Diversity initiatives

Strive for diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Image credit: Vivida

The engineering and technology sector still has a reputation for lack of diversity and inclusivity, despite efforts to change. Increasingly, people from ethnic minority backgrounds are taking the initiative themselves.

Back in the 1960s, campaigning lawyer Lord Lester devised a simple test to discover whether employers were prejudiced. He’d apply for a job under the name of Smith and then again with identical qualifications, but as Mr Singh.

That employers all those decades ago weren’t interested in the Singhs comes as no surprise. What has astonished social scientists is that more than half a century later, some UK employers remain just as biased, research shows. And there are stark differences in how white and minority ethnic young engineering professionals fare.

Britain has been a pioneer in developing anti-discrimination legislation but now falls behind most of Europe, says Dr Valentina Di Stasio, who has researched racial discrimination among employers. She found that people from Nigerian, Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds had to send 80 per cent and 90 per cent more job applications respectively than their white British peers in the UK, simply to get an interview.

This comes as no news to sisters Marian Arafiena and Anita Egbune. Professionals from engineering and finance sectors and children of Nigerian immigrants, they are used to fighting their corner and sitting around the kitchen table sharing war stories. “And then we thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if there was no war?’,” says Arafiena. “But racism exists in the fabric of everything.” Technology and engineering lags behind other sectors, and there’s a dearth of data in this field, say lobbyists – more research would make a business case for more investment.

Moved by the outpouring of anger at the death of George Floyd in May last year, the sisters still hope ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) will become a movement not a moment, even as it slips from the news. Alongside their day jobs – Arafiena is a qualified engineer with a background in transport infrastructure and Egbune works in finance – they’ve set up the UK’s first crowdfunding platform for black-owned start-ups, Rise FundNGO. This is their answer to the collective grief of last summer – to try to bring lasting change. “What are we going to do after the marching and the kneeling?”

It’s early days for the platform – but many people of colour say the most effective way to progress is to become entrepreneurial, particularly in the tech sector. They are, as one business owner says, tired of waiting for an interview, for promotion and for equal pay. It was only when a colleague drew Arafiena aside to tell her she was paid two levels below a colleague in a similar post that she realised how much she had been short-changed. “The pay gap is always an issue,” she says.

Now there are more than 300,000 ethnic minority owned businesses in the UK – making up 7 per cent of all SMEs.

Ethnicity plays a greater role in how graduates in engineering fare compared to those of other subjects – which is a problem for an industry striving for a more diverse workforce, says the Royal Academy of Engineering.

While a greater proportion of black and minority ethnic (BME) students study engineering compared to other subjects at university, they’re less likely to enter the sector than their white counterparts – six in ten white engineering graduates find work in engineering after six months compared to just four in ten BME students. A black engineering graduate is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as her or his white counterpart. “Any person of colour will tell you they encounter prejudice every day,” says Oluwaseyi Sosanya, co-founder and chief executive of 3D design platform Gravity Sketch. He’s worked in the US and UK, including a stint at Jaguar Land Rover. “In all my roles, I’ve been the only black man in my department. Pretty much everyone else was a Caucasian male.”

His mother was a teacher and his father a barber. As a kid he was into BMX and DJ-ing – it was his uncle and a teacher who encouraged him into engineering. He knows first-hand the power of mentoring – and credits a couple of influential professionals who took him under their wing for his own progress. Some of his proudest moments stem from workshops he’s given back in his hometown to inspire school students, and he regularly speaks to inner-London school children. His company makes an effort to cast the net widely when hiring.

Setting up on your own shouldn’t be the only option available for black and ethnic professionals, says Mara-Tafadzwa Makoni, engineer and consultant, who’s on the board of the Association For Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK). And the sector is far from offering a level playing field.

“Big companies have been caught out by the BLM movement,” she says. There are few senior role models for people of colour, few black and minority ethnic managers in HR, and a lack of transparent career paths – which leaves employees feeling they are being underpaid and overlooked for promotion. Accurate data isn’t yet available, says Makoni.

Companies should avoid featuring ethnic employees on any marketing literature, advises the US pressure group Black In Engineering. Unless the images reflect a company’s true diversity, it smacks of tokenism. Young engineers complain that they’re often siphoned away to complete outreach obligations at a time when they should be concentrating on their own careers.

With several programmes targeting people of colour at different career stages, AFBE-UK hopes to address inequalities.

“We have highly qualified grads and postgrads saying they struggle to find a job,” says Makoni – they feel they need a masters to even begin to compete with bachelors graduates. Sometimes they ask: ‘is it my name that puts people off?’ Students will practise interviewing and assessments, and receive feedback from AFBE-UK volunteers.

It’s here where companies could step up, says Sosanya, by giving detailed feedback if an individual isn’t successful – something he’s always careful to do. “If applicants don’t hear, ‘here’s why you didn’t get the job, here’s what you need to improve’, they might grow frustrated and feel hopeless because of their heritage.”

Diversity and inclusion

What works?

Tips from diversity and inclusion consultant Perrine Farque, founder of Inspired Human.

■ Acknowledge and recognise bias. Make unconscious bias training voluntary not mandatory, make it repeatable and part of a larger approach.

■ Provide sponsorship programmes, make them voluntary and urge execs to sponsor people from under-represented groups. Invite mentees to high-profile meetings, endorse them publicly, give them glamour work.

■ Hold leaders accountable – this is the most powerful step, as they have the authority and the budget. Strive for emotional commitment rather than mere buy-in.

■ Run anonymous employee feedback surveys on sense of fairness.

■ Emphasise the business case and explain how initiatives link to business goals such as better retention, increased productivity etc.

■ Make diversity and inclusion a top-to-​bottom business strategy, not just an HR plan.

