Back story: Kerrine Bryan, ‘Unconscious bias is more of an issue in the UK’
Image credit: Tiffany Brown
TV presenter Dr Shini Somara talks to award-winning electrical engineer Kerrine Bryan, co-founder of Butterfly Books, which publishes career-themed children’s picture books.
Shini Somara: What engineering are you doing at the moment?
Kerrine Bryan: I’m working for WSP USA based in New York City in their Energy Group, where I tend to cross over between power generation and delivery, and renewables.
Currently, I’m working on one of the largest offshore wind projects in the US, and some large renewable solar projects where I’m responsible for power system studies, including short circuit analysis and load flow analysis. Alongside that, I work on a few electrical distribution projects in New York and the tri-state area. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, some hospitals needed to move electrical power equipment outside of the flood zone or update their emergency power system in line with the latest codes and standards. So I’ve been involved in some of these projects.
SS: How did you get into engineering?
KB: I’d say I fell into it, because as a child, I didn’t know what an engineer was and I certainly didn’t know any engineers. I went to see a careers adviser, who told me that because I enjoyed maths I should be an accountant. I actually was on the course to becoming an accountant, until a maths teacher suggested a residential course in Wales, where I learnt all about engineering. It was so interesting that I decided to take an engineering path from there.
I had to do a foundation year and an industrial placement and tended to always be two years behind people at university, but now I have my Master’s in engineering, so it has all been well worth the effort.
SS: What has your career path been like?
KB: With so many opportunities coming my way in the UK, I have been very lucky. At the start of my career, I was fortunate enough to have a really great mentor who always pushed for me to be given more senior roles and more responsibility. I don’t think I would have progressed so quickly had it not been for his support. Having strong mentors is key, and my mentor was in a powerful position to make things happen for me.
There are few people qualified to do what I do, which made me want to work hard, progress far and prove myself. I’ve always known that it is harder for someone like me in engineering. My mum always told me that it would be harder as a black woman to get to the same places as stereotypical engineers, even compared to Caucasian females. This mentality has pushed me to go above and beyond what is expected of me, when working on projects or tasks.
The lack of diversity in the workplace was a challenge at the start, but I have got to a point now where I work in a culture which is highly inclusive. Since moving to New York and working for WSP, it’s so different. At one point my technical team was 50 per cent female and we have a fairly diverse group when it comes to ethnicity too.
WSP goes out of their way to create a diverse and inclusive workforce, which really makes all the difference in feeling comfortable being yourself, feeling motivated and bringing your best efforts to the job.
SS: What are the main differences between your experiences in engineering in the UK and in the USA?
KB: I would say that unconscious bias is more of an issue in the UK than in the USA. People are not scared to talk about diversity and inclusion in the US. I suppose it is part of the British culture to not offend anybody and we like to avoid conflict. But these difficult conversations do need to be had in order for change to happen.
Recently, my work colleague did an I&D moment on black hair after watching a TV discussion on the subject. He’s a white male and presented the point respectfully and accurately. I thought he was brave to present on the subject, but we later talked about how these discussions are supposed to make us uncomfortable for change to happen.
SS: What has been your greatest inspiration into doing what you do now?
KB: So going back to before I went to university, I remember there were three black kids in my school. The one black boy that was there came in one day and said that his sister was going to university. At that time, I didn’t know what university was. I didn’t have any family that had gone to university. He was so proud and happy and I thought “I want to go to university!”.
Perhaps he acted as a role model for me, without even realising it. Now I hope I can be a role model for my two daughters too, especially in addressing biases.
SS: How do you manage to juggle so much?
KB: At times it’s hard and you have to prioritise, depending on what stage of life you’re in. The support from my husband has been important, especially when we’re both in a country where we don’t have any other family there.
What has also been of great help is having a supportive employer too who understands and considers your personal circumstances. This support and flexibility motivates me to want to also do my best in my work for my employer.
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