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Diversity, Engineering & Innovation

It is 20 years since I started my career as an engineer, and 17 since I started my first company, Intelligent Space. But despite all the changes in technology and how we live our lives, when it comes to diversity….. it seems we have barely moved forward. I am often still the lone woman in meetings, and although we see things changing, is it fast enough?

The UK remains at the bottom of the engineering league table for gender diversity – with the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at only 8% (this is despite 14% of women studying engineering). While Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with nearly 30%. More worrying, despite 26% UK domiciled engineering students coming from black and minority ethnic backgrounds – this only translates to 6% in industry. We seem to be wasting talent. These are the men and women who have studied engineering, yet no longer work in engineering, as perhaps they don’t quite feel that they fit. We have talked about this issue for years. Now is the time for change. We are facing a skills shortage in engineering, and not only are STEM skills in demand in engineering – but in the arts too (30% of all staff working in the creative industries now have a STEM background – as data and technology is key to all our industries). There is increasing evidence for the business case for diversity, and the improvements that a diverse board and inclusive culture have on the bottom line. We know it makes good business sense.

For innovation, diversity of thought is essential. We need the translators who can take ideas from one industry to another; people with different life experience; and different views and opinions. Much of the engineering we do is for the whole of society, be it new transport routes such as HS2 or new sources of energy. Surely, having an engineering profession that is more representative of the culture we live and work in will deliver better outcomes? Importantly, there is pressure on the big firms to become more inclusive – but what about those who are smaller or just starting out. With 75% of those working in engineering & technical professional services working in SMEs or as freelancers there is a great opportunity to help shape the businesses of the future. This to me is a huge untapped opportunity. It is hard to change the culture of a big established firm, it is much easier to embed an inclusive culture from the start. We started the debate back in December at Innovate UK (where I chaired an inspiring panel of change makers)… but this should only be the start. We know diverse and inclusive cultures make good business sense: that they help drive financial and social returns. At Indigo& we are committed to being an inclusive organisation. We want to be. And we think we need to be. In 20 years time, I want to be one of the women in the room, to not be noticed as being different and to be proud to be in such a vibrant and successful industry. Elspeth

  • Elspeth Finch is a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Group at the Royal Academy of Engineering.

  • New Civil Engineer article following the debate at Innovate UK in December 2016.

  • 25.1.2017 Elspeth Finch speaking at BETT UK.

  • 26.1.2017 Elspeth Finch speaking at the UK premier of Hidden Figures, with the Manchester United Foundation.


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