Talking Sense on Careers

DURING March 2015, IChemE approached its regional groups and asked each to nominate a diversity and inclusion (D&I) champion as part of its 2020 vision to promote gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, age, socioeconomics and socio-mobility equality within the chemical engineering world. I stepped forward to represent the Aberdeen and North East Members Group. 

The subject of D&I is so vast, I started feeling overwhelmed fairly quickly after barely scratching the surface. International Women’s Day was approaching, so I started with gender. After setting up a Facebook group and adding friends to it, one of them asked to be removed and not to be included in my “feminist groups”, as “people should be promoted on merit.” There it was, my first negative encounter. The issue was, I kind of agreed with him! As a female engineer, I want to be recognised for my hard work, and not just exist to tick a box, and frankly, I wasn’t totally convinced that there is a problem, particularly with gender. Yes, there are inconsistencies in pay, but in terms of opportunity? I didn’t see an issue. But these groups exist because there is an issue. 

CPD webinar1

There are also basic facts that back up the need for gender equality within engineering. For example only 9% of the engineering workforce is female, and only 6% of those that are registered engineers and technicians are female. And while a survey of 300 female engineers revealed that 84% were happy or extremely happy with their career choice, retainment is a problem (www.wes.org.uk/statistics). 

It’s good to talk 

I did two things next – contacted AXIS, a local gender equality group, and spoke to my D&I counterpart in IChemE’s London and South East Members Group.

I met Jenny Junnier, AXIS’ chair, to discuss the group’s objectives and activities. She told me her story of how she became involved with the group. Like me, she didn’t see an issue with gender inequality, until she and her husband started
a family. Once she returned to work after maternity leave, she noticed that people were reluctant to ask for her help with out-of-hours activities, on the grounds of her having other commitments, and not wanting her to feel obliged. She pointed out to me that whilst her colleagues were being considerate, surely it was her decision to be involved or not?

Unconscious bias is all around us, and even the most innocent can be offenders. Ailie MacAdam, the highly successful managing director of Bechtel’s global rail business, and advocate of diversity, found herself falling prey to unconscious bias: “I was recruiting for a role recently and sitting there thinking about who would be the perfect person to fill this slot. And I realised I wasn’t thinking about how they act, how they lead, or their experience. I had a picture in my head of a white, middle-aged man.”

Collaborate and listen

I arranged a meeting with London and South East Members Group D&I champion Adam Hawthorne to find out what the group had been working on, and whether there was potential to collaborate. We wanted to come up with an event to promote the subject of women in engineering, working in a male-dominated industry. We wanted to reach a large number of individuals – young people, young professionals, mothers returning to the workforce, and of course men. And these conversations led to the webinar series.

Adam introduced me to his colleague Adriana Vargas, and from there she and I ran this project. We both have a passion to promote role models within our community as it’s not only important to do so to schoolgirls, but also to young professionals and engineering students. We want to contribute to the bigger challenge of getting more women into senior managerial positions in the future as well as more into engineering, and the webinar series was our starting point.

As this was our first webinar, we decided to go for an overview topic – a webinar that included a variety of individuals to engage with our audience and spark different interests. We thought it would be a good idea to showcase three women, highlighting their engineering stories and achievements.

We put together a sub-committee and began recording audio interviews with our subjects. As professional engineers and volunteers, trying to find the time to co-ordinate our schedules and the schedules of three other equally busy women was by no means an easy challenge. Additionally we were using software that we had never used before and I was a complete novice at pulling together a webinar, so it was a steep learning curve for all of us. After a few delays, interviews went under way and we ran our first webinar on 19 November 2015. With 199 registrants (90% female, 10% male) the event was well attended.

And?

The webinar (which can be viewed at bit.ly/1sqB72D) included a lively Q&A session with the audience. We were asked for our ideas for targeting and encouraging women to go to university to study chemical engineering, and advice on how to deal with difficult/inappropriate comments in the workplace.

The feedback we received from the audience was very positive, including areas for improvement for next time, and ideas for future topics. One particular comment that gave us food for thought about our steer of the interviews was based around the element of the ‘glass ceiling’.

Whilst some of our listeners disagreed that the concept of the glass ceiling still exists – as they had not experienced it, which is great – many of our listeners were thankful that this was discussed. They look around their offices and notice the lack of female role models in engineering and in business, which is disappointing.

Our hope is that the webinar series will encourage women and men to study chemical engineering; encourage women to push for new challenges by listening to the experience of others; offer advice on how to handle difficult situations – be it balancing work with family commitments or other issues; highlight the subtle areas that are actually unconsciously sexist; and engage men, to embrace inclusiveness and diversity of thought.

Our second webinar, which was held in April and aimed at highschool and university students, was a huge success, and we’re looking forward to a third, this time also featuring video footage, focussing on women in mid-to-late career (see www.icheme.org/wie-webinar-webpage). Aptly, this will take place on 23 June – National Women in Engineering Day.

Not just for women

Diversity and inclusion of gender is about including everybody, and everybody should feel included, especially men. Take a look around your office, do you see conscious or sub-conscious bias going on? What is your company’s D&I policy? How do you engage with the younger population and encourage them into what is a great career opportunity within the engineering profession?

This project started off as a joint venture between the Aberdeen and London groups, but we want this to be bigger and we welcome the support of the other regional groups and other engineering institutions. Get involved and check out our interviews on our YouTube channel and join the debate on our LinkedIn page.

I’ll end this with a quote. Warren Buffett has generously stated in the past that one of the reasons for his success was that he was competing with only half of the population. “When more people get in the race, more records will be broken.” So let’s get in the race!

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