Engineering is crucial to achieving all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), but there are some that the profession seems to struggle with more than others, including the goals aligned with diversity.
“Diversity, inclusion, equity and particularly intergenerational equity fundamentally underpin the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Tanya Ha, Director of Engagement at Science in Public.
This topic is particularly relevant, as the six themes of the World Engineers Convention (WEC) align to the UN SDGs and the role engineers play in achieving them. Diversity and inclusion – and the role this plays in the future of the engineering profession – will be a topic for debate at the global event.
“The SDGs are focal points for solutions to problems, and engineers are the ultimate problem solvers. In order to achieve these goals, engineers and the organisations that employ them need to walk the talk and embrace diversity,” said Ha, a WEC speaker.
“Engineering companies have much to gain by embracing people from diverse backgrounds and will do a better job of solving problems with a variety of minds at the table.”
Events like WEC are an opportunity for the global engineering community to discuss the importance of diversity in all forms to the future of the profession. With representatives from more than 70 countries, and almost 25 per cent women presenters, there will be a variety of viewpoints and inputs to solving this issue.
One WEC speaker who will be tackling the subject of gender diversity in engineering is Susan Freeman-Greene, CEO of Engineering New Zealand. She said moving the dial is a collective effort, and usually takes a three-pronged approach.
“There’s a pipeline issue, there’s a recruitment issue and then there’s retention,” she said.
Freeman-Greene said some roadblocks to improving the profession’s gender balance stem from what she calls “engineering’s perception issue” — and this is especially important to getting more girls to consider engineering in the first place.
To this end, Engineering New Zealand launched a program for school-aged children called The Wonder Project, which is aimed at exciting and inspiring kids with hands-on projects and challenges so that they not only want to do STEM subjects, but can see that a career in engineering is within reach.
“We show engineering in its full discipline diversity — it’s not just structural and civil,” Freeman-Greene said.
“We tell stories about the impact engineering makes on the world.”
Capturing a child’s imagination is a great start, but retention and support are proving to be pressing issues as well, and the number of women in engineering tends to taper further down the career track.
“At universities [in New Zealand], 23 per cent of engineers are women. But then they graduate and 30 per cent leave within five to 10 years of becoming practising engineers,” Freeman-Greene said.
All together, about 14 per cent of the country’s engineers are women, which is slightly higher than Australia’s 12 per cent. This presents an opportunity to create a movement, Freeman-Greene said.
Engineering New Zealand began a program to encourage organisations to rethink their practices around gender diversity and commit to its Diversity Agenda initiative, which has a goal of 20 per cent women in the profession by 2020.
The organisation created a suite of resources and education programs for organisations to evaluate their recruitment practices and workplace policies. The goal was to get leaders thinking about how even the smallest change could make a big difference. For example, flexible work policies that account for caregiving responsibilities of both men and women can have a major effect.
“It’s about generating those conversations, and I think it also gives people courage,” Freeman-Greene said.
“We’ve had people say, ‘I wouldn’t have raised this before, but I will now’. It’s a really hard thing because it’s not people intentionally excluding, but it is just understanding the bias that we all carry.”
She added that as part of the Diversity Agenda, organisations are committing to inclusive graduate programs, workplace policies, leadership opportunities, mentoring… the list goes on.
“Changing people and changing how they want to think about the world and how they see the world is not easy — it doesn’t happen overnight,” Freeman-Greene said.
“But this is for the future of the profession, because if collectively we don’t shift the dial on diversity, we will not get the best talent and we will not remain as relevant.”
The culture shift
Conversations about diversity in engineering usually centre on gender diversity. But according to Krishna Bodanapu, Managing Director and CEO at international engineering firm Cyient and speaker at the World Engineers Convention, cultural diversity is just as important a consideration.
“If we start with what we can change, that is our organisation,” he said.
“If we can change that sort of mental model of the organisation to say, ‘When we hire people, it should be representative of the local market,’ it’s a small change overall, but a big one for the organisation.”
For a large multinational company like Cyient, he said it can be difficult to get disparate teams from around the world collaborating across languages, time zones and cultural differences. However, he said, having strong foundational values can transcend these differences.
“Many of the things we work on have a significant impact if they fail, not just from a cost perspective, but, more importantly from a disaster perspective — that people’s lives depend on our work,” he said.
“This whole globalised view of engineering works when you trust each other … You’re only as strong as your weakest link, in that sense.”
Technology is making the world smaller, and connecting people in ways that now allow engineers in India to collaborate concurrently on projects with engineers in Germany and liaise with teams in Australia.
Designing systems that allow for seamless communication — no matter where teams are based — is one thing. However, making sure that products take into consideration local context is another challenge all together. However, Bodanapu thinks it’s something that can be solved by making sure teams are diverse to capture those nuances.
He cites one example where the same design for the interior of a piece of construction equipment was used in two very different markets: India and the US. Rather than get input on expectations for each market, the company applied the US design to the Indian market as well. It failed to take off.
Workers in India found no need for the jumbo-sized cup holders and expensive air conditioning systems featured in interior designed for the US market, Bodanapu said. But what they did want was ports to connect phone chargers.
“While it’s a small thing, not understanding that actually took away a significant amount of their market share because they came with the latest and greatest product to the Indian market, which didn’t sit well,” Bodanapu said.
Situations like this illustrate why it’s important to get input from the end users, wherever and whoever they might be.
“Unless engineers represent the world they serve and the communities they serve, then engineers will design a world that doesn’t reflect those communities and that perpetuates these global challenges,” Freeman-Greene said.
It’s also smart from a business strategy perspective.
“In the next 20 to 30 years, your largest markets are not necessarily going to be the US and Europe; they’re going to be India, China and a lot of East Asia,” Bodanapu said.
“Unless the engineering workforce is also mimicking or taking into consideration that shift, the profession will become the roadblock, rather than the accelerator or the enabler.”
Ha agreed, saying that more engineering organisations are seeing inclusion and diversity projects as more than just “a box to tick”.
Research supports the benefits of organisational diversity as well: The [email protected] Index, produced by Diversity Council Australia, found that people who work in inclusive teams are 10 times more likely to be highly effective workers and nine times more likely to innovate compared to those on non-inclusive teams.
“Organisations that are proactive on the diversity and inclusion front often say they do so because ‘It’s the right thing to do’,” Ha said.
“Increasingly, we’re seeing examples where organisations are documenting the strong business case for diversity. In time, I hope it’s widely recognised as both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.”
A holistic view
As more individuals, organisations and countries look to create a more inclusive engineering profession, Freeman-Greene said it’s important to view it through the lens of how it affects the future of the profession.
“This isn’t just a women’s issue. This is an engineering issue that belongs to all of us,” she said.
Although the dual issues of diversity and inclusion persist, it’s not all bad news — progress has been made, at least from an awareness perspective.
“I think even five years ago, diversity initiatives would have been looked at as just another fad. But now, I think there is a conscious effort from a lot of people who want to make a difference, who want to make an impact,” Bodanapu said.
“It’s not a nice thing to do; it’s a smart thing to do.”
What are the challenges facing the engineering profession when it comes to diversity and inclusion? How can the profession address these challenges now and into the future? Diversity and inclusion is one of the six themes at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne.
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