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By Becky Franklin

On this International Women in Engineering Day, the world is in a much stranger and more unfamiliar place than it was a year ago. We have had devastating bushfires, international political clashes and who could forget the global pandemic we have been enduring. 

This year, the theme for International Women in Engineering Day is #ShapeTheWorld

Given recent events, we at JFG Comms wanted to use this day to shine a light on some of the issues that Black female engineers face to establish what needs to be done to create change. 

Black women are largely underrepresented in most work sectors, and the engineering sector is no different. In many fields of work, Black women have to work harder to progress their careers and are subject to prejudice and discrimination about anything from their names to hairstyles, mannerisms and background. 

We are not pretending to be experts in the issues of racial injustice in the UK, but feel we should be educating ourselves about some of the problems. 

We think #ShapeTheWorld is a perfect theme for 2020.

Where are we going wrong?

The Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK) says only 7.8% of UK engineers are from Black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds; despite 25% of engineering graduates coming from BME backgrounds.

Finding a statistic specifically for Black women engineers proved challenging, which is problematic in itself as, without knowing these statistics, we cannot address the lack of diversity in ethnic background and gender within the field. It is also counterproductive to group together Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people into one category, as it is then difficult to tackle the differing challenges each community faces.

Still, existing statistics show a huge underrepresentation of Black engineers. More importantly, the sector is evidently failing to recruit BAME graduates.

So where are we going wrong?

A Royal Academy of Engineering Study (2017) found ‘employability outcomes for BAME graduates were far weaker than White graduates.’ It also showed that BAME engineering graduates in full-time work earned on average £507 less per year than their White counterparts. 

Equally, a ‘Women in STEM’ study conducted by Warwick University in 2015, showed not only was there an unconscious bias towards BAME women present in application processes and appraisals, but only 12% of women and 10% of BAME employees were identified as having ‘high potential.’ It appears the unconscious biases present in application and appraisal processes were also impacting on Black female engineers’ career progression opportunities and their ability to be seen as ‘high potential’. This shows the need for inclusion initiatives to ensure a fair and equal workplace for all.

It is clear there is some difficulty in BAME women advancing their careers and, perhaps, are passed over for promotion in favour of White colleagues. This could explain some of the reasons why BAME graduates have chosen not to progress their career in engineering. The issues for women progressing their careers in the engineering sector are well-documented. The intersectionality of being a woman and from a BAME background should not be under-stated.

Where is the representation?

When wanting to pursue a career path, it is often due to the influence of someone whose career we aspire to follow. Unfortunately, ‘you cannot be what you cannot see.’ 

If your only available role models are White men – it is only natural that a young Black female student may question whether this is a field she belongs in. We know this is the case for women from all ethnic backgrounds – a lack of inclusion hinders success. 

In an article written by Dr Elizabeth Opara, an Associate Professor at Kingston University, UK, she questions why so few Black women are in STEM careers. She also argues there are very few Black science teachers in schools and Black female academics are largely absent from senior levels in STEM disciplines. 

Dr Opara believes the biggest challenge to increasing Black females in engineering disciplines is to transform the institutional culture and racism within higher education - a culture that has been developed by and to the benefit of a White workforce. While we know there are great Black female engineers, they are rarely publicised or promoted in the same way.

But it is the sector’s responsibility to change this. 

The onus should be on the engineering industry to build up the workforce, encouraging women of all ethnic groups to join the ranks and push the sector forward. 

Without action, this unfortunate status quo will remain, leaving engineering and other STEM fields exclusionary towards Black women. Luckily, there is hope and there are some great programmes from the industry that are making strides to address issues about diversity and inclusion within the sector. 

How can we help?

In an Engineering UK article, it was noted the lack of diversity is a major concern for the sector.

Dr Opara believes the best way to combat this is to create outreach programmes, school clubs and, most importantly, mentorship schemes to encourage young Black females to get excited about science subjects and show them they should have a role in the STEM fields that are so vital to how our world operates.  

Equally, having supportive allies who are not only Black women could help increase Black female students’ sense of belonging and ensure they know they are supported at all levels. 

These are just some of the solutions we all need to consider going forward.

Other solutions we would recommend include:

  • BAME representation at all levels of an organisation
  • Include Black women in succession plans
  • Educate the workforce about work-based racism and microaggressions 
  • Create a culture of reporting racism and microaggressions
  • Reverse mentoring / buddying schemes
  • Publish BAME demographics, broken down into ethnic group
  • Create Equality, Diversity and Inclusion plans with input from BAME workforce
  • Mandatory unconscious bias and anti-racism training across the organisation and especially for those with hiring power and or leadership responsibilities

Also, having open and honest discussions with Black colleagues about their experiences will help attune the way the sector continues to progress equality, diversity and inclusion.

2020 has not been an easy year thus far.

But, this could be the year we take the initiative to introduce a positive change in encouraging and supporting BAME women in engineering and around the world. A change that supports everyone. 

Now more than ever we need to come together to #ShapeTheWorld.

With thanks to: Seun A Ilenda and Shireen Ali-Khan for their input. Please contact us if you would like a list of recommended reading materials or to discuss the issues contained in this blog.