Diversity in Engineering

On the 19th of August, in Wellington at Te Wharewaka, E2E and IPENZ ran a great event that challenged my thinking.  I thought that being a female, non-engineer, working in engineering, I had a pretty good idea about what diversity in engineering was.  

Lieutenant General (Retd) David Morrison, 2016 Australian of the Year, was the first speaker.  Since becoming the Chief of Army, he was a key change agent in making the Australian Army an inclusive force. “If that does not suit you,” he said, “then get out!” He also told anyone not willing to work with women and accept them as equals, “There is no place for you amongst this band of brothers and sisters.”

One of the key takeaways for me from his talk was ‘Culture is the way we do things’. He asked what we thought about when he said ‘Aussie digger’, personally I thought of a white, male, rural, rough, straight-shooter.  Not exactly an inclusive description of those who serve in the armed forces.  For generations the ideal of the Aussie digger, has been held up and venerated. This made me realise the importance of challenging one’s own beliefs and thoughts.

Dr Marlene Kanga FIPENZ, President Elect of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, clearly set out the difference between diversity and inclusion. As she put it, diversity means “we’ll put up with you being different” while inclusion means “we want you because you’re different”. Marlene then brought an engineering perspective to diversity and inclusion by setting out a framework based on approaches that have been taken to improve health and safety in the engineering profession.

Other speakers spoke about the importance of flexible workplaces and how to reintegrate people back into the workplace after career breaks. Some of the bigger workplaces had diversity champions and very wide ranging policies implemented. Smaller businesses often don’t have the same resources to implement such things, but are able to be nimble and brainstorm creative solutions.

Another theme that was directly and indirectly spoken about was ‘leaks’. Where are women ‘leaking’ out of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and industries.  Dr Michelle Dickinson, senior lecturer in engineering at the University of Auckland (also known as Nanogirl), identified that most people ‘leak’ out of STEM by the age of 12. Michelle, is working hard to keep young people engaged in STEM, through OMGTech! She is an active advocate of the importance of STEM and it’s uses and applications.

My main learnings:

  • We need people to stay engaged in STEM subjects, they need to be taught in primary school (currently there is no requirement for this).
  • Culture is key and it is the way that things are done.  Just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look critically and ask ourselves if that is really what should be happening.

I still believe we are ignoring one of the elephants in the room – the career break.  Most career breaks for females are for them to have children. Personally, I get as sick as a pig for the first 20 weeks, and after coming back to work, I have felt a bit lost and out of my depth. I am however, an asset to the business. I bring new ideas, implement effective strategies and help make BVT what it is today. Would I have been given the same opportunities to do so in a different organisation? I don’t know.  Females are usually the primary caregiver of the children (this is changing) and it does create an extra pull on her resources. I don’t think we are any closer to solving this issue, but we are now at least starting to ask the right questions.

There is still a lot to be done before we are able to move from diversity to inclusiveness, but the journey at least has begun.