-By Alex Mather, WES Tyne and Tees Cluster Committee Member, WES ECB Member
To celebrate International Women in Engineering Day 2020, the WES Tyneside and Teesside Cluster organised a virtual event in the form of an online talk. The event followed the theme of “Shaping the World by Influencing Inclusion” and people joining the call heard from 7 speakers, including 1 special guest speaker! Attendees came from all over the world, including North America and the Middle East. Those who joined heard the speakers discuss different inclusion topics ranging from gender and native language to socio-economic backgrounds - to help us all celebrate this year’s INWED theme - #ShapeTheWorld.
Here’s how the event ran on the night…
The first speaker, Jo Douglas Harris is the current vice chair of the Women’s Engineering Society and the Tyneside and Teesside local cluster coordinator. Graduating with a degree in Chemistry, Jo chose to pursue further education in the form of a PhD, a decision which she described as a way to “put off being a grown up”. It was by chance that Jo ended up in the Engineering sector and she loved it – choosing to get involved in WES Bath cluster, with the aim of letting more young people know about STEM. Jo is passionate about giving young people knowledge about STEM to help them to make an educated decision about studying these subjects. Jo wants to make Engineering an inclusive place where people want to stay – a lot of the work she completes with WES focusing on addressing the “leaky pipeline” in which people choosing to study Engineering then choose to leave the sector. Ways in which Jo has previously addressed this include initiatives in which past and future STEM workers, returning to the sector after breaks, are celebrated – no matter their gender. She urges that everyone can help to address this leaky pipeline by being a champion for diversity and inclusion.
Our second speaker, Gabi Grasu, is originally from Romania - where she describes Engineering to be appreciated amongst women. She found the gender imbalance difficult since coming to the UK in 2007, whilst dealing with the personal challenge of learning English and becoming an official UK citizen in 2013. Gabi explains that we should NOT be afraid of challenges, and she questions why over here in the UK there are such small numbers of women working in both Engineering and STEM - “British women have huge potential since stepping in since the war”. But today, Gabi is grateful that female engineers from all ethnicities give us hope for a more diverse future workforce.
Zoe Lewis, the Principal of Middlesbrough College, is our third speaker of the evening. Zoe has been named as an inspirational leader of the year, for the work she completes. Dropping out of A-levels as she wanted to work, she completed an accountant apprenticeship at Middlesbrough College – a route which she champions for the future generation as she wants to encourage students to undertake work experience, in order to develop valuable skills. Currently, Middlesbrough College has strong emphasis on STEM subjects, particularly celebrating diversity within STEM. Middlesbrough College has doubled the number of girls studying Science and tripled the number of girls studying Engineering, and Zoe is passionate about giving the best learning experience to everyone. She discusses her agenda at the College to improve “T” level uptake – technical-levels equivalent to A-levels, which she explains at this current time with the rise of COVID-19 is now more important than ever, as the value of technology has been shown. The course features an industrial placement and launches next year!
Our fourth speaker is Nicola Hill – a Geography graduate turned transport planner, working at Arup. Nicola is currently the chair for the CIHT (Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation) North East and Cumbria branch. Nicola discusses how inclusion issues leak through into her work in the transport sector – such as the smaller priority in our society for methods of transport for people without cars, which are usually women and those from poorer backgrounds. Currently at Arup, there are 7% BAME, 37% females and 3% LGBTQ+ staff. She described the number of different schemes that Arup runs to encourage diversity and inclusion and challenge negative behaviour relating to these topics. These include “respect at work campaign”, mandatory e-learning courses and personal inclusion pledges. Nicola notes that the diversity issues run deep within the transport industry – stating the fact that car manufacturers use male test dummies should highlight just how important it is for us to challenge the gender stereotypes within the industry.
Laura Hepburn is our fifth speaker – the director at Greenology, a recycling company aiming to end the plastic problem and landfill. Laura came from an Arts background into Engineering; and believes it is important to look at the future through people. She believes in the importance of embracing inclusion and making people feel welcome and respected – “issues should not become barriers if people want to work”. Laura uses the Chameleon vs Pigeon theory to explain this. She describes “Chameleons” as people with colourful backgrounds – these people have a wealth of knowledge which they have had to fight for and will show gratitude and huge determination when given the opportunity to achieve. On the other hand, Pigeons, are “pigeonholed”. Pigeons don’t break out of their box; they don’t explore other breeds or see if they can go in a different direction. Greenology celebrate Chameleons. Laura believes her staff are most creative and innovative when they feel safe and not judged, and at Greenology she celebrates the everyone looks from different perspectives, believing eyes are like fingerprints – they are ALL different.
Our sixth speaker of the evening is Laura Brown, a group BIM Manager from Bowmer & Kirkland. The construction industry was familiar to Laura, having family working in roles in the sector. Laura believes that diversity and inclusion should be second nature within the industry – stating that everyone has a voice, and in order to take value from these differences, all should be listened to! Laura also highlights the importance of the fact the industry is continually developing; speaking about the fact that when she was younger, the job she is currently undertaking didn’t exist. Laura is a part of the inclusion group for the ICE (Institution of Civil Engineers) and her work on inclusion goes beyond just the industry itself – she explains the challenges of ensuring the ICE meetings are inclusive too, such as the time of the meetings or the platform in which the meetings are being held. This allows us to see that inclusivity needs to be considered on every level and with every decision. Laura also warns that “making something more diverse should not exclude those in the main demographic groups”. Laura explains that eyes should never be taken off diversity and inclusion; she is consistently reviewing the constitution.
Our final speaker of the night is our surprise guest speaker – Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Chi is chartered in Electrical Engineering. She says that parliament is the most diverse place she has worked – whilst she recognises there is still a long way to go to truly represent society in parliament, she stated that it is “miles better than the Engineering industry, which is way behind”. Chi explains that everyone in the house recognises the importance of diversity in both Politics AND Engineering. She also seems saddened by the small rise of females at her University, Imperial London, that chose to study Engineering 30 years after herself – rising just 3%, from 12% to 15%. Chi believes that Engineering is vital for humanity to progress, highlighting her belief that it is the most caring industry; from enabling global communication to tackling issues such as the provision of water into the deserts. But whilst progression is necessary, she states that Engineering “can’t be humane until we represent humanity”. She believes inclusivity should not be a tick-box exercise nor an economic add on – it should be an IMPERATIVE. Chi is working towards implementing diversity charters and investments in lifelong learning, along with gender and BAME payback schemes.
The event was eye-opening as we learnt about diversity from a variety of perspectives and industries. But the message throughout was prominent – inclusivity and diversity is necessary in ALL walks of life. A huge thankyou to Tyneside and Teesside cluster, Paula McMahon from Engineering Together, for organising this event and highlighting just how necessary diversity is in Shaping our World.
Q: Girls seem keen on STEM subjects but then don’t go on to continue studies – why?
A: Paula –In University, I used to be against female oriented STEM groups as I didn’t see the need. But I’ve realised we need to encourage each other to stop the leaky pipeline, as women can feel less involved so extra support is welcome. However, STEM leakage is both male and female.
Q: Are some disciplines better at employing women?
A: Jo – In Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, there are less than 10% females within the workforce. In Civil Engineering and Architecture, there are less than 30% and in Chemical Engineering there are less than 35% of the workforce that are female. This has potential for improvement through showcasing more female role models. These differences in percentages could be due to wage differences between sectors and more specific skills being required – there is a greater socio-economic drive in younger people these days. It would be beneficial for all Engineering disciplines to learn more about each other’s disciplines – to build the community – which can be done through groups like ‘Engineering Together’.