Back Story: ‘No one truly knows what diversity or inclusion looks or feels like’
Image credit: Rachel Knowles
TV presenter Shini Somara talks to Vanessa Burton, a senior geotechnical engineer at Rendel Limited, who graduated from University of Surrey in Civil Engineering (MEng).
Shini Somara: Why did you choose geotechnical engineering?
Vanessa Burton: I always loved infrastructure and was good at maths, art and physics. During college summer holidays I undertook a work experience, ‘Urban Pioneers: Between the Bridges’, with the Architecture Foundation. It was fantastic and it helped me understand where I wanted to be. I didn’t know much about the civil engineering industry beforehand, especially geotechnical engineering.
SS: Were there many people that looked like you on your engineering course?
VB: Coming from South London to attend University of Surrey was a shock. Nobody on my civil engineering course looked like me; the colloquialisms, humour was all different. By getting involved in various societies and during my course I made some great friends.
I was very fortunate at Surrey University. My lecturers were wonderful. It was such a supportive and encouraging environment. They helped me to step out of my comfort zone.
At Surrey, I was awarded the UoS/ICE scholarship paired with Mott MacDonald foundations and geotechnic department, my first insight into geotechnical engineering and the industry. I undertook two summer internships and a year placement. I learnt so much during these periods and it helped me understand what I enjoy. Despite the challenges of studying for a civil engineering degree, my differences were accepted, which is crucial for the under-represented groups.
I applied to university with the hopes of a BEng three-year degree. I left graduating with a scholarship, an MEng and over 15-months pre-graduate experience in the industry. Your environment can change your perspective or provide opportunities you never even realised existed.
SS: Why did you stay in engineering, despite occasional doubts?
VB: I was fortunate with my upbringing. My family never pushed me to do anything career-wise; my career is my choice and my decision. I have strong women in my family who break the status quo, and my grandad quotes that “if something’s meant for you, it’s meant for you and there is nothing or no one that can stop you”.
I stayed in engineering for the simple reason that I enjoyed it: the challenges, creativity, and seeking solutions. Therefore, nothing else mattered. I just backed myself.
I, personally, try not to let any negative opinions hold me back. That’s not to say that I don’t listen to advice or am unaffected, but I am prepared to take the road untravelled and make my own way. As I look back at my journey, it’s a mixture of determination and resilience, with phenomenal people along the way, to provide guidance or opportunities.
SS: What are your views on diversity and inclusion?
VB: Firstly, diversity and inclusion always get joined together as one. However, I believe they are separate issues. We have a problem with diversity in engineering for sure, but it is getting better. We are seeing more people joining the industry from different races, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic backgrounds, neurodiversity, LGBT+, gender and various protected characteristics. There is still, however, a long way to go.
The second issue is inclusivity. Inclusivity begs the questions such as: Do diverse people feel included? Do they feel that their voices or thoughts matter? Do they feel safe? Are they treated with respect? Are they able to thrive and progress?
Without these two issues being adequately addressed, the engineering industry is not going to see change and may even see a reversal, as is happening in certain parts of the world with women’s rights.
The trouble is that no one truly knows what diversity or inclusion looks or feels like. In my opinion, there has not been a time in our history when we have fought collectively for diversity and inclusion of everyone together. Instead, in history all over the world, there was exclusion and borders based on religion, race, or any other protected characteristic. However, our differences are our greatness as it provided different opportunities and experiences.
SS: How can we deal with diversity and inclusion?
VB: We need to stop putting people into just one box. We are so many things, and we need to accept and embrace this. Treat others how we wish to be treated. It should be simple. Allow the ability for people to thrive and provide the environment where everyone can be the best version of themselves.
Sponsoring and mentoring is essential for understanding others. In diverse environments you learn so much and understand different viewpoints, challenge your way of thinking, and gain different perspectives.
Coming from a multicultural, multi-ethnic, bi-racial family, I’ve seen how diversity and inclusion works. You learn from an early age to blend and respect different cultures, customs etc. You learn to accept different opinions, various perspectives and all our similarities.
I also learnt this when I was chair of an Employee Resource Group. Challenge yourself to learn more and gain perspective. There is so much I learnt in this role just about perspectives I would have never thought of.
In a way, it’s the same as engineering, as we seek various experiences and perspectives to seek innovative solutions. For me diversity is about the right people doing the roles they thrive and are passionate for, while succeeding in their respective unique talents, which I believe we all have.
SS: How can we achieve diversity and inclusion in engineering?
VB: At present I think we need to focus on equity alongside equality. I think all companies should be transparent about the diversity within their company. In addition, focusing on inclusion, where all can thrive and most importantly do what they were born to do – engineer! Surely this can only be good for business.
Also seeking inclusion, where to me this means regardless of if in the minority or majority in whatever group the motto is ‘one team, one dream’, to deliver success, where everyone can succeed and thrive. That’s why I joined engineering!
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