Last week we hosted a panel discussion, Racism and Engineering: The stories behind the statistics, which aimed to not only explore the current state of representation in the engineering sector, but question what actions the sector needs to take to provide opportunities and welcome a more diverse cohort of engineers. We invited panelists; Dr Udonna Okeke a Senior lecturer at the University West of England who founded the BAME Girls in Engineering project; Georgia Thompson civil engineer by background and co-founder of D-vers-ty and Mara Makoni, systems engineer by background and the External Relations Lead at the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers UK, to provide their expertise.

To begin the discussion, our chair Nav Sawhney, member elected trustee of Engineers Without Borders UK and founder of The Washing Machine Project, provided an overview of the current state of the sector, sharing recent statistics and key themes. After presenting these figures, Mara was quick to question the validity of widely available data, arguing that many organisations still need to be more transparent about their employment process, policies and statistics to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the state of the sector. Georgia also highlighted how current reporting can be misleading, flagging how the term minority ethnic can, at times, include anyone who is not White British, therefore calling for deeper analysis of the data and clarification over the nuances in terminology.

However, Dr Okeke rebutted questioning the relevance of statistics, claiming that figures illustrate the lack of representation in the sector to any layman, presenting an example himself;

“In my class, I teach 250 students project management. I had less than 10 women in my class. Out of the 10 there were three from the BAME community. That is disturbing.”

During the session, the panel scrutinised some of the reasons for the deficit of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students studying engineering and entering the profession; Dr Okeke, stated that class inequality plays a significant role, suggesting that if a student has to work part time or full time to support their family, they will drop out of school partially or entirely therefore never having the opportunity to explore or qualify for the profession. In 2019, figures showed that out of all of the ethnic groups in the UK, Black people had the highest levels of unemployment at 9%. Mara highlighted the cultural and social implications that may impact an individual from a BAME background progressing, for instance, if an individual’s parents don’t speak english they may need to stay home to help carry out day to day tasks, therefore moving away for university or attending at all, may seem unrealistic.

Georgia argued the who you know mentality, enabling some to more easily access meaningful placements, which aid employment, perpetuates a lack of diversity. In addition, once through the door, Georgia warned of the pitfalls of little to no visibility of BAME engineers in senior positions, suggesting that no representation throughout the organisation, can cause BAME graduates’ to question their development opportunities, reducing levels of retention. Mara agreed, emphasising how ensuring all employees feel welcome is imperative to retention.

 “You can feed the pipeline with as many BAME engineers as possible, but if they’re not feeling welcome, then there is no point.” – Nav Sawhney

To combat this, Georgia believes that driving initiatives similar to those that have attempted to encourage and welcome more women to apply for roles in STEM, should be implemented for BAME candidates. However, Dr Okeke believes the key to tackling the disparity is mentorship. He argued that implementing strategic mentorship programs is a practical way to close the attainment gap during and after education. This includes making mentoring part of a strategic objective within organisations, with a task force embedded to ensure implementation. The benefits of mentorship are not limited to recent graduates either, Dr Okeke reminded us of the importance of professional support throughout an individual’s career during his final thoughts;

“There was this job that I was so passionate about, I went to my mentor and I said I think I am qualified for this job, and he said to me;  “No, to you, you are qualified for this job, but I think you need to go for something much higher.” And I listened to him and when the right job came along for me, I went for it and I got it.”

The panelists agreed, the disparity seen within the sector begins before stepping into your first graduate role. The evidence of inequality can be identified at an early age, bound by familial responsibility, then reinforced in education where prejudice or an absence of connections could prevent opportunities to explore the profession. Within the sector, a lack of visibility and role models cause BAME graduates and professionals to question their place and opportunity for development within a company and the sector at large.

Initiatives such as the BAME Girls in Engineering project have been founded to encourage BAME girls to explore engineering from an early age and provide mentoring opportunities to aid their prospects for advancement. Programmes run by AFBE and D-vers-ty which include mentoring, networking and workshops are being implemented to provide BAME professionals, universities and the wider sector with insights on development, how to navigate common pitfalls and education of the cultural intricacies which play a significant role in retention and attainment rates.

We know there is still a huge amount of work to be done to fully comprehend the barriers still preventing many from engaging with the sector, but we hope our panel discussion encourages you to host, participate or learn from more conversations like this within your organisations. We invite you to act on the insights provided by our panelists, in addition to taking the opportunity, within your relative positions of power, to constantly question , “Are we including all the right voices?” and “How can we better engineer for people, with people?”

We are extremely grateful for the extensive insights of the panelists Georgia Thompson, Dr Okeke and Mara Makoni. If you enjoyed this discussion, keep your eye out for our next panel discussion taking place on Wednesday 23 September at 11:00am-12pm (BST), where we will be discussing the role of economic theory in globally responsible engineering.