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Diversity and inclusion

WEC 2019 Day 1: Making the case for a diverse profession

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Engineering has a diversity problem, and who better to discuss solutions to this challenge than a cross section of the global engineering community? 

Engineers from around the world have converged on Melbourne for the World Engineers Convention (WEC), and one of the main topics for discussion was how the profession can improve diversity within its ranks – and in turn better reflect the communities it serves. 

During her keynote on day one of WEC, Lydia Gentle OAM, Engineering Manager for mining giant BHP, shared her thoughts on why diversity is so important in the engineering profession today. 

To illustrate this point, she shared BHP’s efforts to promote diversity within its ranks and how they have yielded tangible results. There is a clear business case for why more companies should strive for diversity, she said.

According to Gentle, the top 10 most diverse teams within BHP perform better than the company average. Focusing on diversity has also meant that the skill set of employees within the company has broadened, bringing with it knowledge that would have been hard to obtain otherwise. 

Advances in technology have removed some of the barriers to more women entering engineering roles as well. For example, repositioning equipment for maintenance by suspending it reduced the amount of physical strength or height required of a person to perform the task. 

She also spoke of the company’s efforts to rethink equipment design to be more inclusive, including the height of step ladders, the weight of hoses, the orientation of parts to be fitted and more. This led to a roundtable between female engineers and equipment suppliers to discuss small changes that can have a big impact. 

She closed with a call to action for those in attendance, stating that there is now an imperative to change – and change quickly.

“The workforce expects more from us; they look for things like flexibility and serving an inspiring purpose,” she said. 

“What will your role be in this transformation?”

Lydia Gentle OAM.

Small changes, big impact

The theme of diversity and inclusion in engineering was further dissected during a panel discussion on ‘The Diversity Imperative’, comprising professionals from New Zealand, Nigeria and United States of America.

Creating diverse and inclusive workplaces can be a daunting task, so panelists presented the audience with insights into what their own organisations were doing to promote diversity, and provided delegates with some actionable ideas they could take back to their workplaces to continue the conversation. 

Valerie Agberagba, Vice-President and Chair of the Committee for Women in Engineering with the Federation of African Engineering Organisations, suggested that attendees take advantage of the fact they are surrounded by engineers from a diverse range of backgrounds at the conference. 

“We’re all diverse in how we do our work, but we all have common problems,” she said.

“We must be able to learn from one another.” 

Krishna Bodanapu, Managing Director and Chief Executive of Cyient, said it’s important to focus on small changes. He gave the example of a board room at his company that only had a men’s toilet attached. This sent the wrong message – that only men would be there, he said. Now, he’s proud to say it has facilities for men and women. 

“It’s a small change, but years later there could be significant change from one small step,” he said.

Susan Freeman-Greene, Chief Executive Officer of Engineering New Zealand, said as important as it is to look at the wider company culture, it’s also important to look at yourself and your own biases.

“We all have biases, but finding out what they are is a good place to start, and then think about where they might pop up,” she said. 

One audience member prefaced their question with a warning it was controversial: “Shouldn’t we forget about labels and just focus on the right person for the right job?”, they asked. 

Bodanapu said it best: “Yes, but the system is not set up well to ensure that happens. The fact that we don’t already have diversity means that the system is broken, so we have to take this approach.”

“I’m not confident the process supports the best candidate coming through – if it was a fair process, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he continued.  

About more than gender

A poll of WEC 2019 delegates during the panel discussion revealed that 36 per cent were most concerned with gender diversity within their engineering organisations. Age diversity came in second at 24 per cent, with cultural diversity at 16 per cent. 

While many discussions of diversity in engineering focus on gender, diversity of culture and ethnicity is important as well. Allan Murray, Senior Manager – Indigenous Participation and Outcome for WSP Australia, told attendees during his presentation that it’s time for a closer relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and Australian industry. 

WSP has taken steps to establish an Aboriginal Design Principles process for it Southern Program Alliance (SPA), and it has put this in practice by using Aboriginal design concepts on infrastructure. 

The project took place in Boonwurrung country, and the diamond symbol representing the Boonwurrung, of the Kulin nation, became the preferred symbol for the project. WSP’s Indigenous Specialist Services team took steps to make sure that their use of the symbol was respectful and considerate, and community consultation led to meaningful conversations about appropriate use of the design. 

Murray said incorporating traditional designs was a way to combine engineering and architecture with Indigenous ingenuity and principles. 

“It enhances the connection to place, and pays homage to the land,” Murray said. 

“To have the community involved is a great outcome.” 

Looking even further back to Indigenous engineering, Bill Jordan, Director of Bill Jordan & Associates Pty Ltd, spoke about the significance of one of Australia’s earliest engineering feats: the eel traps of Budj Bim

The site, a complex system of weirs, channels and races, has recently received UNESCO World Heritage listing. But for something that is more than 6000 years old, it took a while to be recognised for the feat it is, Jordan said.

He spoke of the early efforts to recognise the site in Australia as a place of significance. It received National Landmark status some years ago, which helped the bid for UNESCO World Heritage listing. Still, there are those who oppose applying the term ‘engineering’ to efforts like this, Jordan said. 

