Article Source: IMechE
Trustee Board Members – Helena Rivers (left) Heather Clarke (right)
The Trustee Board of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers is more diverse than ever before. We talk to Helena Rivers CEng FIMechE and Heather Clarke CEng FIMechE, who were elected in May, about their commitment to diversity and inclusion in the Institution and across the engineering profession.
As a Trustee, I plan on working hard at making an Institution that is relevant to all, to those already practising, those who are retired, and those who have not yet even considered engineering as a profession – it’s as much about those we haven’t connected with as those we have. I would like individuals who might have thought they are not part of our future story to feel and discover that they can be, to stand up and be counted. That’s why Helena and I want to tell our story too. People need to be supported and included to achieve that. It’s about us all working together. This is very much the start of an exciting future, that we hope will be repeated year on year.
Helena: One of the things that motivates Heather and me is the importance of visible role models. Many developing engineers are motivated by aspiration, but it can be quite hard to see a diverse range of role models, depending on what industry you work in. It helps the women coming through behind me if I step forward to take on an influential role. Being on the Trustee Board means that we can start to be more visible in a role that people aspire to, and we want to help shape the future.
We also need to uphold a wider approach, in the profession, that values the range of possibilities, be it a person’s educational background, their gender or their ethnic origins. I really want to help the Institution to improve the culture of inclusion within the profession and be a catalyst for change.
Q: Where, and why, should we focus our efforts to attract a diverse mix of people into engineering?
Heather: I feel passionately that it’s about taking engineering into primary schools and the early part of secondary school – before peer pressure sets in – to show how it can be fun and life-changing. We should keep children open to the possibilities of problem solving, being creative, experiencing failure – and working out their own solutions to success. That for me is where you capture them. I wanted to be an engineer as a seven-year-old and a large proportion of women knew they wanted to be an engineer before the age of 14*. Our aim should be to make engineering fun through activities and challenges, and then children can translate it into what they could achieve as a career – there’s no need to lose the fun! We need to open children’s minds up, to try and find solutions. If we want a diverse mix of people in the profession, which is vital to innovation and creativity, we should learn to say ‘I am an engineer’, rather than ‘I’m in engineering’. It’s a subtle difference, but I think it has a big impact when you listen to each other say it. It helps us recognise that anyone and everyone can be an engineer with the right support – and be proud of it.
Helena: We need to work hard at every stage – from schools to universities, and in retaining staff – but the most impact is made early in education. It’s easier to influence choices than try to change minds further down the road. I don’t think there are many parents who know what a career in engineering really means, so we need to inform them as well.
The Institution will be launching an initiative on returning to work following career breaks next year. For a range of reasons, men and women may need to have career breaks and a large proportion don’t return. These are the skilled, experienced engineers, the role models, and the leaders of tomorrow and we often just let them walk out of the industry. If we can get them back working again within the profession, it will help build a diverse pipeline of engineers.
*according to the Institution’s Stay or Go report<
Q: What steps taken towards increasing diversity in engineering have the greatest impact, and where are the challenges?
Helena: What we do badly in the UK is careers advice, and not just in engineering. The STEM ambassador programme, it seems to me, is really growing and becoming more cohesive. There are all sorts of initiatives, however, that could have more impact. Different institutions, charities and organisations develop their own positive initiatives. If we could combine these and the volunteers’ energy to deliver across institutions, we could make greater headway. It would help the schools or organisations that need the support or advice to access help more easily, too.
Heather: I agree, our careers advice needs improvement, and we need to take our message to schools for pupils, teachers and parents. We have a skills shortage now and in the future: we need more young people in engineering, not just more girls. Schools that are trying to access some of the initiatives can find it financially challenging, particularly if they are small, as many primary schools are. They may have to rely on ‘parental’ delivery – information and support from engineers who are parents, like me. Finding engineering activities, grants and lesson plans can be really difficult so even great initiatives may not be reaching the grassroots level. A change in the curriculum to feature engineering alongside science would ensure that every primary child across the country would have a baseline understanding. If every school had just one visit from an engineer a year it would start to make a difference.
Q: In your experience, what can be done to make institutions and organisations more inclusive?
Helena: I think the largest organisations and multinationals are doing quite well on this at the moment. By emulating them, professional institutions can help support smaller companies to achieve a greater spread of best practice, and identify which strategies are, and which are in reality not, helping to make a difference.
At AECOM I am involved in a women-only mentoring scheme – on themes such as career development – which is proving to be a really successful approach. It’s another way of accessing role models which can make a big impact. A mix of mentoring programmes, which channel the support that different individuals or groups say they need, can help get the best out of people. Greater openness to diversity is good for an organisation’s ideas, and can help it appeal to a wider range of people.
