. A statistic I find particularly troubling is that if you’re an engineering graduate and black or minority ethnic, you are twice as likely to be unemployed six months after graduation than your white counterpart. This is regardless of academic accomplishment. Problems such as this still exist in engineering, so it has been important to see more dialogue about racial and ethnic diversity in our industry.
SS: How do we change engineering stereotypes?
HS: Changing stereotypes from a really young age is crucial. At the Academy, we are also trying to make sure that parents, grandparents and teachers get to see the engineering of everyday life. We want to challenge narrow perceptions and celebrate the differences engineers make to all our lives. This will influence choices young people make about their careers. Engineering is a highly socially impactful, human-centric career. It is entirely collaborative, which is not what young people assume when they think about engineering.
Since the pace of innovation is high, we need to continuously upgrade skills and support people in adapting and advancing their careers. We can be more creative in terms of talent circulation and should be encouraging career transitions, perhaps from different professions. In welcoming a variety of rich life experiences and professional expertise, we stop excluding a wealth of talent who did not choose engineering from the start.
‘Each of us has a bearing on the experience of those who are already in engineering and a responsibility to change the face of engineering.’
SS: What does inclusivity mean to you?
HS: Inclusivity is something that every single person can contribute to and benefit from. Within diversity, we know that intersectionality is a huge issue. Not all women have the same experiences. Not all people who are black have the same experiences. Not all people who are not diverse have the same experiences.
Empathy is a key business and leadership skill. We often dismiss that empathy is paramount in effective negotiation, teamwork and in designing products that meet user needs. All these things are fundamentally enabled by empathy.
SS: What are your views on mentorship?
HS: I think everybody has the capacity to mentor because we can all learn from one another. Formal mentoring relationships are important. We all benefit from people, good advice, support, and input. And so just the principle that we all want to be playing that role in passing it forward, I think is great.
I do believe that mentorship can happen in all directions. Reverse mentorship has gained popularity in creating a more inclusive culture, and greater empathy between different groups. Recognising that everyone is influenced by a whole range of factors and that our experience will be different depending on who we are; our perspectives and our personal characteristics and so forth, is a very crucial and positive thing. Mentors have certainly helped me to be the best version of myself.
I’m also a huge fan of peer mentorship. I’ve been incredibly lucky to meet lots of amazing senior people in my career who have given me great advice and insights along the way, but the people who’ve been most influential have been my peers. It’s been helpful to share experiences, challenge each other and call each other out. It’s so powerful.
Changing the face of engineering is something we all have a responsibility to do. It can feel like an overwhelming problem and not something any individual can solve. But each of us has a bearing on the experience of those who are already in engineering and a responsibility to change the face of engineering to be more inclusive. To accelerate the pace of change, we need to work collectively and champion each other’s initiatives.
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