“Defining it as engineering was a problem for some,” he said, as its creators “didn’t have four-year engineering degrees”. But he said that’s an extremely narrow and limited view, and only served to reinforce the idea that engineering only came to Australia with colonisation. 

Murray echoed this thought, pointing to achievements like the boomerang as evidence of engineering thinking.

“I see my ancestors as engineers,” he said. 

“Their ability to transform raw materials into tools, and to see the potential for what can be done … that’s engineering ingenuity.”

Driving local steel and jobs in SA

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InfraBuild Construction Solutions has worked with industry partners to prioritise the use of Australian steel and the creation of local jobs for South Australia’s Northern Connector Project.

The companies involved in Adelaide’s Northern Connector Project have followed through on their commitment to procure Australian-made steel and prioritise local workforce participation.

Unblocking congestion across Adelaide

South Australia’s $885 million Northern Connector is a 15.5km stretch of six-lane motorway that makes up a critical part of Adelaide’s ambitious 78km North-South Corridor public works program. The program has been designed to streamline north and southbound traffic, including freight vehicles, between Gawler in the city’s north and Old Noarlunga in the south.

As well as catering for expected increases in traffic, the new motorway will significantly improve freight access to the Port of Adelaide and the industrial areas of Adelaide’s north and northwest, and reduce travel times for commuters travelling to and from Adelaide’s northern suburbs.

Local content, local jobs

InfraBuild Construction Solutions (formerly LIBERTY OneSteel Reinforcing) supplied a significant tonnage of reinforcing steel products to the project, the bulk of which will be used to construct bridges and culverts, and maximised opportunities for local industry.

“The company has worked closely with South Australia’s Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI), head contractor Lendlease and the project suppliers to use locally sourced raw materials, labour and capital as much as possible,” InfraBuild Construction Solutions’ Tom Bishop said.

As many as 480 full-time equivalent jobs per year have been created during construction of the project. To date, more than 50 per cent of those jobs have been filled by northern suburbs residents and at least 90 per cent of on-site labour hours have been undertaken by South Australian workers.

Importantly, many workers employed on the project are people who faced barriers to employment, including workers displaced from South Australia’s automotive industry.

Delivering for South Australia’s economy

Collaboration among the major parties on the project has helped achieve economic benefits for South Australia. Local girder manufacturer Bianco Precast, for example, traditionally sources its Low Relaxation (LR) prestressing strand from offshore. However, Lendlease brokered an arrangement between InfraBuild Construction Solutions and Bianco to procure South Australian-made billet, which was then made into LR strand in Newcastle, New South Wales. The LR strand supplied by InfraBuild Construction Solutions is fully traceable, complies with Australian Standards and comes with ACRS certification.

The DPTI and the Office of the Industry Advocate (OIA) supported the development of this deal and a ‘best-for-project’ team approach produced what was an excellent result for South Australia.

The project is due to be completed in late 2019.

Fostering diversity and inclusion will be explored in detail at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here.

diversity and inclusion in engineering

Does engineering have a diversity and inclusion problem?

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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.

Sparking imagination

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.

To learn more and to register, click here

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What happens when diversity and inclusion become part of an organisation’s mission

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With its commitment towards building a diverse and inclusive workplace, professional services firm Cyient understands the importance of what a truly inclusive environment means for an organisation’s growth and associate engagement.

Research by McKinsey & Company suggests that gender-diverse companies are 15 per cent more likely to outperform their peers, and ethnically diverse companies are 35 per cent more likely to do the same.

Cyient recognises that an inclusive workplace unites diverse perspectives to build an organisational culture that enables, encourages and celebrates diversity as a business imperative. Cyient has established a vision and mission that will establish a diverse and inclusive environment:

Cyient’s Diversity and Inclusion Vision: Create a collaborative workplace that supports diverse thinking, and attracts and inspires talented people to reach their potential.
Cyient’s Diversity and Inclusion Mission: To build an environment that seeks to bridge the gap in gender diversity, provide a workplace free of discrimination, enhance the professional growth of our associates and empower them to create real change.    

Cyient diversity and inclusionAs a diversity- and inclusion-focused organisation that brings together people from different backgrounds and experiences, Cyient can offer more solutions through new skills, ideas and processes. Cyient’s global diversity and inclusion program is spearheaded by inclusion ambassadors who drive focus on key areas such as gender, disability, veterans affairs, cultural awareness, and health and wellness.

Cyient also has a mentorship program for women leaders and plans to provide transparent reporting of the gender pay gap globally. Cyient ensures the diversity and inclusion ethos is also visible in their projects as they continue to focus on including more women in the engineering space.

For example, a project for one of Cyient’s communication clients kicked off with only 25 per cent women engineers. However, as the project progressed, the diversity quotient expanded to include more than 40 per cent women across the leadership and delivery teams.

Creating a diverse and inclusive work culture reinforces Cyient’s value system of fairness, integrity, respect, sincerity and transparency (known as VALUES FIRST), as well as the company’s brand promise of Designing Tomorrow Together. Cyient will continue to value, foster and leverage diversity and inclusion to ensure diverse viewpoints that inspire greater creativity, positivity and productivity.

Fostering diversity and inclusion is one of the six themes of the World Engineers Convention, 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here.