Disruptive Diversity

This report was been commissioned by David Balmforth during his Presidential year at the Institution of Civil Engineers to look at what can be done to promote gender diversity in engineering. It was carried out by Dawn Bonfield, President of the Women's Engineering Society in collaboration with a number of contributors.
October 2015

The full report can be downloaded here.

Executive Summary
Diversity in engineering is not improving fast enough. After years of effort, the engineering and construction sectors are still struggling to get the proportion of women engineers above one in ten, with other under-represented groups equally poorly represented. Indeed the number of female construction workers on site is only one in a hundred.

Time has come for a concerted and co-ordinated effort to address this. Individual pockets of excellence exist within the industry and much money has been spent on outreach activity to persuade the next generation of boys and girls that engineering is for them. But what has been lacking is the culture shift and the co-ordination that brings the need, and indeed the desire for diversity into core business.
Diversity and inclusion principles need to be pervasive - part of every decision that is made, and constantly referenced. The philosophy of the removal of barriers to diversity, in the hope that this is enough to actually create diversity, is not sufficient. The door needs to be unlocked, of course, but it has also got to be opened, and diversity invited in. This is not favouritism to women and under-represented groups - this is business.

Lack of diversity is costing the industry money in terms of lack of skills, productivity, staff safety and morale, innovation, profit and creativity. The industry is changing. The world is changing. Disruptive technology, big data, the lifestyle, values and aspirations of young people all point to a future which is different from the past.  Engineering needs this diversity and this creativity to thrive and the UK to remain competitive in the international marketplace, and we need to act now to attract this future workforce.

If that alone wasn't enough to stimulate action, other arguments should. We have a skills shortage in engineering which is predicted to get worse over the next ten years. We will not be able to fill these jobs if we recruit from only half of the population.

And finally, and crucially, women and certain groups of society (including lesbian, gay, black, transgender, ethnic minority, and certain classes of society) are being denied equality of choice. Girls do not see engineering as being suitable for them, and other under-represented groups do not see engineering as being inclusive enough for them. These inequalities are often compounded in people who have the characteristics belonging to more than one under-represented group (intersectionality), and these people are doubly disadvantaged. These groups often do not feel comfortable in the sector, they are not respected sufficiently, and do not progress equally. They are being disadvantaged in their career and life choices because the industry is inadequate at attracting them, reluctant to promote them, and not sufficiently caring to support them back to work after career breaks. This is not good enough. Something needs to be done to address these inequalities, and to ensure that we work in an industry which can hold its head up and claim that it is truly welcoming and inclusive of a diverse workforce.   

Although these inequalities are not deliberate or malicious, as an industry we are guilty of complacency in not addressing them adequately; in not caring sufficiently to do something fundamental about it; in assuming that it is a problem which needs solving by women, a diversity committee or an outreach activity.  In fact it is an issue that every one of us needs to address in every decision that we take and every project that we work on. Just as we need to be sure that we are following the principles of health and safety in everything we do, we need to follow the principles of respect, diversity and inclusion.

This report, commissioned by ICE President David Balmforth, looks at practical ways that this culture shift can be achieved both within the Institution of Civil Engineers, and more broadly in the industry as a whole. Action is recommended on many levels to change practices and behaviours so that diversity and inclusion becomes embedded in the Institution and its membership. This is not an evidence based report nor an overview of the industry. The case has been made and the evidence has been recorded extensively elsewhere. This report represents the views of the author and is intended as a thought piece to stimulate further action. The report is limited to practices and solutions relevant to the UK. It concentrates predominantly on measures that can be taken to address the lack of women in the sector, but many measures recommended will be equally relevant to diversity and inequality in general and will benefit other under-represented groups.

The recommendations and suggestions given in the report are an indication of what can be done to build upon and increase the good work that is already underway at the Institution of Civil Engineers both internally and in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Engineering Diversity Concordat. As a leader in the construction sector and a membership organisation, the adoption and endorsement of these best practices has the potential for much wider reaching change within the industry as a whole. Not all recommendations will be feasible and change will not be immediate. What is important is that a plan is developed and owned by the ICE, and its success will rest on this ownership, accountability and desire to change at every level.
The recommended actions for the Institution, which are also appropriate for the whole industry, fall into the categories below:

  • Measuring - regular benchmarking, tracking and reporting against diversity criteria for both staff and members. Analysing trends and taking mitigating action.
  • Changing - changing the culture of the Institution to reflect the importance of diversity as an over-riding principle of best practice. This will impact on accreditation, professional review, reporting, communication, campaigns and project work. Change will also come by learning from best practices shared by other Professional Institutions through the Royal Academy of Engineering Diversity Concordat, for example. Challenging poor practice, and zero tolerance for bias.
  • Educating - training to educate staff, committee and council members, volunteers and other partners at all levels to ensure and instil best practice and develop diverse teams
  • Inspiring - use of targeted outreach, careers guidance and role models to inspire the next generation of diverse talent, and finding a way to reach parents and teachers as well as students
  • Supporting - ensuring that under-represented groups are supported and developed through the establishment of special interest groups, but not relying on these groups to be the owners of change
  • Influencing - using external influence and collaborative partnerships to campaign for bigger changes and make progress more widespread by sharing knowledge, best practice, and resources.

Finally some additional ideas are given which could lead to step changes in the industry. Recommendations are given which are actionable by the corporate sector, the education sector, and the government or other sectors. A selection of these recommendations includes:

  • Changes in legislation to drive behavioural change, including the mandatory reporting of gender pay and gender diversity ratios in each occupational level; the use of government procurement contracts to embed diversity and inclusion best practice; a tighter framework to the Equal Opportunities Employer Mark with guidelines for Diversity and Inclusion; financial incentivisation of Higher Education courses that are of direct benefit to the economic future of the UK linked to the register of strategic skills shortages; requirement of the Athena Swan Bronze award for all Institutions receiving research funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
  • Promotion of industrial best practice including 50/50 male to female targets for job shortlists; sign up to the Industry Ten Steps or the Think, Act Report frameworks; senior and board level diversity targets in line with the Davis Report; flexible and part time working as the norm for all employees; benchmarking the business cost of the lack of diversity; the establishment of support networks as best practice for under-represented staff; the establishment of widespread Returnship programmes to bring women back into engineering.
  • Improved careers support for schools including a dedicated careers service for the 14-18 year age range, and their parents, offering specific advice for careers in the engineering sector; more work experience opportunities in engineering offered for students; establishment of more non-linear routes into the engineering sector to include conversion courses, joint courses and more collaboration with the creative industry.
  • A visible and long term commitment to a co-ordinated and collaborative plan of action by professional bodies, industry, education and the media, and a dedicated media centre for engineering.