Heather: We all need to be aware that change is not going to be instant, we have to make change and believe that it will make a difference. It is not possible to immediately magic up the women to make our boards more diverse, but what we should be seeing is an increased diversity pushing at old glass ceilings.
Atkins has a women’s leadership council, comprised of senior women across the global business providing peer support and highlighting their careers, so that other women can also visualise moving up through the company. We have women’s professional networks across most of our offices, which are lunchtime or after-work meetings, open to all but with a focus on encouraging our women to come together and network. A number of open and closed groups exist to support our BAME and LGBT+ communities and supporters. We use Skills4UK to deliver Women’s Career Development, family-friendly returners (from maternity and parental leave) as well as unconscious bias training.
What we identify is about making sure that you’re taking those opportunities to be ‘present’ and make your contribution. In many cases this can give an individual the skills and awareness which will enable them to aspire to a role that they hadn’t previously thought they could do.
Inclusiveness can come from within. We are all empowered to talk about engineering in a positive and exciting manner with those around us. My IMechE volunteer career started with a past president giving me the confidence and belief to apply for the role of President’s apprentice 10 years ago. Each year since I have had that warmth and support around me, encouraging me to take that next development step, culminating in my Trustee role. I am now paying that support forward to the young engineers around me both in and out of work.
Q: What must the Institution, and its members, do to be relevant to future generations?
Heather: All Institution members, but particularly women, need to stand up and be counted. We should all recognise our career greatness. We have numerous institution awards: apply for them and be recognised for what you have achieved in your career! Stand for groups, committees, Council, Trustee Board – make our voices heard. When I became a Trustee I became aware, with something of a jolt, that the next generation is looking to me and others to demonstrate that women belong in engineering. If they see Carolyn Griffiths, our current President, who has enormous authority, and women like me and Helena, taking our profession and our Institution forward through uptake of senior roles, then they believe that they can be influential and make a strong career that works for them.
Helena and I work flexibly (and flexible working is not just for women). We make ourselves visible. When I was asked to stand for Trustee, I truly felt that I couldn’t do it, that I was not the right kind of person, that the role was beyond me. After our last meeting I was giddy with happiness, feeling that I can and am making a real difference to the future of our profession, the future of our Institution, and really adding value. You – and nobody else – can push yourself out of your comfort zone. Sometimes you’ll get knocked down but more often you’ll be accepted and have that chance to move forward.
Helena: As a community of engineers, what we need to do is lead a culture of change. At the moment, the large multinational organisations are leading and we are all doing things in our own ways. STEM ambassadorship is an example of a joined-up approach, so that is very positive. I think it would be more powerful if the institutions could join forces and lead change. After all, we are facing the same challenges and trying to achieve similar objectives, so let’s do it together, in an informal or formal way.
I believe – and I echo Carolyn Griffiths, our current President – that we need to bring diversity and inclusion into the core of everything we do. We need to persuade engineers to stand up and be proud of their, and other people’s, different paths to success. I feel that this is done better in other professions and in other countries, which also incidentally have greater diversity within engineering.
We need to overcome the issue of ‘imposter syndrome’, which is often experienced by under-represented groups. When I walked into my first Trustee Board meeting I was fighting feelings of ‘I shouldn’t be here’, ‘what right do I have to do this’, ‘I’m not from the right background’. What I remembered was, members and colleagues voted for me to be here, it was they who supported me. I absolutely should be here. We all need to have more belief in ourselves, that’s the message we should be putting forward.
Q: Addressing gender imbalance is only part of the issue – many people feel they have to suppress their true identities at work, perhaps their cultural or gender identity. How can we extend this inclusive approach?
Helena: There’s a lot of work to be done on unconscious bias. We do need to stop following the strategy of employing ‘people like us’ and changes to that approach would certainly improve diversity. We can focus more easily on male and female gender bias but how do we respond to members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender (LGBT+) community, for example? Perhaps we don’t always need to do this in demonstrable, publicised ways. At AECOM, for example, there are ‘closed’ groups which is perhaps the only way that some individuals feel safe to be open and honest. Inclusion shouldn’t become intrusion, respect is best. We have to engage people from all different backgrounds and let them know how exciting and attainable a career in engineering is, that it’s something they can do.
Heather: I dream of the day that we don’t need to have this conversation – you can be your true self all day every day, wherever you are. Finding a balance between empowerment and exposure is tricky sometimes. If you raise the visibility of women in engineering, the negative side of that can be the feeling that you’re on a pedestal. It’s not going to be 100% right for everyone at all times. What we can all do is make ourselves more mindful of each other, and show respect and value for everyone’s different qualities.
There are many ways to get involved, from promoting careers in engineering as a STEM Ambassador, to becoming an e-mentor – the solutions are flexible, too. As Heather and Helena say, it just needs all of us to work together, widening the range of role models and sharing our ideas to make a change.