The Rochester Bridge Trust is planning a Diversity in Engineering celebration during August 2021 with a week of features and illuminations on social media to highlight the importance of inclusion. Here, Education Manager Caroline Chisholm explains why diversity is so important.
As part of the award-winning Rochester Bridge Refurbishment Project, the Trust installed enhancement lighting on its Old Bridge. As well as highlighting the features of the listed structure, this provides an opportunity to publicise themes and projects which promote the Trust’s values and activities, and to occasionally celebrate significant events.
The two things are related because the lighting has led to increased requests for the Trust to get involved with awareness days. These days are many and varied and so, to avoid offending any one group by accidental omission – and to ensure the Old Bridge is not permanently illuminated – we have decided to hold a single event, highlighting the importance of diversity in the engineering profession. This event will last for a week and will be an opportunity for us to celebrate the broad spectrum of diversity and reflect the aim of the Trust to increase diversity and engagement in civil engineering.
The Trust acknowledges its small workforce is limited in its diversity and is therefore determined to rectify this by being a positive ally: this is despite the Women’s Engineering Society, in association with The Guardian newspaper and Assystem, nominating Sue Threader, Bridge Clerk to the Trust, as one of the 2021 Top 50 Women in Engineering, reflecting a slightly different gender balance compared to many civil engineering organisations.
We are not alone in having limited diversity in our workforce – an Inquiry into Equity in the STEM Workforce (July 2021) found that women make up less than a quarter of the core STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) workforce in the UK, 29% of LGBTQ+ people surveyed would not consider a career in engineering due to a fear of discrimination, and disabled people represent only 5% of the engineering workforce compared to 17% of the wider workforce. And despite a minimum shortfall of 20,000 engineers each year, only 6% of the workforce are BAME. There is a call to increase the scale and level of detail in demographic workforce data collection to ensure greater comparability of measures and data, but these figures offer a snapshot of the current situation.
But why should it matter?
Quite apart from the shortage of STEM skills in important sectors costing businesses and the UK economy billions of pounds each year, there are intrinsic benefits of equity in a workforce: diversity improves innovation, creativity, productivity, resilience and market insight. Skills shortages in the key STEM sector (accounting for 18% of the UK’s total workforce and a significant share of the UK’s GDP) can have a huge impact on productivity of business, and therefore restricts growth, and of course, economic recovery from the pandemic. A lack of diversity represents a loss of talent that could mean potential opportunities never come to fruition.
As the engineering workforce becomes more diverse, the engineering sector can then better serve community and society. Engineering is a creative profession – this might not fit the stereotypical impression of the industry, but nevertheless, without creative solutions and innovative design solving problems, there is no engineering. Innovation comes from having different ideas and experiences: if everyone has a similar life experience, which is more likely when our workforce lacks diversity, there are fewer viewpoints and novel concepts. Collective diversity is essential to good engineering.
To give a slightly frivolous example, my husband was recently building a shed: he tried to board an interior wall with one large sheet, which ended up not fitting through the doorway… When I asked why he didn’t cut it into smaller pieces first, his response was that he hadn’t thought of it. I wondered whether he hadn’t considered it because he could easily lift the larger board: I would have automatically considered a smaller size because I am not as strong. Now, I do not mean to suggest all male engineers are naïve or ignorant (or that he is, for that matter)! Just that, our life experiences are different – he can often rely on being physically more capable than I, so I come up with ‘work arounds’ that he wouldn’t. I am certain my life-experiences as an able-bodied person also cause me to make similar oversights when it comes to navigating the world, in contrast to someone who has mobility impairments, for example.
Additionally, young people should have equal opportunity in all walks of life – they should be able to access pathways that lead to fulfilling and rewarding careers, with the potential for breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty. Engineering presents the opportunity to have a rewarding career, one that has value and impact on society, and is also stable and well-paid. There are multiple factors at play that limit equity for young people accessing such careers, and clearly more work needs to be done; in education, in the engineering sector, and by the UK Government and STEM organisations.
The Trust has a successful education programme to raise interest in civil engineering in young people. The education team’s aims have always been to promote civil engineering for all – through community outreach and family events, by the use of inclusive language, using the Science Capital approach for engagement in engineering activities, and by ensuring our work is authentic to engineering practice, as well as research-led.
One way we do this is to support STEM clubs through our resources, equipment loans and grants. These are a prime opportunity to sow the seeds for change in children. They can be of value for young people of any age, but evidence shows that engagement with younger children is particularly important for challenging the status quo of low aspirations to STEM careers.
As well as the pupils, research shows us that STEM clubs can have significant and measurable positive impacts on teachers and other leaders, and even the schools or colleges themselves. Admittedly, it’s a while before the children will be joining the workforce, but catching their interest while very young is vital and young people who take part in STEM clubs are much more likely to enjoy these subjects.
Taking part in a STEM club can also promote enjoyment of the subjects through hands-on activities develop different, long-lasting skills to those learnt in the classroom, for instance teamworking and project management, and of course, help to bust the brainy image of scientists and give students of all abilities the understanding they can have a future in this area. Taking an active part in a STEM club can motivate young people to consider STEM subjects for further study and as a potential career path.
As we navigate our way through a period of recovery as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Trust will continue to look for ways to be an ally, to celebrate diversity and support inclusion, and to continue to promote engineering for all.