What’s the role of a modern-day engineer? Shifting perceptions of the profession is one of many ways to improve EDI in engineering, says this UNSW EDI expert.
By now, the benefits of diverse teams are widely known. Improving equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is also a path to addressing Australia’s significant skills gap in engineering. But how does awareness of these benefits translate into meaningful action?
In the lead up to Engineers Australia’s Thought Leadership Webinar, How to create a diverse workplace, Professor Rita Henderson, Associate Dean (Equity & Diversity) at UNSW Engineering, shares her top three pieces of advice for improving EDI in engineering – today and into the future.
1. Remove biases in recruitment
From the language used in job advertisements to the questions asked in interviews, it’s critical to be mindful of any biases that can slip into the recruitment process.
Using inclusive language and non-gendered wording, and drawing attention to the organisation’s policies relating to EDI, is important when developing job advertisements.
Engaging with those from underrepresented groups, or organisations that speak for those groups is also key, says Henderson.
“These relationships provide an opportunity to hear what potential applicants would look for in a work environment.
“For example, at UNSW Engineering, we work closely with Nura Gili, the UNSW Centre for Indigenous Programs, to ensure that any initiative we undertake that’s relevant to Indigenous people is well-informed and appropriate.
“We have also worked closely with the Queer Students in STEM society and the Ally@UNSW Network to understand how we can improve practices to include our LGBTIQ+ community.”
Even with every good intention of building a diverse team, hiring managers can still be influenced by unconscious biases that impact their decision-making. It’s essential that well-trained and diverse recruitment hiring teams are employed in the appointment process.
Hiring teams should broaden their vision of what the successful candidate’s skill set and experience might look like as many potential applicants may not have taken a traditional path to their chosen career, says Henderson.
The hiring team could also ask for feedback from applicants to understand how they can improve their recruitment processes.
2. Create a culture of inclusion
Diversity won’t equate to inclusivity if the workplace environment isn’t inclusive, welcoming and supportive of diverse employees.
“Recruitment on its own is not enough,” says Henderson. “Workplace culture is critical to making people feel included and ensuring that those recruited wish to stay. Companies need to have a range of family-friendly policies to support working parents, ensure that policies do not inadvertently disadvantage particular groups, mark a range of cultural celebrations and provide mentoring and development opportunities for younger and more experienced employees.”
Mentoring and development programs can empower staff to take their career in a direction that is meaningful for them and develop the leadership skills necessary for promotion.
Reverse mentoring – a fresh take on the traditional mentoring relationship in which a more junior employee mentors a senior leader – can help to drive greater inclusion in the workplace.
“It can help leaders better understand the needs of their workforce and then introduce initiatives that support employees and break down barriers to participation,” says Henderson.
“At UNSW Engineering, we have an EDI Committee and a number of working groups that are committed to driving positive change in equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as staff dedicated to supporting EDI initiatives.”
3. Shift the narrative
Attraction, recruitment and retention all centre around an organisation’s current efforts to progress diversity and inclusion, but to move the needle forward, organisations need to also focus on building the next generation of engineers.
In Engineers Australia’s Women In Engineering Report published last year, a lack of familiarity with engineering was the most commonly cited reason for women not considering engineering as a career choice. Fifty-one per cent of respondents indicated a lack of awareness meant they didn’t consider engineering.
The report also highlighted the commonly held perception that engineers must excel at mathematics. While this is true to an extent, Henderson believes this notion may turn very capable students away from the profession.
“A lot of young people are put off engineering because there’s a prevailing idea that engineering is really difficult, and you have to be top of your math class to study engineering. We want students to be good at maths, but they don’t need to be top of the class.”
Instead of focusing on the perceived competencies and knowledge required to pursue engineering, there should be greater attention placed towards painting an inspiring picture of the profession, says Henderson.
“We need to focus on the positive impact that engineers can make in society. Maths ability is important, but we need more inspiring stories to take centre stage so that students feel excited about the potential of engineering to make a difference.”
Minimal understanding of the role of an engineer and the range of professions available can be limiting.
“There’s still the image of a middle-aged male engineer wearing a hard hat that persists at the school level. We need to share stories of people from diverse backgrounds in all sorts of engineering roles,” says Henderson.
UNSW Engineering conducts a range of outreach programs to engage school and university students in engineering. These take the form of career fairs, competitions and problem-solving activities.
“We have engineers from diverse backgrounds going out and sharing what motivates them every day and why engineering has been a great career choice for them,” says Henderson. “We need more of that engagement to bring greater diversity into engineering.”
Want to learn more tips for creating a diverse workplace? Register for UNSW’s Thought Leaders Webinar, held in partnership with Engineers Australia.