Bold approach needed to boost diversity, say leading industry figures

A bold approach is needed to boost and retain a diversity of talent, according to leading industry figures at a keenly anticipated webinar that addressed the reasons why women, ethnic minorities and other under-represented groups are leaving the engineering profession prematurely.

The Infrastructure Intelligence webinar on Friday 11 March 2022, proved a fitting response to a report published last year by Atkins that highlighted the impact of career deflection on the earning potential and progress of women, ethnic minorities and disabled employees within engineering occupations. 

Career Deflection: Exploring Diversity, Progression and Retention in Engineering, was based on new analysis of labour market information sources with the help of the Institute of Employment Studies and looked at how the impact of barriers to progress within a career in engineering are being distorted. 

The report’s stark findings showed that stereotyping, isolation and bias result in women leaving the profession at twice the rate of men (70% v 35%), while more than half (55%) of ethnic minorities abandon their career in contrast to (39%) of white people.

The report asserted that if current trends continue it could take until 2124 before there is the same number of women as men working in engineering occupations and it could take 50 years for the proportion of ethnic minorities in engineering occupations to reach the overall proportion of ethnic minorities in employment. Clearly the industry has a problem that needs to be addressed.

Working in collaboration with Atkins, Infrastructure Intelligence hosted the lively webinar with panellists debating recommendations including better policies to tackle alternative working patterns, equal access to development opportunities, increased promotion of an inclusive workplace culture, new measures to address unconscious bias and more widespread use of appropriate data, metrics and feedback.

Longning Qi, principal masterplanner at Atkins, said: “It’s really encouraging to see the report. We are looking at three key areas here – the position of women, ethnic minorities and disabled groups. Employee experience needs to be individualised and we need to be much more culturally aware. A few years ago, I felt I’d reached a cul-de-sac and that could have led to a career deflection, but I was able to get involved in different programmes with my company, Atkins and thanks to good line management and support systems in place I was able to make progress. It’s really important that people feel supported at all times in the workplace. Leadership is crucial.”

Dara Jafari, regional director, Faithful + Gould, said: “The shocking part to me is that over the years I had grown so accustomed to the lack of diversity that I’m almost surprised (in a good way) to see another ethnic minority person in a site meeting or team meeting. But more importantly – if we are saying that we have an issue with women and ethnic minorities leaving the industry – we need to ask them, don’t we? We need to actually ask those people – find out why those people left, why some people have stayed – and commit to make changes and improvements. Which is what the recommendations in the report set out. But senior leaders need to be vocal about it too – its honestly so inspiring whenever I see CEOs and leaders come out and say : ‘Hey I think we have a problem, I’m accountable and I need your help to fix it’”. 

Lara Potter, director, workforce for the future at Arcadis and chair of future skills group at ACE, said: “Of course, there is also a war for talent and we need to be fishing in a bigger pond and attracting more people into our industry. At the same time, our clients and wider society are demanding more from us too. I think we need to reorientate the sector to deliver on social value – we won’t be able to achieve what we need to achieve by using the same people in the same way as we always did. We also need to look at how the industry is perceived. Look at the IT industry and how it rebranded itself so that it’s now seen as an exciting sector to work in. We can change how the industry looks – it’s in our own hands to do this.”

Emma Pollard, principal research fellow at the Institute of Employment Studies, said: “The findings for women leaving in the industry are really stark. There are still many barriers facing people in the industry, including culture. One area that came out in the report was the limited opportunities for part-time and flexible working, especially for women. This needs to change and you’d hope that it would in a post-Covid environment.”

Amos Simbo, Winway Consultants director and founder of Black Professionals in Construction, said: “At the end of the day, this is all to do with how people feel in the workplace People want to feel part of the organisation – to be themselves. It’s about how I feel in an organisation. It’s not complicated. It’s simple. People need to belong and feel part of something. We need to start measuring this stuff and the progress we are making or not making. We measure many other things in our industry, but we don’t do enough about measuring diversity and inclusion. We also need to move away from old school mentalities towards a position where people feel valued and wanted.”

Louise Houston, inclusion and diversity specialist at Tarmac, said: “Listening to people is really important – and I mean really listening. When I looked at the report and saw that at the current rates of progress it will take 103 years for there to be the same number of women as men working in engineering, it’s really depressing. We can’t simply wait that long. And, Amos is absolutely right - belonging is crucial to diversity and inclusion. Let’s be brave. We need to be much bolder in our outlook to address these challenges.”

Andy Walker, Infrastructure Intelligence editor, said: “This was a really lively, insightful and thoughful debate on a crucial matter for everyone who works in our industry. This industry needs to reflect the society it serves, in order to be able to plan, build and create the fully inclusive communities that everyone deserves. We will be returning to this issue in the pages of Infrastructure Intelligence and on our website throughout the year.”

Click here to watch the full webinar.

This webinar is brought to you in association with Atkins

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