■ Be an inclusive leader, aware of your own bias.

What hasn’t worked

■ Focusing on diverse hiring but neglecting retention and career progression.

■ Omitting a corporate mission statement – it’s the responsibility of HR and management to make co-workers accountable so inclusion permeates every level of the organisation.

■ Failing to get true commitment from leaders – the most common and deadly mistake of any diversity programme.

■ Focusing only on the short term – ticking a box and forgetting for another year leads to very little change. The likes of Apple and Google have ongoing programmes and actively challenge themselves.

■ Complacency – diversity requires constant attention and effort.

■ Failing to reward results – diversity should be compensated just like any other metric.

■ Ignoring the supply chain.

While the UK is one of Europe’s worst culprits, says Di Stasio, whose work is part of an international study, Germany is the least discriminatory. By sending out fictitious job applications, Di Stasio discovered that even high-skilled professions such as engineering – with a paucity of applicants – are equally blinkered. “We saw discrimination against visible minorities where employers can’t afford it – in software and engineering, even when there might be just five applicants at most.”

Meanwhile, Caribbean and South Asians still face levels of discrimination in the UK they encountered some 50 years ago. “And that is truly shocking.” It’s particularly men from Africa and the Middle East who are neglected and suffer the strongest discrimination, says Di Stasio.

One frequent complaint surfacing within the AFBE is a sense that black professionals feel they’re not getting the same opportunities as their white counterparts. Perhaps because of this, retention of ethnic employees is low. “So we find role models,” says Makoni. “Industry experts to talk about specific high-profile projects. So students can see people who look like them, 10 years down the line. We start talking about progression, skills you should be picking up.”

As well as offering leadership training, the AFBE brings small groups together – virtually since the pandemic – to chat confidentially, network and share worries. “Being the only black or ethnic employee can be a lonely place,” says Makoni. “We hear about everything from microaggressions to blatant prejudice.”

She wants to see better data keeping – how many companies, she asks, keep track of racist complaints? And just as with the gender pay gap, she wants to see more evidence of disparities. “The only number we can report with any accuracy is that 9 per cent of the sector is BME.” But an average 29.9 per cent of engineering graduates come from black and ethnic backgrounds. She favours organic change over quotas and believes white allies have a role to play in pushing for parity.

“Until I walk into a company and see BME people in HR making decisions about how they recruit, we won’t change how figures look,” she says. “You won’t get BME people in leadership until there is transparent career progression.”

One of the main ways to improve diversity is to shake up recruitment, says Woz Ahmed, chief strategy officer of Imagination Technologies – an established company “at the start of its diversity and inclusion journey”. As well as changing its approach to hiring, the company has introduced a mentoring programme and unconscious bias training and is lobbying government.

“We don’t just target white-collar universities,” he says. This is important. Top universities are disproportionately white – just 3.8 per cent of students at leading universities are black, and 44 per cent of black students attend less elite universities, compared to 28.6 per cent of white students. “I’m not happy with our level of diversity – and if we’re always looking at top-flight universities, nothing will change,” he says. “A bunch of people from the same education system and the same cultural background will never challenge each other.”

Race discussions aren’t yet as advanced as gender awareness in the sector, most professionals agree. “We’ve progressed on many diversity fronts – gender, disability, sexual orientation – but not race, where we’ve gone backwards,” says Bola Abisogun, founder of DiverseCity Surveyors and a long-time campaigner who’s been awarded an OBE for his efforts to help young black professionals in the construction sector. But he isn’t downhearted. This pandemic, he believes, has shown staid sectors that rapid change can happen when it needs to. “That level of disruption by default has introduced new possibilities. We can change whether we are ready or not. I’m excited . The old excuses won’t work any more.”

More than anything, say campaigners, there needs to be a change in culture rather than tick-box initiatives. “It’s a vicious circle,” says Makoni. “You can’t build a pipeline until the culture is fixed. You can’t invite people into your home if it’s in chaos.”

Virtual reality

Entering the workplace

“If you’ve never experienced life as a black man or woman, you don’t know what you don’t know.” So says the creator of an immersive experience that allows employers “to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”.

Digital storyteller Simeon Quarrie hopes virtual reality and other immersive media will hammer home a message that resonates emotionally with senior white executives – and reveal how intimidating corporate life can appear “for a black person trying to enter their world”.

“You look down at your arms and feet, and you’re in the body of someone black,” says Quarrie, founder of Vivida. With the help of community volunteers, he’s put together “a day in the life of” experience. From lectures from mum and dad to a phone call from a friend questioning your career choices, an individual learns how we are all affected by our background, skin colour and surroundings.

This diversity training was first put together for EY, where senior executives realised their organisation wasn’t the form, shape and colour they wanted it to be – and took steps to rectify it. For Quarrie, it’s personal. “I’ve got two daughters and I’m passionate about breaking down the barriers they may face.”

He’s keen to avoid the potential judging tone of unconscious bias training – “a party trick” which might put employees on the defensive. “Sort of... ‘ha ha see what you were thinking’.” He likens shifting attitudes to a lumbering ship beginning to change direction. “I want to help people understand the impact of their behaviour and beliefs, but I don’t want people to feel judged. We don’t necessarily have the answers but we need to have the conversation.”

And the drama of a carefully crafted VR story has more of a buzz than a dry PowerPoint presentation. Executives were keen to try it out. Vivida is also working on an interactive version that could be delivered through a laptop, to make the training cheaper and more accessible.

It’s the interactive element that lifts the experience above simple storytelling, says Quarrie. “You’re the main character. You root for this character as they overcome obstacles. You start to realise how your own decisions have an impact, and you change your perceptions.”


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